Here are two 16th-century German portraits of seated ladies wearing hats, shown in three-quarter view. The one on the left was painted by Hans Holbein, the one on the right by the lesser-known Hans Krell. A panel of 12 specialists agreed that the Holbein painting had more artistic merit, and subjects who said they were familiar with art agreed with them. But individuals with no art expertise often chose the “wrong” painting, the Krell. This would suggest that people’s judgment in art is shaped by their expertise.

But Holbein is also much more famous than Krell, and this factor is likely to influence judgments too. How important is it? That’s not clear.

“Only if we can show that art experts across cultures agree on the comparative aesthetic merit of works they have never seen before and never heard of can we conclude there is consensus independent of cultural learning,” notes Boston College psychologist Ellen Winner. “This kind of study has not been done.”

(Ellen Winner, How Art Works, 2018.)


Artist Patrick Hughes calls this illusion “reverspective” — the “end” of each gallery hallway is actually nearest the viewer.

“Hughes acknowledges that these types of paintings have been his most successful and they continue to intrigue him,” writes Brad Honeycutt in The Art of Deception. “As such, he says that he could very well concentrate on creating paradoxical perspective pictures for the rest of his days.”

More examples.

Flight and Pursuit


American painter William Rimmer produced this enigmatic image in 1872. A man runs through a palace. Is he fleeing or pursuing? What is the ghostly figure in the parallel corridor beyond him? And whose shadow is entering from the right?

No one knows. “As the title confirms, the painting turns a general situation into an ambivalent one,” writes Victor I. Stoichita in A Short History of the Shadow (1997). “There have been numerous attempts to specify its contents, but these have only resulted in the principle being misunderstood, for everything leads us to believe that it was Rimmer’s intention to create a story that functioned through its enigmatic form.”

“The Artist’s Secret”


There was an artist once, and he painted a picture. Other artists had colours richer and rare, and painted more notable pictures. He painted his with one colour, there was a wonderful red glow on it; and the people went up and down, saying, ‘We like the picture, we like the glow.’

The other artists came and said, ‘Where does he get his colour from?’ They asked him; and he smiled and said, ‘I cannot tell you’; and worked on with his head bent low.

And one went to the far East and bought costly pigments, and made a rare colour and painted, but after a time the picture faded. Another read in the old books, and made a colour rich and rare, but when he had put it on the picture it was dead.

But the artist painted on. Always the work got redder and redder, and the artist grew whiter and whiter. At last one day they found him dead before his picture, and they took him up to bury him. The other men looked about in all the pots and crucibles, but they found nothing they had not.

And when they undressed him to put his grave-clothes on him, they found above his left breast the mark of a wound — it was an old, old wound, that must have been there all his life, for the edges were old and hardened; but Death, who seals all things, had drawn the edges together, and closed it up.

And they buried him. And still the people went about saying, ‘Where did he find his colour from?’ And it came to pass that after a while the artist was forgotten — but his work lived.

— Olive Schreiner, Dreams, 1891

Wings of Song


In his 1922 book Songs of the Birds, Oxford zoologist Walter Garstang set out to record birdsongs as musical compositions:

The peculiar quality or timbre of each bird’s voice and the resonance of each sound have been imitated as closely as possible by a selection of human consonants; the composition of the song has been represented by the appropriate repetition, modification, or contrast of selected syllables; the syllabic rendering has been cast in a corresponding rhythm; and round this chosen sequence of syllables a song has been woven to capture something, if possible, of the joy or of the attendant circumstances which form the natural setting of his song.

“I fell in love with my models,” he wrote, “and could not content myself with a purely scientific account of their performances.” He was similarly enraptured by amphibians — the 1951 book Larval Forms collects his poems about marine larvae:

Amblystoma’s a giant newt who rears in swampy waters,
As other newts are wont to do, a lot of fishy daughters:
These Axolotls, having gills, pursue a life aquatic,
But, when they should transform to newts, are naughty and erratic.

His colleague Alister Hardy wrote, “I certainly believe that he gets his ideas across with much greater felicity in these sparkling rhymes than he has done in all his more carefully calculated prose.”

See Bird Songs.

In a Word


adj. taking place after death

v. to lay in the grave

n. a door

The principal trap in almost all theatres is known as the grave trap. This is one of the conventionalisms of the English stage, and is a testimony also the enduring influence of Shakespeare. It is well understood that at some time or another the play of ‘Hamlet’ will be performed in every theatre, and Ophelia‘s grave must therefore be dug in every stage — hence the grave trap. It may be that it is not always placed in the right position to suit the ideas of each new representative of the Royal Dane, and it has happened that it has been found too short for the reception of poor Ophelia‘s coffin; but it is never omitted in the construction of a stage.

— Folger Shakespeare Library Scrapbook, quoted in Paul Menzer, Anecdotal Shakespeare, 2015

More Magic


Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melencolia I includes this famous magic square: The magic sum of 34 can be reached by adding the numbers in any row, column, diagonal, or quadrant; the four center squares; the four corner squares; the four numbers clockwise from the corners; or the four counterclockwise.

In Power Play (1997), University of Toronto mathematician Ed Barbeau points out that there’s even more magic when we consider squares and cubes. Take the numbers in the first two and the last two rows:

16 + 3 + 2 + 13 + 5 + 10 + 11 + 8 = 9 + 6 + 7 + 12 + 4 + 15 + 14 + 1

162 + 32 + 22 + 132 + 52 + 102 + 112 + 82 = 92 + 62 + 72 + 122 + 42 + 152 + 142 + 12

Or alternate columns:

16 + 5 + 9 + 4 + 2 + 11 + 7 + 14 = 3 + 10 + 6 + 15 + 13 + 8 + 12 + 1

162 + 52 + 92 + 42 + 22 + 112 + 72 + 142 = 32 + 102 + 62 + 152 + 132 + 82 + 122 + 12

Most amazingly, if you compare the numbers on and off the diagonals, this works with both squares and cubes:

16 + 10 + 7 + 1 + 13 + 11 + 6 + 4 = 2 + 3 + 5 + 8 + 9 + 12 + 14 + 15

162 + 102 + 72 + 12 + 132 + 112 + 62 + 42 = 22 + 32 + 52 + 82 + 92 + 122 + 142 + 152

163 + 103 + 73 + 13 + 133 + 113 + 63 + 43 = 23 + 33 + 53 + 83 + 93 + 123 + 143 + 153


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Colombian activist César López came up with a striking new peace symbol in 2003 — the escopetarra, a guitar fashioned from a gun.

The word combines the Spanish escopeta (shotgun) and guitarra (guitar). López made the first from a Winchester rifle and a Stratocaster; he’s since built four more and given them to various Latin American artists and cities and to the United Nations, which displayed it at a disarmament conference.

López told the BBC that he got the idea when he saw a soldier carrying his weapon like a guitar. “From there sprang the idea of joining the worst invention of mankind can be joined with the most beautiful,” he said. “Some of the AK-47s have the barrels marked with each of the victims. So we mark the barrels with the songs we play.”