Thinking the other day about the illusion of flatness in relation to this object (perceived as image when viewed exactly square on …
… but showing itself to be clearly object from any other angle) reminded me, indirectly, of one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery: The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, a double portrait of
Jean de Dinteville, aged 29, French ambassador to England in 1533. To the right stands his friend, Georges de Selve, aged 25, bishop of Lavaur, who acted on several occasions as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See.
The picture is in a tradition showing learned men with books and instruments. The objects on the upper shelf include a celestial globe, a portable sundial and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time. Among the objects on the lower shelf is a lute, a case of flutes, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic and a terrestrial globe.
In the lower part of the painting is an anamorphic representation of a skull, a symbol of mortality. When seen from straight on it looks like a nonsensical stain on the canvas. When seen from the right and crouching down, it clearly becomes an image of a skull.
Zizek connects it to Lacan’s objet a in How to Read Lacan where he says:
…objet a: an entity that has no substantial consistency, which is in itself “nothing but confusion,” and which acquires a definite shape only when looked upon from a standpoint distorted by the subject’s desires and fears – as such, as a mere “shadow of what it is not,” objet a is the strange object which is nothing but the inscription of the subject itself into the field of objects, in the guise of a stain which acquires form only when part of this field is anamorphically distorted by the subject’s desire. Let us not forget that the most famous anamorphosis in the history of painting, that of Holbein’s The Ambassadors, concerns death: when we look from the proper lateral standpoint at the anamorphically prolonged stain in the lower part of the painting, set amongst object’s of human vanity, it reveals itself as the death skull.