Part One – Exercise 1.1 Pareidolia

A) Look at the painting The Eye of Silence‘ and see whether you can distinguish the intended from unintended faces. Which seem most ambiguous?

The German born artist Max Ernst made the painting The Eye of Silence during World War II (1943-4) while living in exile in the USA. Ernst was one of surrealist artists who were influenced by S. Freud’s notion of dreams as a symbolic access into the human mind. They explored the deliberation of the unconsciousness and the irrational aspects of the human imagination and subconscious desires. Ernst applied in this painting the automatic surrealistic technique of decalcomania – a techniques that forces a random application of paint on a surface leaving more or less ambiguous patterns. Automatism was a notion initiated by André Breton (1896 – 1966) who defined the avant-garde movement in his ‘Manifeste du Surréalisme’  in 1924. He defined surrealism as a “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. ” (Schaffeld, 24 Nov 2016)

At first look the painting resembles a dreamlike lake or grotto scene under a clouded sky.  Surrounded as an enclave by green and brown ambiguous shapes that could be read as grotto formations (rock and salt) or stone ruins. The sphinx-like human figure in the foreground adds a mystic (intended) element to the scene and relates it to the human presence or absence. Through the ambiguous patterns and shapes the painting is highly suggestive and imaginative. It evokes imagery in the viewer’s mind of symbols and emotions stored in the human psyche. It is an unsettling and uncanny painting. By that it can be related to Max Ernst’s own experiences of alienation during the WWII.

One can detect several face or partial faces.


Seeing faces – intended and unintended (selection): 

More ambiguous are the unintended ‘faces’ as the random marks and blots of paint can convey different meanings. And not everybody sees the same faces at the same position. It is a question of viewpoint and perhaps a bias for certain aspects of faces from experience.

Stefan513593 - UVC 1.1 - Pareidolia - Max Ernst - The Eye of Silence, 1943-4

Stefan513593 – UVC 1.1 – Pareidolia – Max Ernst – The Eye of Silence, 1943-4

In the context of ambiguous marks and decalcomania I experimented in my sketchbook with the technique and elaborated those random marks into a self portrait face. A combination of random, automatic patterns and a deliberate exploration of those patterns, adding shadows, following my unconsciousness mind and turning the image into a less ambiguous and deliberate image.

Stefan513593 - UVC 1.1 - Pareidolia - Sketchbook - Decalcomania

Stefan513593 – UVC 1.1 – Pareidolia – Sketchbook – Decalcomania

B) Look up the term ‘pareidolia’. Find and record three examples, at least one of which should be seen in nature.

Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon related to a vague or random stimulus that is mistakenly perceived as recognizable.  Psychologists considers this as a normal brain function. Highly ambiguous visual images lead to normal reaction of the brain in finding meaningful images in random patterns. This is mostly related to face image recognition as facial images are of high importance in our daily life. Common examples are perceiving images of faces in clouds or in the moon. Pareidolia is a type of illusion and it is than called pareidolic illusion.  (Wiktionary)

As a normal human brain function one has to distinguish it from an abnormal disorder function of the brain. In the first case people can differentiate between the physical reality and the illusion.

As an abnormal human brain function pareidoloa can be linked to an obsessive–compulsive disorder. In that case people are reported to see e.g. visualizing faces of witches and gorillas out of floor tiles. (Fontenelle, 2008). In this case people can not differentiate easily between physical reality and illusion.

Examples of pareidolia:


  • My own found examples from nature
    photos of objects in nature in Bern, Switzerland (Oct 2015), Ostrhauderfehn, Germany (Nov 2015), and Chatham (MA) USA  (Apr 2016)
Stefan513593 - UVC 1.1 - Pareidolia - Examples from nature

Stefan513593 – UVC 1.1 – Pareidolia – Examples from nature








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