Tuesday, April 6, 2010

mirrors and self-portraiture

The advent of the mirror has historically been central to the development of self-portraiture - perhaps even to the very emergence of our modern sense of self and cult of individualism.

Face: The New Photographic Portrait"While the modern mirror dates from the mid-sixteenth century, when the Venetians of Murano compressed a layer of mercury between a sheet of glass and a sheet of metal, allowing for perfect, distortion-free reflections, few people had access to one. The new mirrors slowly replaced the much inferior bronze, pewter, silver and gold varieties, but remained almost exclusively in the hands of royalty and the nobility. Ordinary people had no way of keeping track of the slow ravages of time on their own faces. “How could one see one's double chin in the bottom of a copper pot?” asks historian Veronique Nahoum, concluding that, the mirror stage is not only an important one for the baby of six months, but an important stage in history' [author's italics]. The anthropologist David Le Breton concurs, stressing that no mirror would decorate the walls [of ordinary homes] before the end of the nineteenth or the beginning of the twentieth century.' This lack of self-awareness, in the visual sense at least, helps to explain the hysteria that accompanied the early years of photography. No less a visionary than Honord de Balzac refused to be photographed - in the belief that it would strip away a microscopic layer of his being. Balzac was not alone in intellectual circles for believing the medium to have suspect properties; Herman Melville was another who flatly refused to be photographed. (p.16)

For photoliterate peoples like ourselves, the image we see in the mirror is fugitive: you 'know' it isn't there when you aren't looking. But for a people who live without mirrors, the image is fixed - the proof being that every time you sneak a glance, you're there. How could it be anything other than magic, and terrifying at that? After all, if a shadow is 'attached' to the body, why not the image? The anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, having witnessed a twentieth-century variant of the experience in his work with natives of New Guinea, has been able to shed light on this phenomenon. Presented with mirrors for the first time in their lives, their natural habitat of muddy rivers and wells having offered no natural reflections, his subjects reacted with extreme consternation (they later behaved the same way when presented with their photographs). Carpenter reasoned: The notion that man possesses, in addition to a physical self, a symbolic self is widespread, perhaps universal.... A mirror corroborates this. It does more: it reveals the symbolic self outside the physical self. The symbolic self is suddenly explicit, public, vulnerable. Man's initial response to this is probably always traumatic." (pp. 17-18)
Ewing, W. A. 2006, Face: The New Photographic Portrait, Thames & Hudson


"The self-portrait supposes in theory the use of a mirror; glass mirrors became available in Europe in the 15th century. The first mirrors used were convex, introducing deformations that the artist sometimes preserved. A painting by Parmigianinoin 1524 Self-portrait in a mirror, demonstrates the phenomenon.

Mirrors permit surprising compositions like the Triple self-portrait by Johannes Gumpp (1646), or more recently that of Salvador Dalíshown from the back painting his wife, Gala(1972-73). This use of the mirror often results in right-handed painters representing themselves as left-handed (and vice versa). Usually the face painted is therefore a mirror image of that the rest of the world saw, unless two mirrors were used. Most of Rembrandt's self-portraits before 1660 show only one hand - the painting hand is left unpainted. He appears to have bought a larger mirror in about 1652, after which his self-portraits become larger. In 1658 a large mirror in a wood frame broke whilst being transported to his house; nonetheless, in this year he completed his Frick self-portrait, his largest.

The size of single-sheet mirrors was restricted until technical advances made in France in 1688 by Bernard Perrot. They also remained very fragile, and large ones were much more expensive pro-rata than small ones - the breakages were recut into small pieces. About 80 cms, or two and a half feet, seems to have been the maximum size until then - roughly the size of the palace mirror in Las Meninas (the convex mirror in the Arnolfini Portraitis considered by historians impractically large, one of Van Eyck's many cunning distortions of scale). Largely for this reason, most early self-portraits show painters at no more than half-length." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-portrait

see too :
Haley, Stephen John. 2005. Mirror as metasign : contemporary culture as mirror world,
a free .pdf copy here .   Fascinating reading.

1 comment:

  1. i love this book. particularly, the photos of the soldiers with their faces on the floor. i can't remember the artist or title specifically because i only flipped through it but it has stuck in my mind ever since.

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