Revel in the devilish depths of deception

Eyes, Lies and Illusions

November 25, 2005

Students of vision have rarely come to terms with that most visual medium - cinema. Much the same applies to historians of vision. The period termed pre-cinema (up to 1895, the year in which the Lumi re brothers first showed their cinematographs to the public) reflects a time of tremendous innovation in visual science, often feeding those who developed moving pictures. Yet the period seems more fascinating to those pursuing the history of cinema than to those studying the history of vision.

Foremost among the former is Laurent Mannoni, one of the authors of this richly illustrated book, which was the catalogue for an exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery, London, at the end of 2004. However, the star is Werner Nekes, part of whose collection was on display at the Hayward and illustrations of which form the substance of Eyes, Lies and Illusions . The light cast on that pre-cinematic era by the exhibition and by the book is due to the vision of this experimental film-maker.

Nekes has assembled a magnificent collection of optical toys (from anorthoscopes to zoetropes) as well as anamorphoses, camera obscuras, dioramas, magic lanterns, panoramas, perspective peepshows and printed visual tricks. These are bolstered by books providing historical accounts of optics, film, photography and magic. In short, he has provided the visual evidence for what Mannoni describes as "the history of deceptive art".

The phenomena demonstrated in the exhibition were not restricted to apparent motion; this was not the only deception displayed. Apparent motion harnesses changes of space over time that have proved to be so labile in perceptual terms. The other deceptive dimension was depth, which has been a pictorial preoccupation since Brunelleschi painted his first perspectives in the early 15th century. The nature of pictorial representation involves allusions to depth: the flat picture plane is seen as such, but it also conveys the impression of an extended space that it does not occupy. This artifice was most complete with the invention of linear perspective but soon succumbed to its success. The allusory depth in the pictorial image was distorted in numerous ways with anamorphoses, one of the first of which was made by Leonardo da Vinci. Examples of linear, cylindrical and conical anamorphoses are shown in Eyes, Lies and Illusions , often taken from the 17th-century books that described how they were made. (The silvered cut-out available in the front of the book will enable readers to construct their own cylinders and cones, which can be placed over printed figures.) Thereafter, the flat plane of the picture was seen by some artists to offer the opportunity of more devious deceptions: virtual worlds beyond the scope of human construction could be shown.

However, the perspectival allusions to depth in a flat picture rarely fooled the eye; pictorial images were not confused with the objects they represented. A closer match was possible with suitably paired pictures viewed in a stereoscope, inducing a more compelling impression of the missing dimension - depth. The stereoscope was invented by Charles Wheatstone in the 1830s, and it was later said that "Leonardo da Vinci, in 1500, or thereabouts, conceived and was the first to affirm, that from a picture it was not possible to obtain the effect of relief. But Wheatstone, reflecting profoundly in 1838, on the physiology of vision, invented the catoptric stereoscope, with which he philosophically solved the problem of the optical and virtual production of relief". He also invented the pseudoscope, which reversed retinal disparities so that concave objects looked convex.

The contemporary works in the Hayward exhibition by Alfons Schilling manipulated pseudoscopic effects with skill and humour. Ludwig Wilding's work presented deceptions of motion and depth; these can be appreciated in the book since a transparent overlay is provided, which can be moved over his printed designs. Markus Raetz played on the ambiguities of the flat picture plane with mirrors, shadows and solid objects that undergo transformations by walking round them. These works and others represented in the book affirm that delight in deception remains alive and well in contemporary art.

Eyes, Lies and Illusions begins with essays by Marina Warner, on the enigma of appearances, and Mannoni, on the art of deception. Warner follows the trails of some optical devices from the Renaissance to the present, with many allusions to the devil's deceptions. There are also accounts of work in the exhibition by contemporary artists whose work harmonises with the discordant visual deceptions. The book cannot quite capture the allure of the exhibition, either for the items selected from the Nekes collection or for these contemporary artworks: many of the deceptions depend on moving objects or observers. This applies particularly to the first instruments of synthetic motion, phenakistoscopes and stroboscopic discs. These are rotating discs with slits around the circumference through which the images printed on the rear surface can be seen reflected in a mirror. When the static images are seen in suitable succession the experience of motion is compelling. Not only were there working models in the exhibition of such rapidly sequenced static images, but the images presented were among the first made for such purposes, in the early 1830s. Each small sector of the static example shown here would be seen as part of a continuous series of rats appearing from a hole and scurrying to the edge of the disc.

Fortunately for those whose appetite for deception is whetted by the wonderful illustrations in Eyes, Lies and Illusions , there will be further opportunities to see the Nekes collection. A large exhibition is on display at the Altonaer Museum, Hamburg, under the title of "Schaulust" (Sights of desire).

Nicholas Wade is professor of visual psychology, Dundee University.

Eyes, Lies and Illusions

Author - Laurent Mannoni, Werner Nekes and Marina Warner
Publisher - Hayward Gallery
Pages - 240
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 1 85332 244X

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