Friday, April 24, 2015

Through the Looking Glass: Mimicking Mirrors in Western Painting

This exhibit examines the use of mirrors in portraiture from Jan van Eyck’s famed 1434 The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait and onward in Western Art History. The collection spans nearly 500 years in its origin, though the pieces therein share in their investigation. Each work in the exhibit examines the relationship among artist, his appearance, and his work. The Jan van Eyck piece serves as the centerpiece of the collection, not only because it predates the rest of the paintings, but also because it initiates the use of mirrors as objects in portraiture. Each piece in the exhibit, whether created two hundred years or half a millennia later, owes its existence in part to Jan van Eyck. With that being noted, it is important also to recognize that each piece stands alone as an artwork with individual meaning. Each painting in the collection is distinct in its style, intent, and subject matter. What binds them all together is their shared inspection of mirroring images, specifically from the vantage point of the painter and viewer.

            The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434, oil on oak, The National Gallery (NG 186).
            As the centerpiece of this collection, The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait acts as the father of mirror-play in modern portraiture. While he was commissioned to create the portrait of the male of female figures swearing a marital oath, van Eyck does not cease to demonstrate both his conceptual and mechanical skills by painting the extraordinarily ornate mirror situated in the space between the figures. When looking closely, the viewer can see that van Eyck paints himself in the mirror, from the perspective he possessed while painting the larger portrait. By doing so, van Eyck installs what is called a “double-portrait,” and opens the doors for a wealth of artists after him to investigate the use of mirrors as objects in painting, highlighted especially in the rest of this exhibit. Van Eyck’s portrait displays his mastery not only through his inclusion of the mirror, but also by his fine attention to detail concerning each object in the painting, as well as his injection of hidden symbolism throughout the work.

            Self-Portrait, Johannes Gumpp, 1646, oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery (Collezione degli. Autoritratti).
In a fashion unique to himself, Johannes Gumpp takes the concept of “double-portraiture” as introduced in The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait  and attempts to develop it further. In the painting, Gumpp effectively crafts a self-portrait of him painting a self-portrait while looking at himself in a mirror (which serves as an additional self-portrait in the painting). Thus, Gumpp establishes what may be called a triple self-portrait or even a quadruple self-portrait, considering not only the three Gumpp figures as portraits but also the entire painting as a self portrait. Regarding the mirror in his work, Gumpp places the ‘pure reflection’ of the mirror next to the canvas in his work to underscore his skill in painting realistically - there is no difference in detail in the mirror-Gumpp and the painted-Gumpp.

            Las Meninas, Diego Velazquez, 1656, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado.
            Velazquez’s Las Meninas is perhaps the most famously associated painting in this collection with van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait. While Velazquez paints a portrait on commission like van Eyck, his use of mirror in the portrait is for largely different reasons. First, Velazquez chooses not to use the mirror for his self-portrait, but rather includes himself as a prominent figure with the rest in the portrait. Second, the mirror in the background of the piece is not so near the focal point of the painting as the mirror is in The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait. Instead, Velazquez positions the mirror in the center background to quote Jan van Eyck for the sake of his own prestige. By quoting the renowned painter, Velazquez attempts to assert himself as a master artist as well. Furthermore, Velazquez’s mirror is placed alongside imitations of famous paintings in the background to further declare his status as a painter.

            A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, Edouard Manet, 1882, oil on canvas, Courtauld Institute of Art.
Very distinct in style from the rest of the exhibit, this Manet impressionist work borrows perhaps most uniquely from van Eyck’s portrait. Instead of depicting a single framed mirror, as the rest of the works do, Manet here makes use of an entire mirrored background. The onlooking eye is fooled into believing that the background is a traditional background, extending into space behind the female figure. With further study the reflections of the bar and the barista become apparent, and at last the background is understood to be reflective. As the viewer observes the reflection of the barista, he or she is lead to the right corner of the painting where a male figure is mirrored from the position of the onlooker. It has been argued that this figure is a self-portrait of Manet, though it may represent the viewer of the painting instead. In either case, that Manet creates this over four centuries after The Arnolfini Portrait serves in part as a reminder that artists still wish to give a wink and a nod to van Eyck for his creative pioneering.

            Still Life With Self Portrait, Mark Gertler, 1918, oil on canvas, Leeds Art Gallery.
            The only still life painting in the collection, Mark Gertler’s portrait raises a curious question. By painting a reflective self-portrait in the still life genre, Gertler seems to suggest that he, like the open bag of fruit spilled in front of the mirror in his painting, will someday decay and pass from this life. The Japanese samurai depicted to the right of the mirror underscores this, as the warrior appears to aggressively bring down his katana upon Gertler’s reflection. Within this exhibit, Gertler’s mirror most closely resembles van Eyck’s mirror, quoting both its shape and bulbous quality. Similar to Dali’s portrait as well, Gertler toys with the viewer’s conception of who or what the focal point is in the painting.

            Dali from the Back Painting Gala from the Back Eternalized by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected in Six Real Mirrors, Salvador Dali, 1973, oil on canvas, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation.
            In the imaginative spirit expected of him, Salvador Dali here paints a peculiar portrait of himself painting a portrait of Gala in a common room. Though the female figure may expectedly be the subject of the painting, Dali’s reflection dominates the viewer’s attention the longer he or she looks at the work. Dali is both the closest and farthest object from the viewer, and in the mirror his baffled and moustached expression bears the most light, thereby capturing the audience’s attention. Not unlike the presence of van Eyck’s mirror in The Arnolfini Portrait, Dali’s mirror draws and ensnares attention only after the viewer has studied the painting for a time. This most contemporary work in the exhibit also demonstrates that even five centuries later, artists interested in the potential for mirroring in their painting are still largely indebted to the mastery of Jan van Eyck.

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