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date: 15 November 2019



In painting, the attempt to make images that seemingly share or extend the three-dimensional space in which the spectator stands. The term is also applied in sculpture, for a presentation of figures that attempts in some way to make them seem alive, and occasionally in architecture, for a presentation of structures that attempts in some way to enhance their dimensions. It was coined by Franz Wickhoff in 1895 and has been used by modernist writers to characterize all methodical attempts to represent, or ‘give the illusion of’, the visible world. But in current usage it generally denotes work where the intention is that something should seem not so much represented as substantially present.

Such intentions are widespread in sculpture, in work ranging from the statues of ancient Greece—often originally polychromed—to Mme Tussaud’s wax museum, set up in 1835. The use of the term for a distinct developing tradition is, however, mainly confined to European painting. In painting, three-dimensional illusions tend to lose their hold when the surface, seen closely, yields an identical image to each eye, thus showing its lack of depth: still more so when the spectator moves and the relation of the represented planes fails to change. As a result, illusionist painting falls largely within certain limits of presentation or of imagery. It may be shown to one eye only, in a ‘peepshow’, or be kept at a distance from the spectator, for instance on a high ceiling, where the two eyes can no longer confidently judge depth. For imagery, the painter may represent a flat surface from which planes jut and recede to a slight depth—the range of effects properly known as ...

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Enciclopedia universale dell’arte, 15 vols (Rome, 1958–67); Eng. trans. as Encyclopedia of World Art (New York, 1959–68)