The painting The Ambassadors (1533) by Bavaria-born artist Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497–1543) occupies a special place in the history of Western art. It features Jean de Dinteville (French Ambassador to the court of Henry VIII of England) and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur (in southern France). Important elements include an Azerbaijanian rug and mathematical instruments like dials and quadrants. The artwork remains most famous, however, for a strange momento mori in the foreground, at the bottom – a human skull – tilted, contracted, stretched. Visible in its correct form only when seen from an oblique point of view. This is an example of “anamorphosis” – a distorted projection of an object that is set right when regarded from a specific perspective or when reflected on another surface.
The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbien, Wikimedia Commons
The skull in The Ambassadors, Wikipedia
It is believed that the practice goes back to Leonardo da Vinci. The Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan has a large collection of the Renaissance polymath’s notes. There, on folio 35 of the Codex Atlanticus, are two strangely elongated sketches of a child’s head and an eye. These distorted and hesitant drawings, the first known anamorphoses (c.1485) – along with Holbein’s painting – are the seeds of inspiration for Jonty Hurwitz (born 1969) – a London-based South African artist, engineer and entrepreneur, known for his scientifically inspired works. “Leonardo pushed the boundaries of his time by exploring how the observer’s perception is implicitly linked to the observation,” says Jonty. “My art uses Leonardo’s theories as a starting point.”
A member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, Jonty creates sculptures of both “Oblique Anamorphosis” and “Catoptric Anamorphosis”. The first requires a new angle of vision and the second, a reflecting surface like a steel cylinder. Jonty is also into nano technology and holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s smallest animal form – “Fragile Giant” (2015), a life-like sculpture of an elephant measuring 0.157mm in height.