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Spurious Images in Art and Advertising: An Annotated Bibliography

Compiled by Roy R. Behrens. E-mail: ballast@netins.net

Everyday examples of "spurious images" (which art historian H.W. Janson called "chance images") include Rorschach inkblots, the Man in the Moon, faces in the clouds, and, arguably, the Shroud of Turin and Joe Camel. In the visual arts, one of the earliest, most celebrated examples is a frequently quoted passage from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci: "If you look at walls that are stained or made of different kinds of stones . . . you can think you see in them certain picturesque views of mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, broad valleys, and hills of different shapes. You can also find in them battles and rapidly moving figures, strange faces and costumes, as well as an infinite number of things. . . . " One could cite hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other examples, some of which might be classified as "natural simulacra" (the result, some would insist, of purposeful activity on the part of a deity), and the remainder as manmade "embedded figures," the consequence of deliberate or accidental human activity. Because spurious images are ambiguous, their interpretation requires a complicity, more or less, on the part of the viewer, an act described by art historian E.H. Gombrich (in Art and Illusion) as "the beholder's share," and by psychologists, variously as "closure" and "projection." -- R.B.

Baltrusaitis, Jurgis, Aberrations: An Essay on the Legend of Forms (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1989). Five illustrated art historical essays on various "depraved perspectives." Of particular interest are "Animal Physiognomy," about facial resemblances between animals and humans, and "Pictorial Stones," about the perception of pictures in rocks.

Behrens, Roy R., Illustration as an Art (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1986). An overview of three aspects of illustration: Design, invention, and representation. Closure, embedded figures, and subliminal perception are introduced in the opening chapter, which argues that artists throughout history have relied on "underlying visual rhymes" and that structures that are implied, not explicit, may support a more vivid esthetic response.

Elffers, Joost, Play With Your Food (New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1997). Instructional guide for children and adults, illustrated by Arcimboldo-inspired examples, on how to make humorous sculpture from fruits, vegetables, and other food sources.

Hulten, Pontus, et al., The Arcimboldo Effect: Transformations of the Face from the 16th to the 20th Century (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987). Lavishly illustrated catalog for an exhibition about the paintings of 16th-century Italian artist Guiseppe Arcimboldo, who made composite portraits from fruits, flowers, and other nonhuman components, and their subsequent influence on Surrealism.

Janson, H.W., "Chance Images," in Philip P. Wiener, ed., Dictionary of the History of logical (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973), pp. 340-353. Illustrated chronological overview, by a prominent art historian, of the purposeful use of hidden images in Western art, from classical antiquity onwards.

Key, Wilson Bryan, Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media's Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973). Argues that advertisers commonly use concealed images to subconsciously influence the behavior of consumers. Later titles by the same author include Media Sexploitation (1976), and The Clam-Plate Orgy and Other Subliminal Techniques for Manipulating Your Behavior (1980), which features chapters on "Perceptual Engineering in Fine Art" and "Modern Art--Not So New."

Lanners, Edi, ed., Illusions: Optical, Paradoxical, Mystical, Fantastical (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977). An encyclopedic collection of illusions and other misleading phenomena, among them various examples of children's "puzzle pictures," in which figures have been hidden in larger, complex backgrounds.

Le Brun, Charles, Resemblances: Amazing Faces (New York: Harlan Quist, 1980). An album of the drawings of 17th-century French artist Charles Le Brun, in which he tried to demonstrate the physiognomic affinity between humans and animals.

Lucas, E.V., and George Morrow, What a Life! (New York: Dover Publications, 1975). Originally published in 1911, this collage novel inspired later efforts by Surrealist artist Max Ernst. Illustrated by engraved "found images" from Whiteley's Catalogue, it plays on the intentional misidentification of everyday objects, e.g., referring to an elaborate birdcage as the Crystal Palace.

Lupton, Ellen, and J. Abbott Miller, Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996). A collection of excellent essays about graphic design, advertising, and society. Of interest here is "Subliminal Seduction," which reviews the literature and presents an updated critique of the claim that advertisers use embedded images and words to influence consumers.

Michell, John, Natural Likeness: Faces and Figures in Nature (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1979). Rich, fascinating collection of several hundred photographs and engravings of natural "simulacra," including plants, animals, and landforms in which faces, figures, and other familiar shapes can be recognized.

Newell, Peter, Topsys and Turvys (New York: Dover Publications, 1964). A collection of comic illustrations, originally published in 1894 and 1902, in which each illustration is actually two. Turned upsidedown, a second alternative picture appears.

Schwartz, Hillel, The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles (New York: Zone Books, 1996). A dazzling and somewhat eccentric report on the fascination in modern times with twins, genetic clones, doppelgangers, imposters, camouflage, decoys, parrots, automata, mannequins, wax museums, self-portraits, photocopies, insta nt replays, digital images, counterfeits, forgeries, and other examples of surprising resemblance.

Sloan, Mark, Hoaxes, Humbugs and Spectacles (New York: Villard Books, 1990). Historic photographs of peculiar subject matter. The section of particular interest is "Safety in Numbers," which contains photographs of groups of people assembled to imitate larger shapes, e.g., 21,000 American soldiers arranged to form a likeness of President Woodrow Wilson.

Sloan, Mark, et al., Dear Mr. Ripley: A Compendium of Curioddities from the Believe It or Not! Archives (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1993). Historic photographs of bizarre subject matter. Of particular interest is "Nature's Whims," which includes photographs of garden vegetables that look like other common forms (e.g., carrots that resemble hands), and of animals whose surface markings appear to be meaningful (e.g., a German calf with a swastika-like shape on its forehead).

Stroebel, Leslie, et al., Visual Concepts for Photographers (New York: Focal Press, 1980). An illustrated glossary of art-related terms from perceptual psychology and other areas of visual science. Terms of particular interest include figure-ground, fusion, gestalt, subliminal perception, and visual camouflage.

Wood, Robert Williams, How to Tell the Bird from the Flowers and Other Woodcuts (New York: Dover Publications, 1959). Written and illustrated in 1917 by a prominent American physicist, this is a children's book of absurd verse and comic drawings about how easily one species might be confused with another, because their supposed visual and verbal similarities, e.g., the parrot and the carrot, or the clover and the plover.

17 February 1998.

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