BBC Culture

Illusion Confusion: Images that bamboozle

  • Off the wall

    From the first known anamorphic drawing – Leonardo da Vinci’s 1485 sketch of an eye, which had to be turned to the side to be seen properly – to digital images created by psychologists and neuroscientists, optical illusions are much more than Magic Eye posters. A new book, Illusion Confusion, surveys the ways in which artists have confounded us since the Renaissance.

    Here, a trompe-l'oeil wall mural by John Pugh in Los Gatos, California, recalls an earthquake that hit the town in 1989; the jaguars are a reference to the city’s name and to Tepeyollotl, the Aztec god of earthquakes and jaguars. (John Pugh/Thames & Hudson)

  • Invisible man

    Renowned for his camouflage art, Liu Bolin has covered himself in paint to blend in with backgrounds ranging from the Freedom Tower in New York and the Great Wall of China to a coal heap and cinema seats. The Chinese artist uses a team of assistants to perform his visual trickery: in a TED talk last year, he said the images were a way of speaking for those rendered invisible by the Chinese government, by consumer culture or by the circumstances of history. (Klein Sun Gallery)

  • Feeling peaky

    This rock formation on Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire was first noted in 1805; it collapsed on 3 May, 2003. Known as the ‘old man of the mountain’, it became an iconic image for the US state. In 2012, a plaza was built allowing visitors to view the image back on the side of the mountain as a memorial to the fallen rocks. (Thames & Hudson)

  • Towering vision

    While these two photographs of the Leaning Tower of Pisa are identical, one appears to be leaning more than the other. Created by Frederick Kingdom and colleagues from McGill University in Montreal, this won Illusion of the Year in 2007, in a contest held by the Neural Correlate Society. (Thames & Hudson)

  • Being cheeky

    The illusion in this 1900 postcard allowed a revealing glimpse to be smuggled into a more socially acceptable drawing. (Thames & Hudson)

  • Step on the crack

    German street artist Edgar Müller painted this crevasse on a pavement in Dun Laoghaire near Dublin for the town’s Festival of World Cultures. He has also created 3D street paintings that change from day to night with the use of photoluminescent paints. (Thames & Hudson)

  • Green globe

    Created on a flat part of the lawn outside Paris City Hall in 2011, this land art project by François Abélanet took 90 gardeners five days to install. Called Who To Believe?, referring to the vagaries of ecological debate, it was made up of 600 cubic metres of sand and hay that looked like a giant sphere when viewed from a certain angle. (François Abélanet/ Thames & Hudson)

  • Inverted satire

    Upside-down illusions (called ‘topsy-turvies’ by the Victorians) were often a way for artists to sneak subversive commentary into portraits of the powerful. In a time before political cartoons, criticism could be expressed in an apparently accidental jumble of lines. This drawing is by Rex Whistler, a British artist who gave the images an amusing spin in his children’s book Oho!, posthumously published in 1946. (Thames & Hudson)