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The Fine Art Of Deception

An anamorphic installation portrait of Malian actor Sotigui Kouyate by French artist Bernard Pras.

Fooling the eye – with trick-niques like anamorphic sculpture, trompe l'oeil paintings and other optical illusions – is a centuries old artistic pursuit.

From the ancient frescoes of Pompeii through Rene Magritte, M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali, certain visual experimenters have wrangled with reality in a special way.

Such tricks are also up-to-the-minute contemporary. Take a look at this video of a clever 2013 anamorphic installation — by French artist Bernard Pras. It morphs from a portrait of a man to a mundane pile of objects — depending on how you look at it.

If you find the work of Bernard Pras fascinating, you can see more video explications of his installation portraits on the Internet, including French football star Zinedine Zidane and Malian actor Sotigui Kouyate. Here is a photo of the latter installation; the finished piece is pictured at the top of this story.

Playful artists around the world challenge our sense of reality. On a city wall...

Or at a convenience store...

Tricking the viewer – like a magician or a three-card monte dealer – can cut two-ways. If the viewer "gets it", then there is a connection; but if the viewer "doesn't get it", the experience can be unsatisfactory. Like for those who can never see the image in a Magic Eye creation.

The Eye Of The Beholder

So why does an artist like to fiddle with a viewer's perception?

Trompe l'oeil "is virtuosic," explains Lois Parkinson Zamora, author of The Inordinate Eye, "so perhaps virtuosi enjoy being virtuosic. They may also enjoy pushing the medium to its extreme ... questioning the nature not only of realistic representation but also of reality itself."

In trompe l'oeil, says Lois, who also teaches comparative cultural studies at the University of Houston, "metaphysics accompanies technique in a very particular fashion ... form and content merge, that is, the realistic status — the reality — of the painting is the subject of the painting."

Explaining pictures at an exhibition in Houston, Lois wrote that the artistic devices of spatial illusion were honed by European artists during the 17th century, in the era known as the Baroque period. The desire to deceive the eye, she observed, "was in response to cultural anxieties occasioned by revolutionary scientific discoveries, revolutionary religious upheaval, also by the new taste for virtuosic visual display."

She continued, "The authority of perception was being undermined, and Baroque artists responded accordingly—and often fantastically—with structures intended to deceive the eye."

As evidence, Lois points me to a well-known 1874 work of trompe l'oeil by Pere Borrell del Caso. The original is in the Colección Banco de España, Madrid. "Maybe the title of the painting," she suggests, in a questioning way, "has something to do with the allure of trompe l'oeil?"

It's called "Escaping Criticism".

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The Protojournalist: An experimental storytelling project for the LURVers — Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers — of NPR. @NPRtpj

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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