A trick of the eye: illusion, mimicry and camouflage in nature and art

The evolution of convincing images was indeed anticipated by nature long before human minds could conceive this trick … the art historian and the critic could do worse than ponder these miracles.
Ernst Gombrich, The Image and the Eye1Ernst Gombrich, The Image and the Eye, Phaidon Press, London, 1982, pp. 24–7.

Jean Valette-Falgores’s Trompe l’oeil, 1770s, was gifted to the National Gallery of Victoria by Krystyna Campbell-Pretty through the Cultural Gifts Program in 2018. As its title suggests, this still life is executed in the trompe l’oeil style, meaning that it’s designed to trick the eye into believing that the objects it depicts are real. The painting is an image pretending not to be an image; a single entity comprised of canvas and coloured oil paints masquerading as an assortment of objects fastened to a wooden board: items such as an ornate key, a feather, a small flute, scraps of paper containing sketches and writing, and a small brown butterfly, perched on the edge of the flute. The butterfly, with a large eyespot near the top of its forewing, appears to be a speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria). It’s easy to spot in the painting – it stands out, since it’s the only part of the painting that, in addition to pretending to be real, is also pretending to be alive, as if it could, at any moment, flutter out of the frame. Perhaps the artist is daring us to reach out and touch it, and break the illusion. But the same speckled wood butterfly would be much harder to spot when encountered in its usual habitat on the edges of woodland, where dappled sunlight filters through the trees onto the dead, brown leaf litter below. This is because this species of butterfly has evolved to blend in with its habitat, evading predators by projecting an illusion, by pretending to be something other than what it is. Its brown hues and speckled patterning, expertly mimicking dappled sunlight on dead leaves, can be thought of as another kind of image, another kind of trompe l’oeil, another masquerade.

This depiction of a butterfly that is itself a depiction of sun-dappled leaves leads me to the point that Gombrich makes in the above quotation; a point that’s not often dwelt upon in art history. Millions of years before any of our ancestors made any kind of artistic marking on any kind of surface, the earth already contained images. The first images to emerge on this planet were not produced by human beings, but were made and continue to be made by those living things that have evolved to disguise themselves as something else, to trick the eye with mimicry and camouflage.2For an excellent introduction to mimicry and camouflage in nature, art, science and warfare, see Peter Forbes, Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2009. A praying mantis disguises itself as an orchid; an orchid disguises itself as a wasp – these tricksters of nature make appearances out of themselves; their very bodies comprise of images. One particular insect, in order not to offer itself to the hungry mouths of the world as a tasty treat, evolved to present itself to the searching eyes of the world as a very convincing image of a green leaf, with an intricate network of vegetal veins lining each wing. That was 270 million years ago, so long ago that the supercontinent Pangaea had not yet broken up – yet the fossil record shows that there were images in the world and image-makers. A fossil of this ancient leaf mimic (Permotettigonia gallica, a type of katydid) was discovered in France in 2016; the plant it once imitated is only known to science through the katydid’s mimetic rendering of it.3See Romain Garrouste et al., ‘Insect mimicry of plants dates back to the Permian’, Nature Communications, vol. 7, article no. 13735, 2016.

It was much more recently in the scheme of things, mere tens of millennia ago, that our ancestors invented a wholly new type of image and image-making, one unique to our species. Using stone and bone and ivory and ochre, they fashioned the likenesses of animals and anthropomorphs, as well as abstract forms, on cave walls and in carvings. The images that remain for us to look at have understandably been subject to a number of interpretations; an especially persistent interpretation (though also much contested) is that the Paleolithic rendering of animal forms on cave walls was an act of magic, an attempt to exercise power over the depicted animal through its image.4For a summary of this debate, see James D. Keyser & David S. Whitley, ‘Sympathetic magic in western North American rock art’, American Antiquity, vol. 71, no. 1, Jan. 2006, pp. 3–26. The particular magic of image-making is part of what James Frazer, in The Golden Bough (1995), refers to as ‘sympathetic magic’ or the Law of Similarity: the belief that there is a deep connection or ‘secret sympathy’ between things that are alike, and that the image of a thing can therefore wield power or influence over the thing itself.5James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, abridged ed., Papermac, London, 1995, p. 12. Frazer and other anthropologists and archaeologists have shown that sympathetic magic takes numerous forms in the rituals, ceremonies, images and objects of different cultures across time and throughout human history. One of the ways that sympathetic magic or the Law of Similarity persists today is as a form of magical thinking6See Matthew Hutson, ‘Symbols have power: spells, ceremonies and the Law of Similarity’, in The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane, Hudson Street Press, New York, 2012, pp. 37–60. that can be seen in the way many people engage with images of their loved ones who have died. Imagine, if you will, taking the photograph of a deceased loved one and defacing it in a highly offensive manner: crossing out the eyes, scrawling penises all around the mouth. This would feel, for many people, extremely disrespectful to the depicted person, even if the defaced image was immediately hidden away and never shown to another person. To deface the image, even in private, is to cause disrespect to the person – but only because one believes at some level that the likeness of a thing holds some kind of connection to and power over the thing it represents.

The belief that images carry power, and that there is something magical about producing a likeness of something, is widespread through human cultures; it’s arguably part of the foundation for contemporary thinking about art and visual representation in general. But several thinkers over the centuries have wondered whether there is not also something magical and powerful in the images and resemblances found in nature. In the Renaissance, for instance, the ‘doctrine of signatures’ promulgated the theory that certain plants were made by God to resemble the organs they have the power to heal. And much more recently, in 1935, French philosopher Roger Caillois published an essay in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure titled ‘Mimicry and legendary psychasthenia’, in which he asserts that mimicry and camouflage in nature are non-human forms of sympathetic magic. Caillois describes protective camouflage, such as the speckled wood butterfly’s imitation of dappled dead leaves, as a kind of spell or incantation guarding against devourment.7Roger Caillois, ‘Mimicry and legendary psychasthenia’, trans. John Shepley, October, vol. 31, 1984, p. 25. If images do indeed wield a mysterious power, a sympathetic magic, and if this image-power is something that humans share with other life forms, then this means that we live in a world suffused with magic and miracles both human and more-than-human – and as Gombrich suggests, ‘the art historian and the critic could do worse than ponder these miracles’.8Gombrich, p. 27. In this paper, then, I want to trace some of the connections that can be made between these two forms of magic: looking at the use of trompe l’oeil and illusion in human visual art, while also looking at the use of mimicry and camouflage in nature.

Along with Gombrich and Caillois, whose thoughts on mimicry and camouflage will be returned to later, another notable twentieth-century thinker who writes about the magical affinities between art and nature is Russian-American novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov. Although known more for his fiction, Nabokov also worked as an entomologist at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and wrote a number of scientific papers on butterflies. In a chapter devoted to his lifelong passion for butterflies from his 1951 memoir Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes:

The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things. Consider the imitation of oozing poison by bubblelike macules on a wing (complete with pseudo-refraction) or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis … When a certain moth resembles a certain wasp in shape and color, it also walks and moves its antennae in a waspish, unmothlike manner. When a butterfly has to look like a leaf, not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously thrown in. ‘Natural Selection’, in the Darwinian sense, could not explain … a protective device [being] carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.9Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, Penguin Books, London, 1969, p. 98.

When Nabokov states that art and nature are both forms of magic, both games ‘of intricate enchantment and deception’,10ibid. he doesn’t appear to be using the word in the anthropological sense of sympathetic magic. Rather he seems to be invoking an understanding of magic more closely aligned to stage magic than to the magic of ritual and religious belief: magic as deception, magic as illusion, magic as sleight-of-hand or trickery (incidentally, Gombrich also refers to image-making as a ‘trick’11Gombrich, p. 25. in the quotation that begins this essay). But it could be argued that ritual magic and stage magic are in fact connected, in that they are both about the mysterious appearance of miracles. For the rest of this essay, then, I’d like to define magic in a way that combines these two forms: ‘magic’ as all of those practices that suggest a world of miraculous and mysterious causality. A practitioner of sympathetic magic, for instance, makes it seem as if a doll can cause harm to the person it resembles, while a stage magician makes it seem as if a person can be sawn in half while remaining alive. A trompe l’oeil painting makes it seem as if a butterfly has appeared out of the blue in an art gallery, and camouflage makes it seem as if a butterfly has disappeared into thin air in a forest. All these things are games ‘of intricate enchantment and deception’ in the sense that they are all projections of a world of unreality, a world where things are not what they seem, where the causal relations between things seem to be different to how they actually are.12Nabokov, p. 98.

In the passage from Nabokov quoted above, it’s possible to identify three magical affinities that he institutes between the illusions of art and the illusions of nature: an ability for deception, a commitment to exactitude and a tendency towards exuberance for its own sake. Art and nature are magical, according to Nabokov, in that they both have the ability to deceive, to enchant, to bewitch the senses: to make one thing seem like another. The process of enchantment or deception is very different, of course. In a leafy habitat, various environmental pressures (such as the prevalence of predators and the extent of their ability to sense prey) manipulate the heritable traits of a population, generation after generation, mutation after mutation, weeding out anything conspicuously un-leaflike until – abracadabra! – an insect projects a convincing illusion of a leaf. And in his 1801 trompe l’oeil painting Crucifixion, acquired by the NGV in 2016, Prospero Mallerini manipulates canvas and oil paints into precise configurations until – alakazam! – these materials combine to project the convincing illusion of a wooden board, upon which has been fastened a print of Saint Gertrude, a crucifix made of ivory, wood and metal, and a sinuous, serpentine green cord with golden tassles, that loops and knots and twists across a picture that pretends it is not a picture.

As well as characterising artistic illusion and biological mimicry as deceptive, the second affinity between the two that Nabokov identifies is representational exactitude. Surrealist René Magritte, whose well-known work The treachery of images, 1929 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles), draws on trompe l’oeil to destabilise and play with notions of reality and representation, concurs with Nabokov about the relationship between deception and exactitude. He writes emphatically that, ‘if the images are precise, in formal terms, the more precise they are, the more perfect the trompe l’oeil, THE GREATER THE DECEPTION’.13René Magritte, quoted in Michel Foucault, This is Not a Pipe, trans. James Harkness, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983, p. 62. Whether it occurs in forest or gallery, then, a successful deception depends on a high level of accuracy. When one examines Mallerini’s Crucifixion closely, for instance, one can see how he has rendered the wooden board to show the grain and figure of the wood, its swirls and ripples and knots, its cracks and fissures, the worn, blunted corners of some of the planking, and holes where nails have been removed. The print of Saint Gertrude shows signs of wear and handling, with creases in the paper and a top left corner that has begun to droop. A length of green cord hangs from a nail to the right of the crucifix in a loop that is tight enough to indicate perfectly the weight that the golden tassel exerts on it. And lastly, Mallerini’s painted depiction of Christ’s body rendered in ivory manages to capture the muted quality of light reflecting off the ivory; its dull and pale lustre. When one takes all of these precise, sensuous details together, one can see that Mallerini strives for exactitude in his illusion not only by paying attention to the objects themselves, but also by being attentive to the myriad ways in which objects in the world are caught up in and transfigured by the physical forces and intensities constantly swirling around them. This includes forces such as gravity and light, as captured by the hanging cord and the lustrous ivory, but also the forces of time and entropy, as captured by the fissured wood and creased paper. Exactitude demands fidelity to the entropic nature of this universe: the inevitable wearing down and deterioration of matter as it tumbles and jostles through space and time, what could be termed the irreversible weathering of all things.

When we return to Nabokov’s descriptions of mimicry and camouflage quoted above, we can see that, incredibly, these illusions of nature produce just as delicate a rendering of the forces of light, gravity, time and entropy. Nabokov focuses on instances of lepidopteric mimicry and camouflage that are particularly subtle. Just as Mallerini captures the precise lustre of light hitting the ribcage and hip of an ivory Christ, so Nabokov describes how the make-believe droplet of poison depicted on a butterfly’s wing is subtle enough to include the illusion of light refracting as it passes through the droplet’s phantom viscosity. Nabokov also rhapsodises about a butterfly mimicking a decaying leaf, which he declines to name but which is very possibly a Malayan leafwing or Kallima (Kallima paralekta), the species that so astonished naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace when he encountered it in Sumatra. Wallace writes in The Malay Archipelago (2016) that while the upper surfaces of this butterfly’s wings are brilliantly coloured in vivid bands of purplish blue and orange, when it perches on a branch and closes its wings, the undersides meet to form a perfect depiction of a dry, dead, brown leaf, with sharply mimetic details such as a central vein from which smaller veins radiate out, a stem at the lower end and a point at the upper end, a pattern of blotches and spots mimicking fungal growths, and even (as Nabokov mentions) transparent spots on the wings mimicking the holes left by larvae eating through the leaf. Wallace writes, ‘All these varied details combine to produce a disguise that is so complete and marvellous as to astonish everyone who observes it’.14Alfred Russel Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, Penguin Books, London, 2016, p. 169. The Kallima’s camouflage is perhaps so astonishing because it has attained a degree of exactitude and attention to detail that is more commonly associated with human-derived illusions: just as Mallerini depicts the passage of entropic time in his cracks, fissures and creases, so the Kallima captures the same quality of deterioration in its blotches, spots and holes. In terms of exactitude, however, Mallerini, as a human, has a significant short cut. If he had wished to include a dead brown leaf in his trompe l’oeil, he could simply have used his eyes to examine closely the colours, textures, veins, blotches, spots and holes of a real specimen. The Kallima’s depiction of a dead, brown leaf captures all of these details, and yet it’s produced by the unconscious forces of evolution, that utterly lack Mallerini’s powers of perception, or any perception for that matter. Somehow, evolutionary forces have miraculously produced imitations that seem to have an incredible attention to detail: that seem to ‘know’ the various specific ways that leaves are damaged over time. It seems unreal, almost fantastical, that these insects could evolve to project illusions with what looks like human sensitivity and attentiveness to light, gravity, time and entropy – and yet they have.

It might seem that these human and non-human forms of deceptive exactitude have been produced for wildly different purposes: one to hide and the other to amaze. But it’s interesting to explore ways that their purposes might accord with each other. The Kallima’s exactitude works to evade predators, but this adaptation is not just about the survival of the individual butterfly. The more accurate its deception is, the longer it’s likely to avoid detection and devourment, and the more likely it is to reproduce and pass on its genes, so that some part of it survives after death. And while I won’t presume to know the personal motivations behind Valette-Falgores’s or Mallerini’s artistic practices, both of these works have been acquired and displayed by the NGV, a large public gallery, and both are being read about, right now, in an art history journal, more than two centuries after they were painted. The exactitude of trompe l’oeil usually works to provoke a sense of wonder and amazement in observers, and an appreciation of the individual artist’s skill and talent at producing such perfect illusions. But if either painting had been lacking in exactitude, if either painting had been a bad example of trompe l’oeil, then it’s less likely it would still be displayed and discussed in the present day (unless the art world suddenly acquires a vogue for bad trompe l’oeil). Just as the exactitude of the Kallima’s camouflage enables it to pass on its genes to future generations, the exactitude of Valette-Falgores’s and Mallerini’s illusions enables their artistic contributions to survive hundreds of years after their bodies have been reduced to skeletons. It seems, then, that one thing the illusions of art and nature both strive towards is the possibility that some part of us can cheat death, whether its our genetic material or our artistic endeavours. The desire to survive beyond death is even reflected in the subject matter of the two trompe l’oeil paintings, though in vastly different ways. Valette-Falgores’s Trompe l’oeil depicts natural specimens, musical and scientific instruments, artistic sketches, and writing, and the general atmosphere produced by this assemblage is one of scholarship, intellectual curiosity, and scientific and artistic endeavour – all of which contain the possibility of making a contribution to human knowledge that survives after one’s death. In contrast, Mallerini’s Crucifixion, with its ivory crucifix, its print of Saint Gertrude, and its liturgical cord, operates more as a Christian devotional image, an image designed to aid in one’s prayers, to help one further along the path to righteousness – so that, in the end, one is judged worthy to dwell in Heaven after one’s death. Mortality and death, it seems, are intimately bound up in the illusions of art and nature. If trompe l’oeil and camouflage are indeed ways of rebelling against death, then it’s somewhat ironic that in order to do so these illusions must have exactitude, and exactitude, as stated earlier, necessitates a sensitivity and attentiveness to entropy and decay, the slow death of the universe.

As well as being fascinated by the deception and exactitude found within artistic illusion and biological mimicry and camouflage, the third affinity between the two that Nabokov is drawn to is what he sees as the artistic exuberance of this exactitude. He claims that nature’s illusions are often more exact than they really need to be; that they have been ‘carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation’, going on to say, ‘I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art’.15Nabokov, p. 98. Were Nabokov alive today, he would no doubt have been delighted at a recent video recording of a sleeping octopus, in which the octopus appears as a further example of a creature imitating its surroundings with more subtlety, exuberance and luxury than is necessary. The octopus’s camouflage is excessive for a very simple reason – the creature appears to imitate and blend into surroundings that do not exist, seemingly producing an imitation of a non-existent original.

In a short scene from the 2019 PBS documentary Octopus: Making Contact, marine biologist David Scheel playfully attempts to narrate the dreams of an octopus named Heidi, based on the shifting colours and textures of her skin as she sleeps in her tank.16Octopus: Making Contact, PBS, 2 Oct. 2019. The chromatophores in an octopus’s skin allow it to rapidly change its colour and texture, a capability that an octopus deploys both as a communication device and also as camouflage, precisely matching the colours and textures of its surroundings. While she sleeps, Heidi the octopus exhibits colour changes that Scheel identifies as consistent with particular situations and environments that the octopus might experience when awake. At the beginning of the scene Scheel states that he has never seen this phenomenon recorded before. As she sleeps and her colours shift, he identifies a pale colour pattern that indicates she is resting at the bottom, which shifts suddenly to a very dark colour pattern indicating she has left the bottom and caught a crab, which is then followed by a mottled, highly textured colour pattern indicating that she is camouflaging with her environment as she eats the crab she has caught, or dreamt that she has caught. Now, it’s not currently possible to claim definitively that an octopus ‘dreams’ in the way that humans do: not only because octopuses cannot describe their subjective experience to us, but also because they have proven to be quite good at removing any electrodes that biologists attempt to attach to their brains. Scheel is aware that he is being somewhat unscientific in suggesting that the octopus is dreaming and so he always keeps his dream-narrating at the level of conjecture: he repeatedly prefaces his statements with the words ‘If she’s dreaming’, and he concludes the scene by pointing to the footage as it plays off-screen and saying, ‘But yeah – if she’s dreaming, then that’s the dream’, before guffawing uproariously at the audacity of the statement.

But let us imagine, for a moment, that the octopus is, in fact, dreaming in this footage. If the octopus is dreaming, then we are observing her blending in with her surroundings with breathtaking precision – and yet those surroundings, the colours and textures of that particular environment, exist only within her dream. She camouflages herself within an imaginary dreamspace. But more importantly, she is not merely dreaming that she camouflages herself: the camouflage is real, even though the seascape that provoked it is not. Her chromatophore cells really do expand and retract in response to this non-existent environment, but what is most significant about this phenomenon, to my mind, is this: through the intercession of those chromatophores, the colours and textures of her dream escape the confines of her subjective consciousness and can be experienced, as real colours and textures, by other creatures. In contrast, the colours and textures and myriad other sensations of a human dream can only ever be experienced by the person dreaming it, or communicated later, as the memory of the dream evaporates (though no one usually wants to hear about other people’s dreams outside of psychoanalysis). Neuroscientists are currently able to measure the brain activity generated by a person watching a short movie and then feed those measurements into an AI, which reconstructs a rough version of the movie footage.17See Shinji Nishimoto et al., ‘Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity evoked by natural movies’, Current Biology, vol. 21, no. 19, Oct. 2011, pp. 1641–6. This means that theoretically, it might be possible someday to measure a person’s brain activity while they’re asleep and make a video recording of their dreams.18Charlotte Hu, ‘Theoretically, recording dreams is possible … scientists are trying’, 22 Mar. 2018, Discover Magazine, Kalmbach Publishing, <www.discovermagazine.com/mind/theoretically-recording-dreams-is-possiblescientists-are-trying>, accessed 15 Oct. 2019. But if Heidi the octopus really does dream, then she has beaten us to it: within her body, she is her own dream-cinema. Her kaleidoscopic flesh is a kind of cephalopod celluloid, a mollusca movie screen, magically imprinted with the shifting seascapes of her dreams. The Surrealists, with their various attempts to produce channels through which dreams and nightmares could enter reality, would have been so jealous.

This extended reverie on the alleged dreams of a sleeping octopus might seem digressive, and excessively exuberant in itself. But it highlights something that I think is interesting about both the artistic illusions of trompe l’oeil and the biological illusions of mimicry and camouflage, and about mimesis in general. The mimic, being a copy or imitation of an original, is often imbued with a sense of falseness or dishonesty. The mimic is not what it seems: it’s a trickster, a fake. But as accurate as this might be, the characteristics that a visual mimic imitates – which can include colour, pattern, texture, outline, size or scale – are real characteristics for both the original and for the mimic (in the case of the dreaming octopus, the colours and textures of the mimic are actually more real than those of the original). The mimic absorbs the visual qualities of the original into its own appearance; these qualities become visual similarities that the mimic and the original now share.

The depiction of Christ’s body in Mallerini’s Crucifixion, for instance, is not in any way a real ivory crucifix, and yet it contains within itself the same muted, pale lustre as that which it apes. And similarly, a Kallima butterfly is in no way a dried up old leaf, but when the butterfly activates its camouflage by alighting on a branch and closing its wings, both it and the leaf it mimics really do have that central vein running darkly down the centre, and they both really do have that scrabbly brown texture, and they both really do have a convincing assortment of blotches, spots and bore-holes. The Kallima butterfly and the trompe l’oeil Christ have, in other words, actually taken on some of the visual qualities of the leaf and the ivory as their own. And the strange magic of these acts of mimicry is that if the particular lustre of an ivory crucifix can be so precisely captured in the very different medium of paint and canvas, and if the brown, scrabbly textures of a dead leaf can be recreated with such subtlety and detail in the immensely different medium of a live butterfly, then this lustre and this texture are not indelibly bound to the crucifix and the leaf; they exist independently of the objects and environments that engendered them.

In other words, when butterflies and trompe l’oeil painters cast their spells of deception and illusion, they are in fact creating conditions in which the same visual experience can enter the consciousness of sentient beings via more than one visual stimuli. Protective camouflage succeeds, after all, when the visual experience of ‘leafiness’ or ‘earthiness’ enters the consciousness of a predator via multiple sources, some of which are actual leaves or patches of earth and some of which are impostors. In this way, the muted, pale lustre and the brown scrabbly texture can be thought of as moveable, transferable pieces of code, or as visual incantations, which are first chanted by the original and then taken up by the mimic.

This line of thinking is heavily indebted to the way that French scholars Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari characterise biological mimicry in the ‘Rhizome’ section of A Thousand Plateaus (1987), in which they explore a mimetic phenomenon between the orchid and the wasp. There are hundreds of orchid species with flowers that mimic the female of a particular species of wasp, not only in shape, colour and size but often also by sending out a scent that mimics the female wasp’s pheromone. A male wasp of that species will find itself drawn to the flowery impostor and in its doomed attempt to mate with it will participate in the orchid’s pollination. Deleuze and Guattari’s thoughts about mimicry are part of a much larger exploration of different modes of knowledge, which I will not attempt to summarise here. In terms of mimicry, however, they suggest that rather than there being a simple relationship of imitation between the orchid and the wasp:

Something else entirely is going on: not imitation at all but a capture of code, surplus value of code, an increase in valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp.19Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London, 1987, p. 10.

Using a similar approach, one could say that Mallerini has intercepted or captured the code of a particular quality of light, muted and pale, glancing off the ribcage and hip of an ivory Christ, and he has made more of it; he has increased the ways in which the eyes of the world can experience that particular visual quality, and because that visual quality is both part of the painting and also part of the real crucifix, I suppose one could also use Deleuze and Guattari’s approach to say that the painting is becoming-crucifix, and the crucifix is becoming-painting.

Following this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, however, means that we fall through a trap door into darkness, into a shadowy underworld of surreal ambiguity in which the senses cannot be trusted, in which anything can be, or resemble, or become, anything else. In this underworld the visual characteristics of things are merely bits of code that can be copied and dispersed by other things. There are no longer any distinctions between the real and the representational, between the living and the dead, or between the figure and the environment. All boundaries collapse; something dead may actually be alive, something alive may actually be dead, a plant may be an animal or an animal a plant, an image might be a thing or a thing an image, or all of it might be poised in the middle of changing into something else, caught in a teeming maelstrom, a chaotic flux of becoming.

Roger Caillois, in ‘Mimicry and legendary psychasthenia’, characterises mimicry and camouflage in a similar way: as a loss of distinctions leading to a descent into death, darkness, night and hell. He writes that the end point of mimicry ‘would appear to be assimilation to the surroundings’, going on to say that by disappearing into the background, the mimic loses itself:

Mimicry would thus be accurately defined as an incantation fixed at its culminating point and having caught the sorceror in his own trap … the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself.20Caillois, pp. 27–8, italics in original.

Here, then, is another way that illusion and death are bound up with each other. Camouflage often involves a living creature imitating something dead or inanimate; it also often involves the organism being immobile and behaving as if it’s dead. For Caillois, to avoid death and devourment the mimic must, in a way, be dead already, must allow itself to be devoured or absorbed by its surroundings. He writes that, ‘this assimilation to space is necessarily accompanied by a decline in the feeling of personality and life. … Life takes a step backwards’.21ibid. p. 30, italics in original. As well as characterising mimicry and camouflage as a form of living death through the loss of distinction, vitality and movement, Caillois also associates them with darkness and night. He writes that ‘the magical hold … of night and obscurity, the fear of the dark’,22ibid. p. 30, italics in original. is a common human experience because the darkness of night, like camouflage, dissolves distinctions, gives birth to ambiguities between figure and background, between animals and plants, between the living and the dead.

For creatures such as us, though, who have evolved to navigate and orient ourselves using sight, total darkness doesn’t yield as many visual ambiguities as darkness flecked with moonlight or city light, or twilight, that shadowy moment when day and night overlap. The ambiguous monsters that emerge from the overlapping of day and night are explored in M. C. Escher’s woodcut print Day and night, 1938, acquired by the NGV in 2019. Escher’s Day and night doesn’t depict camouflage or mimicry directly, but it uses the same technique to achieve its dazzling, dizzying effects: the figure merging with or being devoured by the background. Flocks of birds, light and dark, dissolve simultaneously into the light and dark skies above and the chequerboard of light and dark fields below, each flock becoming the negative space, the background, of the other. Escher presents the viewer with an impossible world in the midst of becoming: a world in which the figure becomes the background, the background becomes the figure, and night becomes day, which becomes night again. Like the shadowy underworld of surreal ambiguity that Caillois suggests is the endpoint of mimicry and camouflage, the visual characteristics of things in Escher’s print, their shape and shading, are not their own but are intercepted, duplicated, doubled, mirrored and dispersed by other things.

At the end of his essay, Caillois quotes a passage from the end of Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), in which the titular saint is tempted with demonic visions of confusion, ambiguity and mimicry:

Plants are now no longer distinguished from animals … Insects identical with rose petals adorn a bush … And then plants are confused with stones. Rocks look like brains, stalactites like breasts, veins of iron like tapestries adorned with figures.23ibid. p. 31.

Caillois goes on to write that having witnessed,

the three realms of nature merging into each other, Anthony in his turn suffers the lure of material space: he wants to split himself thoroughly, to be in everything, ‘to penetrate each atom, to descend to the bottom of matter, to be matter’.24ibid. p. 31, italics in original.

Caillois invokes Flaubert’s Saint Anthony to bolster his main point; that mimicry, not just for the mimic but even for a saintly observer of mimicry, is a ‘descent into hell’,25ibid. p. 31, italics in original. an entry point into a dark, albeit tempting, underworld of self-dissolution. But there’s a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Caillois’s thinking and so although this journey into a dark underworld has been illuminating, I’m going to conclude by using this contradiction to refute Caillois slightly and ascend, like Eurydice, back to the surface and the world of the living.

Caillois begins his essay stating that ‘the ultimate problem turns out in the final analysis to be that of distinction’, and concludes by claiming that mimics, having renounced distinction by disappearing into the background, suggest that ‘alongside the instinct of self-preservation … there is generally speaking a sort of instinct of renunciation’.26ibid. pp. 16, 32, italics in original. Caillois is fascinated about the seeming paradox: that these insects renounce themselves in order to preserve themselves and their genetic material. According to Caillois, these creatures renounce their distinctiveness – and so he writes an essay about that renunciation because he thinks it’s an interesting and distinctive aspect of life on earth. And so the very existence of Caillois’s essay – his fascinated observation of the mimic’s disappearance –  immediately restores distinction to the mimic, immediately sets it apart from the surroundings it is so expertly disguised in. When Caillois, and Nabokov, and Wallace, all express their fascination with biological mimicry and camouflage, what they are doing is revealing an attraction towards experiencing illusion as an illusion.

It would be instructive to return to trompe l’oeil at this point. When we look at a trompe l’oeil painting such as those by Valette-Falgores or Mallerini, it might trick our eyes for perhaps half a moment (the first time we see it), but then we are almost instantly aware of it being an illusion. These ‘display board’ trompe l’oeils were produced for eighteenth-century bourgeois art buyers to display in their homes – and one cannot imagine the owners of Valette-Falgores’s painting thinking that a live butterfly were really sitting on the edge of the flute every time they entered the room. And in a gallery setting, one certainly expects to see a painting on the wall rather than an assortment of objects on a display board, so one is never really fooled at all. No, what these paintings indicate is that our species produces trompe l’oeil illusions, and writes about the illusions of nature, and watches people being sawn in half and rabbits being pulled from hats, because we like to experience an illusion as an illusion, with an awareness that this is all a clever trick, a magic show. This is an attraction and ability that is almost unique to our species, but not quite: a female lyrebird will observe the highly sophisticated auditory illusions of a male lyrebird’s courtship display with an awareness that this range of different birdsongs is emanating from one highly proficient mimic. But a lyrebird has never, to my knowledge, demonstrated an appreciation for trompe l’oeil or for the camouflage of butterflies, so in this regard it’s possible that our species is unique: unlike the lyrebird, our fascination with illusion extends far beyond the limits of what our own species has produced.

Caillois writes that mimicry is a point where ‘Life takes a step backwards’.27ibid. p. 30, italics in original. But this is not completely true, because ‘life’ – if seen as a single entity comprised of all life’s manifestations over the last 3.5 or 4 billion years – not only gives birth to species that mimic other things, but has also given birth to a species that is aware of and fascinated by all forms of mimicry and illusion, that finds something distinctive in it, that ventures out into forests and jungles and art galleries to find it. In The Tao of Philosophy (2002), philosopher Alan Watts claims, ‘Through us and through our eyes and senses, the universe is looking at itself’.28Alan Watts, The Tao of Philosophy, Tuttle Publishing, Boston, 2002, p. 37. Illusions and images and enchantments are one part of life attracting the eyes and stimulating the brains of another part of life, and so rather than this disappearing act being an instance where life takes a step backwards, descending into hell, it is in fact an instance of life witnessing itself, observing itself, becoming aware and conscious of itself, and revelling in the artistry and magic of itself. Nabokov was somewhat aware of this: in an essay called ‘Father’s butterflies’, he wrote that without the eyes and brains of humans to observe it, ‘the fantastic refinement of ‘protective mimicry’ … would simply be useless (lost upon the world), like a small volume of Shakespeare lying open in the dust of a boundless desert’.29Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Father’s butterflies’, trans. Dmitri Nabokov, The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 285, no. 4, Apr. 2000, p. 68. And if our species eventually succeeds in causing our own extinction, then at that point life loses its ability to observe itself, and if that happens, then all the trompe l’oeil paintings and leaf-mimicking butterflies that ever existed will indeed be like a small volume of Shakespeare lying open in the dust of a boundless desert, because there will no longer be any living thing able to witness their illusions as illusions, and revel in their magic.

David Haworth is a Doctoral candidate in Literature and Art History at the University of Melbourne, and is Senior Research Officer at Monash Indigenous Studies Centre.



Ernst Gombrich, The Image and the Eye, Phaidon Press, London, 1982, pp. 24–7.


For an excellent introduction to mimicry and camouflage in nature, art, science and warfare, see Peter Forbes, Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2009.


See Romain Garrouste et al., ‘Insect mimicry of plants dates back to the Permian’, Nature Communications, vol. 7, article no. 13735, 2016.


For a summary of this debate, see James D. Keyser & David S. Whitley, ‘Sympathetic magic in western North American rock art’, American Antiquity, vol. 71, no. 1, Jan. 2006, pp. 3–26.


James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, abridged ed., Papermac, London, 1995, p. 12.


See Matthew Hutson, ‘Symbols have power: spells, ceremonies and the Law of Similarity’, in The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane, Hudson Street Press, New York, 2012, pp. 37–60.


Roger Caillois, ‘Mimicry and legendary psychasthenia’, trans. John Shepley, October, vol. 31, 1984, p. 25.


Gombrich, p. 27.


Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, Penguin Books, London, 1969, p. 98.




Gombrich, p. 25.


Nabokov, p. 98.


René Magritte, quoted in Michel Foucault, This is Not a Pipe, trans. James Harkness, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983, p. 62.


Alfred Russel Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, Penguin Books, London, 2016, p. 169.


Nabokov, p. 98.


Octopus: Making Contact, PBS, 2 Oct. 2019.


See Shinji Nishimoto et al., ‘Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity evoked by natural movies’, Current Biology, vol. 21, no. 19, Oct. 2011, pp. 1641–6.


Charlotte Hu, ‘Theoretically, recording dreams is possible … scientists are trying’, 22 Mar. 2018, Discover Magazine, Kalmbach Publishing, <www.discovermagazine.com/mind/theoretically-recording-dreams-is-possiblescientists-are-trying>, accessed 15 Oct. 2019.


Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London, 1987, p. 10.


Caillois, pp. 27–8, italics in original.


ibid. p. 30, italics in original.


ibid. p. 30, italics in original.


ibid. p. 31.


ibid. p. 31, italics in original.


ibid. p. 31, italics in original.


ibid. pp. 16, 32, italics in original.


ibid. p. 30, italics in original.


Alan Watts, The Tao of Philosophy, Tuttle Publishing, Boston, 2002, p. 37.


Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Father’s butterflies’, trans. Dmitri Nabokov, The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 285, no. 4, Apr. 2000, p. 68.