Sunday, July 24, 2016

Roland Penrose | Cubism, Illusion and Camouflage

Roger Penrose, Impossible Triangle
Above The uncle of British mathematician Roger Penrose was the surrealist artist and art collector Roland Penrose. The former is commonly credited with the design of an illusionistic three-dimensional shape called the "impossible triangle" also called the Penrose triangle. A gif animation of that initially puzzling shape is available online. It has much in common with certain aspects of the Ames Demonstrations in psychology, as well as perspective-based illusions used for ground and naval camouflage during both World Wars. See our earlier posts on those subjects here and here.

Roland Penrose was an early important biographer of Pablo Picasso. He was greatly interested in cubism, which is frequently said to resemble disruptive, dazzle or "high difference" camouflage. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was also involved in wartime civilian camouflage. During WWII, he teamed up with other artists (notably Stanley William Hayter, John Buckland Wright, and Julian Trevelyan) in founding a company that provided questionable camouflage for industrial landmarks. Later, he taught camouflage and compiled an instructional guidebook, titled Home Guard Manual of Camouflage (October 1941), the cover of which is shown below.

Related to this, there is a passage from Penrose's notebooks, published in Elizabeth Cowling, ed., Visiting Picasso: The Notebooks and Letters of Roland Penrose. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2006, pp. 245-246, in which he talks about Picasso's reaction when he first saw (Penrose's nephew's) the impossible triangle in 1962—

Showed P[icasso] the impossible triangle. He looked at it, puzzled for some minutes, then started making other versions of it. "Your brother [sic] should have been a cubist," he said. "It's an attempt to catch the 4th dimension. They always say the cubists were trying to catch the truth—they were really trying to make a deception—just like this—cubism was full of deception. Your brother [sic] should have worked with us; we would have found a lot in common."

Roland Penrose book cover (1941)