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Anamorphosis (1991)

Courtesy of Koninck Studios

Main image of Anamorphosis (1991)
De Artificiali Perspectiva, or Anamorphosis
35mm, colour, 14 mins
DirectorsBrothers Quay
Production CompanyProgram for Art on Film
ProducerKeith Griffiths
ScriptRoger Cardinal
MusicLeszek Jankowski

An exploration of the optical phenomenon of anamorphosis, whereby the eye can perceive images differently if viewed at an appropriate angle.

Show full synopsis

Between 1980 and 1984, the Quay Brothers spent much of their time either making or contributing to documentaries. This was part of a conscious strategy devised by their producer Keith Griffiths to help attract television commissions and give their puppet animation wider circulation outside the confines of the experimental film. Their early work included Punch and Judy (1980), The Eternal Day of Michel de Ghelderolde (1981), Leos Janacek: Intimate Excursions and Igor Stravinsky: The Paris Years chez Pleyel (both 1983) and The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984).

Since that time, the Quays have preferred to explore their own fantastical worlds, but in 1991 they made a brief return to the documentary form with Anamorphosis, commissioned as part of The Program for Art on Film, a project backed by the Getty Foundation and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In collaboration with art historian Roger Cardinal (who had also contributed to the full-length The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer), the Quays assembled this witty exploration of a fascinating visual phenomenon which, as the opening titles explain, "plays mischievously yet revealingly with the relationship between the eye and what it sees."

Anamorphosis relies on a deliberately deformed image that can be made to reappear in its true shape when viewed in an unusual way (for instance, obliquely, or through a distorting mirror), and the Quays provide several examples. Firstly, there's a short lecture on the principles of perspective, illustrated by an example of how the eye can be fooled (a massively elongated chair appears to be normal from one particular viewpoint). Two woodcuts by Erhard Schön (c. 1535) show how subversive material can be hidden inside outwardly normal images, while an anonymous painting (c. 1550) is arranged with strategic peepholes to reveal lurking religious imagery. On a more ambitious scale, Emmanuel Maignan created an anamorphic fresco for a Roman monastery in 1642, while Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533), on permanent view in London's National Gallery, is probably the most famous anamorphic painting, its obliquely-fashioned skull in the foreground hinting at the mortality that awaits even the wealthy.

The Quays alternate between their familiar puppet animation with a new technique incorporating three-dimensional cut-out figures that emerge from and retreat into the background, providing a witty visual equivalent of the anamorphic process. There is also much analysis of the original artworks, viewed in close-up and from several angles.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Perspective principles (3:00)
2. Two puzzles (1:40)
3. Anamorphic fresco (3:12)
4. Holbein's 'Ambassadors' (2:08)
Production stills
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Quay, Brothers (1947-)