Saturday, 11 July 2015

El Greco’s Anamorphic Figures

Everybody knows one or two paintings by El Greco, with their strangely tall and thin people, like a TV picture when someone hasn’t found out how to set the aspect ratio properly.

El Greco — real name Domenikos Theotokopoulos — was, as his nickname suggests, a Greek living in Spain.

Philosophers, art critics, neurologists, ophthalmologists, all sorts of people who ought to know better have assumed that El Greco had ‘something wrong with his eyes’; more specifically, that he actually saw people (and presumably other things) as taller or thinner than they ‘really’ (i.e. according to the rest of us) were. Surprisingly few people are capable of thinking things through: one can perhaps forgive the art critics, neurologists, and ophthalmologists, but not surely the philosophers; the specialists in thinking.

Think about it. Suppose you were a painter, and you wanted to paint an accurate —more or less photographically accurate — picture of the scene before you. Surely you would paint so that, when you looked at your picture, and then at the scene it represented, what you saw was much ‘the same’: the picture, and the scene, would have the same proportions, and any anamorphic distortion in your vision would be constant, whether you were looking at the scene or the picture: it would be entirely irrelevant; the picture would have the same proportions as the scene, assuming that you knew (as El Greco did in Spades) how to paint. What’s more, anyone else looking at picture and scene would see the same proportions. As I say, think about it: carefully and hard.

The fact, surprising to some, is, then, that anamorphic distortion in a painter’s vision will have not the slightest effect on his picture’s proportions.

Oh, and yes: he was a wonderful painter.


I couldn’t find the title of this one, but it must surely be St Martin; the Roman Officer who cut his cloak in half to clothe a beggar.

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