Drawing or painting technique that gives a distorted image of the subject when seen from the usual viewpoint, but when viewed from a particular angle or reflected in a curved mirror shows it in true proportion. Its purpose is to amuse or mystify. It was a curious by-product of the discovery of perspective in the 14th–15th century and was regarded as a display of technical virtuosity. The first examples appear in Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks.
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There are two main types of anamorphosis: Perspective (oblique) and Mirror (catoptric). Examples of perspectival anamorphosis date to the early Renaissance (15th Century), whereas examples of mirror anamorphosis (or catoptric anamorphosis) occurred at the time of the baroque (17th century).
With mirror anamorphosis, a conical or cylindrical mirror is placed on the drawing or painting to transform a flat distorted image into a three dimensional picture that can be viewed from many angles. The deformed image is painted on a plane surface surrounding the mirror. By looking uniquely into the mirror, the image appears undeformed. Current in the 1600s and 1700s, this process of anamorphosis made it possible to diffuse caricatures, erotic and scatologic scenes and scenes of sorcery for a confidential public.
These "anamorphoscopes" were invented in China and brought to Italy in the 16th century, about the time Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci were mastering 3-D and discovering slant anamorphosis.
Leonardo's Eye (Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1485) is the earliest known example of perspective anamorphosis. Hans Holbein the Younger is well known for incorporating this type of anamorphic trick. His painting The Ambassadors is the most famous example for anamorphosis, in which 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 skull. During the 17th century, Baroque trompe l'oeil murals often used this technique to combine actual architectural elements with an illusion. When standing in front of the art work in a specific spot, the architecture blends with the decorative painting. The dome and vault of the Church of St. Ignazio in Rome, painted by Andrea Pozzo, represented the pinnacle of illusion. Due to complaints of blocked light by neighbouring monks, Pozzo was commissioned to paint the ceiling to look like the inside of a dome, instead of actually constructing one. However, the ceiling is flat, and there is only one spot where the illusion is perfect and a dome looks real.
In 18th and in 19th century, anamorphic images had come to be used more as children's games than fine art. In the 20th century some artists wanted to renew the technique of anamorphosis. Important to mention Marcel Duchamp's interest in anamorphosis, some of his installations are paraphrases of anamorphoses (See The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even & The Large Glass). Salvador Dalí also utilized the effect in a number of his paintings. Jan Dibbets conceptual works, the so-called "perspective corrections" are examples of "linear" anamorphoses.
The Swedish artist Hans Hamngren produced and exhibited a great deal of examples of the mirror anamorphosis in the 60s and 70s. Shigeo Fukuda Japanese artist has designed both types of anamorphosis in the 70s and 80s. Also Patrick Hughes (artist), Fujio Watanabe, István Orosz, Felice Varini, Matthew Ngui, Kelly Houle, Nigel Williams, and Judy Grace are fine artists creating anamorphic images.
Another example is the footpath chalk paintings of Kurt Wenner and Julian Beever where the chalk painting, 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 angle, then putting a grid over the photo, another, elongated grid on the footpath based on a specific perspective, and reproducing exactly the contents of one into the other, one square at a time.
The system 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" — which is easily read by drivers who otherwise would have difficulty reading as the vehicle approaches the text; when the vehicle is nearly above the text, its true abnormally elongated shape can be seen. 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.
On some 0.5 liter Sprite bottles in Europe, an extra "bar code" was present. When the bottle is tilted towards the mouth while drinking, the bar code resolves into writing due to the anamorphic effect. In the 2008 detective film Anamorph, the plot line revolves around the solution of gruesome anamorphically distorted images.