Lately there’s been a barrage of allegedly true television shows on ghosts, demons, aliens, UFO’s and mysterious creatures like the Loch Ness monster. In almost every case, the main proof for the existence of these supernatural beings comes from eyewitness accounts. The skeptical among us can only turn to a basic scientific question: How does the brain process what the eye registers? Do we always see what we think we’re seeing?
Artists recognized the quirky nature of human vision many centuries ago, inventing a technique called trompe-l’oeil (French for trick-the-eye). Basically it’s an optical illusion that makes a two-dimensional painted object seem real. Greeks and Romans used it in murals, and the technique became especially popular in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. It could be architectural, such as putting in a door or window and fooling the viewer into believing it was real, but sometimes it was done for fun.
Imagine a fly on a picture frame or a character trying to climb out of the painting. The metamorphic postcards of the early 1900s used a playful technique that is as entertaining today as it was then. Basically, an image is transformed before the viewer. What appears as a human head, skull, or other realistic image challenges the perception. Scrutinized from a different angle or up close, it becomes a collection of smaller objects. For example a Satyr, a mythical creature, is made up of women positioned and posed in the shape of a face.
The name "metamorphic" is used for this type of postcard because a "metamorphosis" is a striking alteration of form or appearance. No one person has been credited with this type of postcard art, although an artist named Volz is credited with a print picturing Napoleon in the style.
Postcards are an especially effective way to present metamorphic art, basically because they’re small. On a large print, the "trick" would be too obvious. Viewers would instantly see that the whole is composed of separate images. It is much easier to deceive the eye if the picture itself is diminutive. Much of the fun is derived from a close look at the composition of the whole.
Metamorphic postcards frequently were designed as caricatures of the famous. They picture people whose faces were familiar to those living in the early 20th century. Some visages, like Beethoven’s and Napoleon’s, are well known today. Others, although their names are remembered, may not be as easy to identify. People like Schiller (German historian, playwright and poet) and Wagner (composer and favorite of Hitler) left their mark on history but their faces are largely forgotten. Others like Bismarck (German leader), Wilhelm II (German Kaiser during WWI), and Franz Joseph I (Austrian emperor) show up in history books, but many people might not recognize their pictures. A collection of metamorphic postcards can appeal to history enthusiasts, although they are probably collected more because the artwork is fun.
There’s a good variety of metamorphics available. Skulls and devil heads were popular, as were mythical creatures like the faun. Some show that they were made in Europe, while others give no written indication of their origin, perhaps because they were pirated. They’re generally offered at prices beginning around $25, although higher prices are justified for the rarer examples. Some use normal portraits and hide figures within them, like the puzzles that challenge children to find hidden objects in a picture. If these aren’t, strictly speaking, metamorphic, they do add to the pleasure of a collection.
Even though most metamorphic postcards are around 100 years old, they still intrigue viewers with the question: Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? Eyes can be fooled, but illusion can be fun.