12 December 2012

An Affinity For Distortion

 "Plants tip 
in half light, dull the kitchen's
still life: egg-sized grapes
sink into a china plate.

Stale mezzanine
of home, this man's white hand goes
cold in his breast
pocket.  mouth wide, he oversees

bugs in rise.  Were he alive,
this inversion might remind him of
tough as towels.

or songs.  In his kitchen, a calendar -
disturbed by its rules:
nothing inhabited, nothing gained.
Everything grows beyond its means."
 - Simple Distortion by Frances McCue, from The Stenographer's Breakfast, Boston, Beacon Press: 1992.

In fact, distortion is never simple.  Its object may be to begin with, but distortion makes a game, a puzzle, or a mystery out of what would otherwise by simple recreation of an image. 
Anamorphosis is the name for images that are changed or deformed, but reveal their identity (shape) when looked at with an unconventional eye or with a viewing device (e. g., camera obscura).  The French term trompe l'oeil, meaning to 'deceive the eye' offers another way to think of it. 
From the results of scientific research on visual perception and  the perfection of perspective, Renaissance artists made a game.  From the Greek ana (marking the return towards) and morphé (forms), the word anamorphosis appears by the XVIIe century and is defined  in Diderot and Alermbert’s Encyclopedia (1751) as a "monstrous projection" or a "disfigured representation".  
Affinity is another term I've been chewing on since seeing Affinity Atlas, the inaugural installation at the Wellin Museum of Art, opened on October 6th to honor the 200th anniversary of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.  Affinity Atlas was inspired by the work of the German Art historian Aby Warburg (1886-1929) who created a pictorial atlas from some two thousand images he had collected in his search for commonalities of human psychology in art across time, from the Renaissance to the 20th century.

Renaissance thinkers puzzled over the relationship between appearance and reality, as shown by their development of perspective.   In Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1753, London, National Gallery), you might think that it was a flying saucer that landed in front of the two French scientists.  Close inspection reveals that it is the distorted image of a human skull but exactly what Holbein intended has never been settled.  Less well known is  Elias Baeck's earlier Anamorphosis. Europe which personifies an entire continent in a human form clothed and surrounded by symbols of royal pomp and power, as seen through a mirror in a cylinder.

Note: The Stenopgrapher's Breakfast by Frances McCue was the 1992 selection of the Barnard College New Women Poets series.  Using dictation, stretching it in anamorphic fashion, McCue breaks the mold of her literal world with wicked ingenuity.

1.  Elias Baeck (1679-1747) Germany -  Anamorphosis Europe, 1740 Watercolors, black poster paint on paper. Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris.

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