A show called "Anamorphoses," which opens tonight at the Corcoran, has works of art both high and low. Mostly low. Here, as at a magic show. the aim is not profundity but wonderment and fun.
The word is Greek for "transformations." it applies to miages that make no sence until they are restored by some unexpected points of view or optical device. This is a show of tricks.
Some of the tricks date to the time of Leonardo, and their secret is still a simple one. Curving mirrors in the fun house confound us with distorted first this tables. If the image is distorted first (this requirs cunning) then the fun-house mirror may make it whole again.
The mirrors here afre regular, cylindrical or conic, and though merely obedient to the laws of optics, they surprise us every time. A mess of angled lines, when properly reflected, becomes a gallcon under sail. A 16th century woodcut, when viewed from the right angle . conjures to old laughter) a defrecation man. Curving smars of pink and beige, when corrected by a mirror, becomes a pair of plump Chinese making love upon a chair.
All of this deverting, but it was vastly more amazing when the artist-scientists of the Renaissance first codified the Laws of vanishing; point per-pective 500 years ago.
Now that was a discovery. No other optical techology (not the camera. the movies. TV of the holograph, has had such an impact on how we know and see. Painting, for the first time, could show us three dimensions. Artists started seeing measurable space horizons, and the lines of sight that radiate from the viewer's eye. And that astonishing, all-governing visual geometry could, of course, be turned to fun.
Sixteenth-century collectors were not estheters only, Their little private galleries, their "cabinets of wonders" boasted not just pictures, but ostrich eggs and telescope and anamorphouse as well. The Greeks had long before discerned some subleties of optics their columns aren't straighsident: actually they swell but their tricks were sacred sercet. Scienc=e chaneg all that.
Leonardo, Holnein, and the final Earoque painters dabble with illusions, then went on to higher things. There are saints and nobles portrayed at the Corcoran, but only in the older works. Much as modern gift shops peddle cheap kalcidoscopes, eightcenth century lapainters, many secondrate, soon mass produced their visual games. there amusing stocking -stuffers for the middle class.
Of the objects in this show, perhaps the most amazing are these in three dimensions. They are peep shows of a sort that rely on false perpective. The most starting is a room by Jan Beautener of Holland. It looks right from one point of vies, from others it's all wrong.
Anamorphoses remained popular throughout the 18th century. Then the camera came along. These tricks and visual games would remain a minor footnote to the history of art until 1955. when Jurgis Baltrusaitis wrote a study on the subject.
Two clever young Dutchmen, Joost elffers and Michaael Schuyt, who organized this show, photographed and borrowed and occasionally constructed the objects on display. The exhibition's American tour is sponsored by the SCM Corporation and more than a million viewers have already seen it. The catalog is a treat (it comes with a small mylar mirror). Unless some museum wants a long-term loan."Anamorphoses: Games of Pereception and lllusion in Art" will be dismantled after it closes at the Corcoran onNov. 27.