Why Cryptomorphs?

  • [left]: Mirror view of Henry Holiday’s depiction of a bonnet (the hat, not the sail) and the maker of Bonnets and Hoods in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1876)
  • [right]: The Image Breakers (1566-1568) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder. (I could have drawn a second yellow box. What do you think?)

In the Chapter Cryptomorphs in James Elkins’ Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?: On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity (1999) you learn what cryptomorphs are. The book is available online.

Why do artists hide images in images and why do some people think that artists hide images in images? As for the audience, one possible answer is pareidolia and going to far on the search for meaning. I think that there are several other reasons why Henry Holiday could have hidden images in images:

  • Plagiarism: Not in case of Henry Holiday’s Snrk illustrations. He didn’t borrow shapes and pattern from other works of art in order to improve his own work. In contrary, the copied shapes don’t add anything to the impact of his illustration. Holiday did not copy whole compositions.
  • Ambiguity: You want to tell something to the audience. But you want to make sure that the audience will be hold responsible for how your message is perceived and interpreted.
  • Anxiety of influence: On way for an artist to overcome that anxiety (if there is any) is to take control of influence. You allow it, you even may embrace it, but you re-interpret and rearrange what is influencing your work.
  • Why are there puzzles anyway? Possible answer: In many cases it’s just about having fun. Hiding things in images is fun to naughty artists as well as to the makers of puzzles (ask Mahendra Singh) and for their audience.

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