Allowing ourselves to be deceived by art

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Whether enjoying the sight of shadow puppets against a wall or the suggestive placing of objects in an Austin Powers movie, people have long delighted in the playful use of images.

“Visual Deception,” at the Bunkamura Museum of Art in Tokyo collects together almost 150 artworks from various countries and epochs that, in a number of ways, make us question how images can deceive us.

One of the oldest ways in art of tricking the viewer is tromp l’oeil — optical illusions of views or objects that are designed to disguise their own fiction and make the viewer believe they are seeing the real thing. Early in the exhibition, “Escaping Criticism” by Spanish artist Pere Borrell del Caso provides a clear example of this — a boy climbing out of a picture frame toward the viewer. The picture frame is a painted one, safely inside the painting’s real gilded frame but the work’s effect comes from the perceived disruption of the boundary between real and fictitious space.

The exhibition also introduces images that depict one thing but suggest another. Court painter to the Habsburg family in the 16th century, Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted forms that resemble human portraits but are composed of images of food and plants — such as a pear for the nose and berries for the eyes of the subject in “Vertemnus/ Rudolf II.” His work was rediscovered centuries later and celebrated for its inventiveness and playfulness by the Surrealists, who appear later in the exhibition.

Various woodcut prints in the exhibition show that Japan also delighted in such visual resemblances. A series of somewhat grotesque prints by Kuniyoshi Utagawa, “Men Join To Form a Man” is just that — human faces made up of the combined forms of tiny humans beings. Other Japanese works in the show center on blurring the distinction between the painting and its border areas.

While some artists in this way utilized resemblance to suggest another object, other visual illusions in the exhibition owe their effect to the vagaries of perspective. While perspective had been known since the time of the Ancient Greeks, it was in the early Renaissance that it was refined and its rules formulated. Once the rules were established, however, it wasn’t long before artists began to play with them. A 16th-century woodcut included here by Erhard Schon (a former student of Albrecht Durer), doesn’t make much sense when looked at straight on, but viewed from a side angle, it can be recognized in its “proper” proportion as a face — in this case that of King Ferdinand.

This technique, known as anamorphosis, is also used in pictures in the round in which images of human figures are stretched out into a circle to the point they cease to be recognizable. A metal pole serving as a convex curved mirror and positioned in the middle of the work compensates for the distortions and returns the figures to their “correct” state. Domenico Piaola uses this technique effectively in his “The Erection of the Cross,” a religious painting based on a Rubens work.

Pulling us into the 20th century, the surrealist section, albeit small, has a few Salvador Dalis and some fine Rene Magritte works, including the puzzle with no answer, “The Blank Signature” — a horse and rider half hidden behind trees, half hiding the trees. At least one picture in this section shows that the way we perceive pictures can also depend on the distance from where we view them — if you can’t match a picture’s contents to its title try standing back a meter or two.

Even up-close and head-on, pictures can offer an amusing play with the way we view the world. The woodblock print “False Perspective” by the 18th-century British artist William Hogarth, as its title implies, is a maze of visual ambiguities — a sign hanging from a building is partially hidden by trees that appear to be far away in the background and the trees themselves increase in size, rather than decrease, as you look further into the distance.

In the 20th century, M.C. Escher took such spatial illusions to the next level, with complex meditations on perception and reality. Several of his works are on display here, including his famous “Day and Night,” in which he explores negative and positive space through the interlocking pattern of white birds and black birds flying in opposite directions. Even more challenging are “Belvedere” and “Ascending and Descending,” which take viewers a little more time to work out exactly what is going on.

The exhibition comes to a close with a few works that, although motionless, suggest movement, such as the shimmering curved lines of a Bridget Riley piece or the giddying effect achieved by Patrick Hughes’ “Sea City,” driving the point home of just how much our eyes can deceive us.

“Visual Deception” is showing until Aug. 16 at the Bunkamura Museum of Art; admission ¥1,400; open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. till 9 p.m.). For more information call 03-5777-8600 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp (Japanese).