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Anamorphosis is a distorted projection or perspective requiring the viewer to use special devices or occupy a specific vantage point (or both) to view a recognizable image. Some of the media it is used in are painting, photography, sculpture and installation, toys, and film special effects. The word "anamorphosis" is derived from the Greek prefix ana‑, meaning "back" or "again", and the word morphe, meaning "shape" or "form". An optical anamorphism is the visualization of a mathematical operation called an affine transformation.[1] The process of extreme anamorphosis has been used by artists to disguise caricatures, erotic and scatological scenes, and other furtive images from a casual viewer, while revealing an undistorted image to the knowledgeable spectator.[2]

Types of projection[edit]

Example of mirror anamorphosis

There are two main types of anamorphosis: perspective (oblique) and mirror (catoptric). More-complex anamorphoses can be devised using distorted lenses, mirrors, or other optical transformations.

Examples of perspectival anamorphosis date to the early Renaissance (fifteenth century).[3] Examples of mirror anamorphosis were first seen in the late Renaissance (sixteenth century).

With mirror anamorphosis, a conical or cylindrical mirror is placed on the drawing or painting to transform a flat distorted image into an apparently undistorted picture that can be viewed from many angles. The deformed image is painted on a plane surface surrounding the mirror. By looking into the mirror, a viewer can see the image undeformed.

With Channel anamorphosis or turning pictures two different images are on different sides of a corrugated carrier. A straight frontal view shows an unclear mix of the images, while each image can be viewed correctly from a certain angle.


Early Use of Distorted Perspective[edit]

The prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux may make use of anamorphic technique, because the oblique angles of the cave would otherwise result in distorted figures from a viewer's perspective.[citation needed] The ancient historians Pliny and Tzetzes both record a sculpture competition between Alcamenes and Phidias to create an image of Minerva. Alcamenes' sculpture was beautiful, while Phidias' had grotesque proportions. Yet once both had been mounted on pillars, the decelerated perspective made Phidias' Minerva beautiful and Alcamenes' ugly.[3]:7-8


Holbein's The Ambassadors with a memento mori anamorph skull in the foreground, 1533
Viewed from the correct oblique angle, the diagonal in The Ambassadors transforms into an undistorted memento mori.

During the Renaissance, artists' experimentation with optics and perspective lead to more advanced development of anamorphic imagery. At this time, religious thought and science were equally important to the technique's growth in Europe. [3]:70 The earliest known example, known as Leonardo's Eye, was executed by Leonardo da Vinci and is included in the Codex Atlanticus (1483-1518). He later completed several large-scale anamorphic commissions for the King of France. Vignolo credited Tommasso Lauretti as the originator of a perspectival anamorphic technique in one of the earliest written descriptions in Two Rules, compiled between 1530 and 1540 but not published until 1583. Without access to Vignolo's work, many other descriptions and examples were created before 1583.[3]:29-30,32-33

The Ambassadors (c. 1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger is well known for the prominent oblique anamorphic transformation in the painting. In this artwork, a distorted shape lies diagonally across the bottom of the frame. Viewing this from an acute angle transforms it into the plastic image of a human skull. The painting is regarded as a vanitas - a meditation on the transience of life - with the skull a symbolic memento mori. The altered perspective required to see the image reflects the contemporary practice of painting skulls on the reverse of otherwise tranquil paintings.[3] Four centuries later, the painting inspired the psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan to note in ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’ (1973) that the use of anamorphism, particularly in this painting, is one of the few methods for making viewers aware of their gaze.[4]

By the 17th century, a revival of fantastical anamorphic imagery occurred.[3]:26-28 Mirror anamorphosis emerged at this time in Italy and China. It remains uncertain whether Jesuit missionaries imported or exported the technique.[5] Two major works on perspective were published: Perspective(1612) by Salomon de Caus, and Curious Perspective (1638) by Jean-Francois Niceron. Each contained extensive scientific and practical information on anamorphic imagery. In Niceron's work, three types of large-scale anamorphism are explained: 'optical' (looking horizontally); 'anoptric' (looking upwards); and 'catoptric' (looking down i.e. from a mezzanine). A conical perspective is also described.[3]:26-28

Andrea Pozzo's painted ceiling in the Church of St. Ignazio, 1690

Baroque trompe l'oeil murals often used anamorphism to combine actual architectural elements with illusory painted elements to create a seamless effect when viewed from a specific location. The dome and vault of the Church of St. Ignazio in Rome, painted by Andrea Pozzo, represented the pinnacle of illusion. Due to neighboring monks complaining about blocked light, Pozzo was commissioned to paint the ceiling to look like the inside of a dome, instead of building a real dome. As the ceiling is flat, there is only one spot where the illusion is perfect and a dome looks undistorted.[citation needed]

Anamorphosis could be used to conceal images for privacy or personal safety, and many secret portraits were created of deposed royalty. A well-known anamorphic portrait of the English King Edward VI was completed a year before his execution in 1546, only visible when viewed through a hole in the frame. It was later hung at Whitehall Palace, and may have influenced Shakespeare during the writing of Richard II.[3]:16-18 Many anamorphic portraits of King Charles I were created and shared following his 1649 execution.[3]:28 A secret mirror anamorphosis portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie can only be recognized when a polished cylinder is placed in the correct position. To possess such an image would have been seen as treason in the aftermath of the 1746 Battle of Culloden.[6]

Twentieth Century[edit]

Thomas and Mole, Living Emblem (1919). USMC

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, anamorphic images had come to be used more as children's games than fine art.[2] By the twentieth century, some artists wanted to renew the technique of anamorphosis for aesthetic and conceptual effect. During the First World War Arthur Mole, an American commercial photographer, used anamorphic techniques to create patriotic images from massive assembled groups of soldiers and reservists. When seen from high above, the gathered people resolved into recognizable pictures.[7]

Marcel Duchamp was interested in anamorphosis. His last work Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas (1946-66) used mild anamorphosis to force viewers into the position of peep-hole voyeurs in order to see a nude, anonymous human body.[2]

Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí used extreme foreshortening and anamorphism in his paintings and works, and had a glass floor installed in a room next to his studio to enable radical perspective studies from above and below.[8] His Dalí Theatre and Museum in Figueres, Spain features a 3-dimensional anamorphic living-room installation with custom furniture that looks like the face of Mae West when seen from a certain viewpoint.[9]:156[10]:28 Interestingly, Lacan also compared Holbein's 16th century painting to Dali's imagery, rather than the other way around.[2]

Impossible objects[edit]

Necker cube

In the twentieth century, artists began to play with perspective by drawing "impossible objects". These objects included stairs that always ascend, or cubes where the back meets the front. Such works were popularized by the artist M. C. Escher and the mathematician Roger Penrose. Although referred to as "impossible objects", such objects as the Necker Cube and the Penrose triangle can be sculpted in 3-D by using anamorphic illusion. When viewed at a certain angle, such sculptures appear as the so-called impossible objects.

Ames Rooms[edit]

Ames room forced perspective
Ames room

The Ames room was invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr. in 1946.[11] When viewed through a peephole, the room appears to have normal perspective. However, all other viewpoints reveal that the room is constructed of irregular trapezoids. Similar effects had been achieved during the Renaissance through the use of "accelerated perspective" in stage design. These included productions by Scamozzi (1588-9), Furtenbach (1625), Sabbattini (1637) and Troili (1672).[3]

One of the most interesting effects of an Ames room is that the distorted perspective can make people and objects looks much bigger or smaller than they really are.[12] For this reason, Ames rooms are widely used in cinema for practical special effects. A well-known example is the homes in the Shire from the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. Through the use of forced perspective, the character of Gandalf appeared much larger than the characters of Frodo and Bilbo, without the use of digital effects.[13]

Practical uses[edit]

Cinemascope, Panavision, Technirama, and other widescreen formats use anamorphosis to project a wider image from a narrower film frame. The IMAX company uses even more extreme anamorphic transformations to project moving images from a flat film frame onto the inside of a hemispheric dome, in its "Omnimax" or "IMAX Dome" process.

The technique of anamorphic projection can be seen quite commonly on text written at a very flat angle on roadways, such as "Bus Lane" or "Children Crossing", to make it easily read by drivers who otherwise would have difficulty reading obliquely as the vehicle approaches the text; when the vehicle is nearly above the text, its true abnormally elongated shape can be seen.[14] Similarly, in many sporting stadiums, especially in Rugby football in Australia, it is used to promote company brands which are painted onto the playing surface; from the television camera angle, the writing appear as signs standing vertically within the field of play.

Much writing on shop windows is in principle anamorphic, as it was written mirror-reversed on the inside of the window glass.

In the work of contemporary artists[edit]

Anamorphic street art by Manfred Stader

While not a widespread in contemporary art, anamorphosis as a technique has been used by contemporary artists in painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture, film and video, digital art and games, holography,[2] street art and installation. The latter two art forms are largely practised in public areas such as parks, city centres and transit stations.[15]

In 1975 a major exhibition was held focusing exclusively on anamorphic imagery - Anamorphoses: Games of Perception and Illusion in Art. The artist Jan Beutener created The Room - a major new installation - specifically for the exhibit.[2]

The Presence of Absence is an ongoing exhibition focusing on anamorphic art. It features work by Patrick Ireland.[2]

Sculpture and Installation[edit]

Anamorphic mosaic art in a West Bromwich bus station.

Since the mid-20th century, many artists have made use of anamorphosis in public artworks. American Land art pioneer Michael Heizer's Complex One (1972-1974), a massive earth and concrete structure in the Nevada desert, creates a rectangular frame for a mastaba when viewed from a specific location.[2] Inspired by Luxor and other ancient monumental sites, it is part of the larger work City, an enormous sculpture running a mile and a half long. The entire work will not be completed until 2020.[16]

The artist Marcus Raetz created anamorphic sculptures ranging in size from large-scale public installation to something that could fit in your hand. One of his largest pieces, Kopf, revealed the form of a person's head in profile when viewed from a specific vantage-point. It was installed in a public park in Basel, Switzerland.[2]

Shigeo Fukuda, a Japanese artist and designer globally renowned for his satirical posters on anti-war and environmental advocacy,[17] created posters and sculptures making use of both types of anamorphosis in the 1970s and 1980s.[18] He also wrote multiple books on the topic of optical illusions.

While anamorphic images were not his exclusive area of focus, the American artist Jonathan Borofsky created installations in the 1980s using anamorphic techniques, exhibiting at institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art.[2]

Jean-Max Albert, Un carré pour un square, from the specific vantage point, Place Fréhel, Paris(1988)

Jean-Max Albert created three public sculptures using anamorphosis:Un carré pour un square, Cube fantôme and Reflet anamorphose (1985). [19]

Jonty Hurwitz, pioneered the use of a mathematical technique to create Catoptric sculptures that resolve in a cylinder.[20] In 2013 he produced a public work for the Savoy Hotel's River Room.[21]

In 2011, French artist François Abélanet's anamorphic garden work Qui croire? (Who to believe?) was featured in front of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.[22]

Felici Varini's 2014 work Three Ellipses for Three Locks in Hasselt, Belgium is an image of three loops that are made up of segments painted on to over 100 buildings. It is only visible from a specific vantage point over the city.[12]

Drawing and Painting[edit]

The Swedish artist Hans Hamngren produced and exhibited many examples of mirror anamorphosis in the 1960s and 1970s.


Beginning in 1967, Dutch artist Jan Dibbets based an entire series of photographic work titled Perspective Corrections on the distortion of reality through perspective anamorphosis. This involved the incorporation of land art into his work, where areas dug out of the Earth formed squares from specific perspectives.[2]

Street Art[edit]

Anamorphic effects are popular in street art, sometimes called "Slant Art" when accomplished on sidewalks. Examples are the sidewalk chalk drawings of Kurt Wenner and Julian Beever,[15] where the chalked image, the pavement, and the architectural surroundings all become part of an illusion. Art of this style can be produced by taking a photograph of an object or setting at a sharp oblique angle, then putting a grid over the photograph. Another elongated grid is placed on the sidewalk based on a specific perspective, and visual elements of one are transcribed into the other, one grid square at a time.

In 2016, the street artist JR completed a massive temporary anamorphic illusion over the Louvre's pyramid, making the modern structure disappear and the original building appear as though it was still in the 17th century.[23]

Popular culture[edit]

Anamorphic art toy by Myrna Hoffman

Since 1993, Myrna Hoffman's company, OOZ & OZ, has been producing mirror anamorphosis art kits and activities for children, such as the "Morph-O-Scopes" kit.[24] Hoffman's kits have earned more than two dozen national toy awards.[citation needed]

Anamorphic portraits were produced of members of the group Steeleye Span for the sleeve of their album All Around My Hat in 1975 by John O'Connor, a friend of one of them. The album packaging included a lyric sheet with holes punched in the side through which to view the portraits in their correct perspective.

Rick Wakeman's 1976 album No Earthly Connection featured front and back cover photographs that are mirror anamorphoses. The original vinyl release included a mirrored Mylar sheet which could be curled into a cylinder for viewing the images.[25]

In the 2007 detective film Anamorph, the plot line revolves around the solution of gruesome anamorphically distorted images.[citation needed]

Some 0.5 liter Sprite bottles in Europe were imprinted with what appeared to be an extra "bar code". When the bottle was tilted towards the mouth while drinking, the bar code resolved into writing, due to the oblique perspective.[citation needed]

The 2009 video game Batman: Arkham Asylum has a series of riddles posed by the classic Batman antagonist The Riddler, the solution of which is based on perspective anamorphosis.[26]

In 2013, Honda released a commercial which incorporated a series of illusions based on anamorphosis.[27]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Sánchez-Reyes, Javier; Chacón, Jesús M. (August 1, 2016). "Anamorphic Free-Form Deformation". Computer Aided Geometric Design. 46: 30–42. doi:10.1016/j.cagd.2016.06.002. Retrieved February 23, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Collins, Daniel L. (1992). "Anamorphosis and the Eccentric Observer: History, Technique and Current Practice". Leonardo. 25 (2): 179. doi:10.2307/1575710. JSTOR 1575710.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Baltrušaitis, Jurgis; Strachan, W.J. (1977). Anamorphic art. New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 9780810906624.
  4. ^ Scott, Maria. "Deciphering the Gaze in Lacan's 'Of the Gaze as Objet Petit | The DS Project". The DS Project. Retrieved 20 November 2018.
  5. ^ Review: Anamorphic Act by Jurgis Baltrušaitis. 1979. JSTOR 3049875.
  6. ^ "Now you see me". West Highland Museum. Retrieved April 15, 2013.
  7. ^ Radio, Minnesota Public (28 January 2005). "MPR: Group setting". Retrieved 30 November 2018.
  8. ^ Ades, ed. by Dawn (2000). Dalí's optical illusions : [Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, January 21 - March 26, 2000 : Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, April 19 - June 18, 2000 ; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, July 25 - October 1, 2000]. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale Univ. Press. pp. 17–18. ISBN 978-0300081770.
  9. ^ King, Elliott H. (guest curator) (2010). Salvador Dalí : the late work. David A. Brenneman, managing curator ; with contrib. by William Jeffet, Montse Aguer Teixidor, Hank Hine. Atlanta, Ga: High Museum of Art and Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300168280.
  10. ^ Pitxot, Antoni; Montse Aguer Teixidor; photography, Jordi Puig; translation, Steve Cedar (2007). The Dalí Theatre-Museum. Sant Lluís, Menorca: Triangle Postals. ISBN 9788484782889.
  11. ^ "Ames Room". 2001. Retrieved September 15, 2011.
  12. ^ a b "Anamorphosis art". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 18 November 2018.
  13. ^ England, Jason (30 March 2015). "Hobbit houses and the Moon trick the brain and eye | Cosmos". Retrieved 20 November 2018.
  14. ^ "Section 3B.20 Pavement Word, Symbol, and Arrow Markings". Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. United States Federal Highway Administration. 2009.
  15. ^ a b Rogers, SA (8 May 2010). "Perspective Puzzle: Anamorphic Art in the Toronto Subway". WebUrbanist. Retrieved 19 November 2018.
  16. ^ Goodyear, Dana (29 August 2016). "A Monument to Outlast Humanity". The New Yorker. Retrieved 20 November 2018.
  17. ^ Heller, Steven (19 January 2009). "Shigeo Fukuda, Graphic Designer of Wit and Allusion, Dies at 76". Retrieved 18 November 2018.
  18. ^ "Art of Shigeo Fukada". Illusionworks. Retrieved 18 November 2018.
  19. ^
  20. ^ Christopher Jobson (January 21, 2013). "The Skewed, Anamorphic Sculptures and Engineered Illusions of Jonty Hurwitz". Colossal.
  21. ^ Alice Jones (May 2, 2013). "A homage to Kaspar the friendly cat checks in at the Savoy's new eatery". The Independent.
  22. ^ Adams, Henry (Nov 29, 2011), Is a "Garden" the World's Greatest New Artwork?
  23. ^ "JR completes monumental anamorphic artwork on the louvre's glass pyramid". designboom architecture & design magazine. 28 May 2016. Retrieved 19 November 2018.
  24. ^ "Sports of All Sorts". Retrieved January 14, 2012.
  25. ^ "Rick Wakeman official website". Retrieved January 14, 2012.
  26. ^ "Batman FAQ". Retrieved January 14, 2012.
  27. ^ "This Honda Ad Leaves Me a Little Flat". Slate. 2013-10-26. Retrieved December 10, 2013.


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External links[edit]