Inside the Collection

‘Playing with Light’, weird drawings and an anamorphic mirror

Photograph Anamorphic images and viewer
Powerhouse Museum Collection object H10497.


The excellent ‘Playing with Light’ exhibition opens at the Powerhouse Museum on 14 September to coincide with Ultimo Science Festival. Developed by Scitech in Perth, the exhibition invites curious visitors of all ages to interact with prisms, lenses, mirrors and colour. To herald its arrival, I’m featuring this playful anamorphic mirror and weird drawing, which live in the Museum’s basement along with two other distorted drawings that reveal their truth when viewed in the mirror.

What’s going on? In a back-formation (ana–morph in Greek) process, the illustrator created the drawing while watching its reflection take shape in a cylindrical mirror. (Or they could have mapped a regular drawing section by section from a square grid to a fan-shaped grid.) This resulted in a distorted image that makes little sense when the mirror is removed. For a viewer who has not watched the creative process, putting an identical mirror at the same spot as the artist’s mirror reveals all: the distorted image suddenly makes sense. Why not have a go? Enlarge and print one of the drawings below, roll up a length of reflective material (clear plastic backed by white paper worked for me), stand it on the small circle and look at the drawing’s reflection.


Photograph Anamorphic images and viewer
Powerhouse Museum Collection object H10497-1.


Photograph Anamorphic images and viewer
Powerhouse Museum Collection object H10497-2.

Is the technique merely a form of play? Yes, it is play. No, there’s nothing mere about it, and it’s not just for children. Like the best forms of play, it is a learning tool designed to stretch the viewer’s mind and spur curiosity. In the hands of Salvador Dali or Maurits Escher, the anamorphic mirror was a tool for exploring new ways to represent our 3D world on a 2D surface, as well as for challenging the viewer to think and explore. Artists are still experimenting with the technique today, discovering its possibilities, playing with ideas in geometry, optics and perception.

‘Playing with Light’ will be at the Powerhouse until 9 February, but getting in early is highly recommended. If you come along during Ultimo Science Festival, you can experiment with light, get creative with coloured lights, and experience a lot more serious fun and science-flavoured camaraderie.

Written by Debbie Rudder, Curator

4 responses to “‘Playing with Light’, weird drawings and an anamorphic mirror

  • Dear Ms. Rudder: I am writing my PhD in History of Art, at the University of Valencia (Spain), being “Anamorphosis” the core of it. I would be very thankful to you if I could get some more information about these three pieces (measures, producers, etc.), and, also, about the viewer used to decodify the images. Thank you very much.

    • Jose-Luis

      The objects have no maker’s marks on them. I have measured them and listed them with their museum numbers:

      H10497-1 image of clown 280 x430 mm
      H10497-2 image of barber 290×445 mm
      H10497-3 image of man +crutch 305×450 mm

      H10497-4 mirror height 170mm, diameter 58mm; the silvered brass tube without base and lid has height 100mm, diameter 47mm.

      We also have a smaller anamorphic image, 85/1082, of a crane fighting with a snake, 170×200 mm.

      I wish you well in your research. Please let us know if you discover more about our objects, which we purchased at auction in the 1980s.

  • Dear Ms. Rudder:
    Thank you very much for your kind and useful answer. I think I can give you some information about your H10497-3 (image of a man) item. It is probably a portrait of France`s emperor Napoleon the Third. The image was probably part of a collection named “Les anamorphoses”, published in Paris in 1868 or 1869, by Jullien Editeurs, being Walter Freres the lithographers and Henry Emy (pseudonimus of Armand Louis Henry Telory) was the artist and drawer. The collection included a total of 24 anamorphoses, some of them being portraits of the french royal family. I said “probably” because there is just a question which puzzles me: the image measures, being the ones in the french collection 170 x 190 mm. Umea University (Sweden) publishes in its web the whole collection. See

    I hope I could help with the other two images.

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