Artists have many sources of ideas, just as they have a favourite medium. In this article, I describe how I used the work of Edgar Allan Poe as the source of inspiration for a mirror anamorphosis. I not only used his poem The Raven but also his essay The Philosophy of Composition to guide my creation process just as he did for the poem.
I studied graphic design at the University of Art and Design in Budapest, my diploma works were poster designs and later I started to make animated films, as well. The strange duality of posters, that is, they mean different things if seen from a distance and from close and the miracle of the moving image led me to experiment with illusion in fine arts. All these happened in the seventies and eighties in the previous century in that part of the world, where speaking enigmatically had a strange political piquancy. Enigmas and illusion lead to the anamorphosis, a design technique well-known in the Baroque and later forgotten. This two-dimensional technique uses a special point of view or a mirroring object to reveal the secret of the distorted image. Of course, if you start to draw anamorphoses, have to understand geometry and need to study the science of perspective. But once you take it up, sooner or later you will also fall in love with it. As for me, I already want to get others to fall in love with anamorphoses, and maybe this is the reason for this short text.
I write about such issues that occurred to me while designing a catoptric or mirror anamorphosis. The picture itself is an illustration of a poem, The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. “The bonus” is in the mirror placed on the picture: the portrait of the poet. The text is going to explain the connection between the two illustrations with the help and criticism of Poe’s art philosophical ideas.
Inspiration or design? When speaking about a work of art, you may want to know which of these predominated in its creation. The author of one work I chose to illustrate also asked this question and his answer was that a work of art can be created consciously “with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem”. The writer was Edgar Allan Poe and the work was The Raven. Poe wrote an essay, The Philosophy of Composition, in which he offers a radical theory on the creative process as he describes what lies behind his poem. (This essay is reproduced on page XX and the poem is on page XX.)
The Raven remains one of the most widely recognized and respected poems in literature. How the situation is established is astonishing, embarrassing and, it has to be admitted, faintly comic as well. A talking raven lands in a room: at a first reading (or listening), you can hardly take it or the situation seriously. However, with Poe, you can never tell what he takes seriously and how seriously he takes it. An idea making no sense could end in a question of life and death, and sentences that sound straightforward may be intended as parodies. Therefore The Philosophy of Composition too has to be read with certain reservations. Who would believe Poe’s claim that intuition is not needed to compose poems, that inspiration does not exist? That all you need to compose a poetical work is a logical, step-by-step design and that effects have to be cautiously and precisely calculated?
When translating the poem visually, my first step was to show the time and the place, or at least what we know of it from the text. Clearly, it is the home of the narrator, easily depicted through “homely” disorder (shoes kicked off, books all over the place etc., at least my home looks like this). I didn’t want to use these objects as a reference to the fact that the poem was written in 1845; I depicted them as of today and, quite selfishly, I “left” there some of the devices that I needed for creating illustrations and for designing my anamorphoses. Although this kind of self-reflection does connect to the Romanticism of Poe and to twentieth-century Postmodernism, the fine, etching-like character of the coloured drawing unmistakenly indicates the nineteenth-century time frame. Picturing the precise time of day, however, is more complex – the poem says it is midnight. The geometrical equivalent of midnight in the image is symmetry, and so I used a sphere within a square as the basic structure of the composition and distinctly highlighted its centre. The symmetry, present in Poe’s poem as well, is the result of viewing from above, a bird’s-eye perspective. Of course, if we were to be satisfied with the top-view, with the raven’s eye view of the milieu, that would definitely not be enough to fully interpret the situation; but to depict the raven itself would be perhaps overdoing it. This problem also goes back to the question whether a raven really does make its appearance, or is only the product of the narrator’s imagination. The greatest virtue of the poem is that it does not come down decisively on either side. If a real raven is depicted, then a side is taken. Is it possible for the illustrator, as it was for Poe, to keep an open mind? Yes, it is, if a depiction of the bird is avoided, and only its shadow, its image in a mirror is represented, or anything that refers to a raven —in this way an open mind is kept. My illustration presents all three possibilities. The dark shade in the middle of the picture can be taken as the shadow of the bird hovering above; in the wine cup, the beat of a wing is reflected; the illustrations in a natural history book lying open on the table also depict a raven.
The next issue is the identity of the narrator. He hovers between sleep and wakefulness, hence he is shown as slumped over the table (“While I nodded, nearly napping”), and this also circumvents the question whether Poe and the narrator are the same. The empty armchair opposite this figure and the drapery on it refer to the loss of the lady in the poem. To symbolize love, two books are intertwined.
In The Philosophy of Composition Poe argues at length that the monotony of the frequently repeated refrain lends the poem its melancholy. In the illustration, there is a monotony in the repetitive pattern of the parquet floor, and in the books and the sheets of paper scattered everywhere. The books and the illustrations on the pages bear out Poe’s notion that consciousness and calculation, intellect instead of “fine frenzy”, lead the creative process; it is also crucial that they allow none of the important details to be omitted. I would have been sorry to leave out the bust of Pallas Athene, highlighted by Poe in his essay too.
On re-reading the poem or Poe’s comments on its creation, one senses that he is intentionally hiding something. The blurred mystical-metaphysicality of the poem and the provocative brainstorming of The Philosophy of Composition seem to there to distract. So that you wouldn’t recognize a soul torn by fear and doubt, so that you wouldn’t take the first-person narrator seriously, so that you shouldn’t identify him with Poe. He did not have a dead lover called Lenore, his room did not contain a bust of Pallas Athene; yet there is no doubt that the shadow of the raven hovers over Poe’s soul, destiny and life. If you have not been aware of this, the fifth line of the penultimate stanza (“Take thy beak from out my heart”) makes you sure that here it is the poet speaking and not his narrator, slumped over his books. This is the first metaphor that re-interprets the whole poem as it has developed and clarifies the symbolic character of the bird.
Someone viewing my illustration (I would call any such person a co-creator) will place a cylindrical mirror onto that point which covers the bird’s reflection in the wine glass; in so doing, they emphasize the metaphoric interpretation of the poem and of the picture. In the mirror is reflected Edgar Allan Poe’s virtual face, made up of the objects lying horizontally, the requisites of the illustration for The Raven. Once the cylinder is raised, the face disappears, what is left are these scattered objects, the shades, the man lying on his face and the empty room.
Poe claims in his essay that the most important effect to be created in a work of art is that which allows it to be interpreted backwards. His conclusion explains all the parts of the composition and their role in the whole. Poe was true to this in most of his works. In fact, the same compositional scheme is at work for an anamorphosis that has a second meaning, since by placing a cylindrical mirror onto the centre of the paper, the viewer will realise why certain objects have been placed in the picture.
How can you distort an image so that it only becomes visible and recognizable in a mirror of the right size and from a certain angle? This is what I did: I selected a photograph of Poe and made a line-drawing from it. (Figure 1)Then I produced a reflection of the picture (so that when its reflection appears in the mirror, the original image can be seen). I drew a grid of 11 columns and 9 lines upon the picture, adding numbers and letters for the sake of clarity. The drawing was first reflected vertically, and then horizontally to be reading to turn into the anamorphosis. (Figure 2)
Then I drew eleven concentric circles from the centre of the illustration, and split the area into nine pie slices. In other words I made a distorted form of the grid of squares. I then had to redraw the image in the small squares in the exact deformation into the exact plane figure. (Figure 3) I placed the cylindrical mirror from time to time onto the centre to check the work.
Once the squares are filled in correctly, Poe’s image appears in the mirror. Now came the most interesting part: what I had to figure out was how the elements of the distorted image can be exchanged for other details, for other objects in the picture. How can a round desk-top stand for the curve of the forehead, a pen or a pencil for the eyebrow, a watch for a necktie, the shadow of the raven for the writer’s waistcoat, etc. These objects were drawn conventionally as shown in figure 4. Then they were arranged as in figure 5.
If we consider The Philosophy of Composition, this is no more than practical creation, logical composition and a systematic sorting out within the possible solutions. The procedure I have followed in composing an anamorphosis is actually what Poe suggested in his essay. What the artist should do is first to dismantle and deform reality, then create, through his imagination and intellect, a new but unreal world out of these realities. This creative process does not require inspiration—at least so Poe says—and there is no place for irrational melancholy or for subconscious instincts. Art should stand apart from the uncontrollable flow of emotions, creativity should be led intellectually, so that pure art can be created merely on a mathematical basis.
I find it interesting that Poe expressed great interest in the characteristics of optics and visual perception. In his short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the detective, Auguste Dupin, explains how the details and the different viewpoints should be used to examine something as a whole—and then, with surprising precision, describes the technique of distorted perception.
Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that it is invariably superficial. The depth lies in the valleys where we seek it, and not upon the mountain-tops where it is found. The modes and sources of this kind of error are well typified in the contemplation of the heavenly bodies. To look at a star by glances—to view it in a side-long way, by turning toward it the exterior portions of the retina (more susceptible to feeble impressions of light than the interior), is to behold the star distinctly—is to have the best appreciation of its lustre—a lustre which grows dim just in proportion as we turn our vision fully upon it. A greater number of rays actually fall upon the eye in the latter case, but in the former, there is the more refined capacity for comprehension.
When designing my anamorphosis to Poe’s poem, I attempted to work with a conscious and calculating mind, but I was also aware of traps such childish logic might lead me into. All I could hope for was that the ‘inexplicable’, too, always has and will have a role in all kind of creative work.