Try Sleeping on Dürer’s Pillows

Albrecht Dürer, Six Pillows (1493) Pen and brown ink. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Surprise, surprise. In great art you never stop seeing new perceptions in long-familar images because art by its very nature exists on multiple levels. And seeing them without help from others is both edifying and deeply satisfying, certain to brighten your spirits on a dull day. Our subject here, though, is hidden faces, a toxic subject. In fact, we call them “Veiled Faces” because the word ‘hidden’ is usually anathema. Though exceedingly common, they are rarely acknowledged. Scholars who do see them probably keep quiet for fear of derision from colleagues. And, though recognized by many art lovers in the work of Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh and on EPPH in the work of numerous artists, none is generally accepted.1 An exception, other than Arcimboldo, is Albrecht Dürer who on a famous sheet, now in the Metropolitan Museum, practised fusing small caricatures into the contours of six crumpled pillows (above). When I read this as a novice, I could only see the faces in one or two of those pillows, not all of them. It was very frustrating. Some of you may have the same trouble now. But, if you keep on looking and thinking and then sleep on them, you will eventually see them.

Diagrammatic details of Dürer's Six Pillows

The surprise is that just this morning, after 20 years’ familiarity with the image, I suddenly saw what has not been described before: larger faces within the masses of the pillows overwhelming the smaller ones. Perhaps it’s the dramatic difference in scale between the known and unknown or their fragmentary nature that makes them so difficult to discover yet so obvious once seen. Whatever it is, they have been there for 500 years. To help you find them, the relevant faces from the first two pillows on the left are diagrammed above.

Do they mean anything? That depends. As practice for his hand, they were probably not intended as poetry but they still contain elements of unchanging truth because, as poets and scientists tell us, beauty is truth. For instance, artists in our experience do not portray the exterior world. They may seem to, as Dürer seems to, but underneath is an acknowledgement that what we normally see and sense is a distortion. Our sight is based on nature but the resulting images are constructed inside our heads as great minds have known since antiquity and science more recently. Thus art is more accurate than a camera in revealing that what we see is not solely external but a reflection of our own inner knowledge and emotions. That is why, as EPPH believes, the faces are really “self-portraits”. They are Dürer’s own face with its hooked and prominent nose in multiple versions, distorted, contorted and fragmentary which is what, to the best of our knowledge, mental images really look like.

Science has confirmed this. The Archives of General Psychiatry have described a mental image as having more content than a conventional picture:

‘It has a deep as well as a surface structure, whereas a picture as such is just its own surface structure.’

Our eyes take in a jumble of visual data, views and fragments of the subject seen from multiple viewpoints, all mixed together in our minds. How we in everyday life then see that represented as a coherent whole is still a mystery. Nevertheless we all take the resulting images for fact. Artists don’t and show us instead, in visual allegory, what is really going on. First, a partial view of nature is imported through our senses from outside and not just through the eyes. Then, in a process we are unaware of, a very small portion of that incoming sense-data is morphed and colored by our own knowledge, feelings, biases and emotions and, most especially, by our own self-image. Some of these features are clearly individual; others are common to all humanity.

For those unaware of that process or of the philosophy in art, Dürer’s pillows are just exercises in light and shade using hidden caricatures for his own enjoyment. For those like you who understand, they depict the true process of sight and the underlying basis of external reality as seen by human beings.

Dürer was probably not guessing. Great creators in all fields often access levels of their mind that we are unaware of. They do not just think but can visualize the thought process itself, including the multiple viewpoints that Dürer expresses in his pillows. Take, for instance, the insights of two composers (I cite them often.) Mozart described how on completing a long composition he could:

"survey it, like a fine picture or beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once."

This must be so because Beethoven described his thought process in statuary and 3-dimensional terms as well:

"...In my head, I begin to elaborate the work in its breadth, its narrowness, its height, and its depth, and as I am aware of what I want to do, the underlying idea never deserts me. It rides, it grows up. I hear and see the image in front of me from every angle, as if it had been cast..." [italics added].4

This helps explain why hidden faces are mostly distorted, fragmentary and seen from different angles. You can find many such examples under the theme “Veiled Faces”. If you, as an independent thinker on art, accept that there might be something to this, keep on looking because you’ll soon discover a whole world that most art lovers have never dreamt of.


1. See examples by Paul Gauguin and William Hogarth in Seymour Howard, "Hidden Images: Antipasti", Source: Notes in the History of Art 8, 1981, pp. 25-31; and by Paul Cézanne in Sidney Geist, Interpreting Cézanne (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) 1988.

2. Cited in Roger N. Shepard, “The Mental Image”, American Psychologist 33, 1978, p.130

3. “Mozart: A Letter” in Brewster Ghiselin, The Creative Process (New York: The New American Library) 1952, p.45

4. Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, ed. M. Hamburger (New York: Pantheon Books) 1952, p. 195, cited in Albert Rothenberg, “Homospatial Thinking in Creativity”, Archives of General Psychiatry 33, 1976, p.20

Reader Comments

These are fascinating! There seem many multiple ways of seeing faces in the folds. It does help me to sleep on them, relax my mind and come back to drawings after a bit of time. It’s also edifying to see a face differently than you diagram, Simon. It’s wonderful to me that different minds and imaginations can observe the same subject and take away abundant value and run with it.

Adam R Brown
12 Mar 2016

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