Mirror, mirror, in the painting

Magicians may "do it with mirrors." But, as a rule, painters - even those intense "realists" determined to trick the eye - do it with paint.

And even when they represent mirrors in their paintings, as in those shown here, they still use paint. Or nearly always. An exception was an Italian artist, Michelangelo Pistoletto. In the early 1960s, he took the bold step of using highly polished metal sheets instead of conventional canvases.

Pistoletto printed or collaged realistic, life-size figures onto these metal surfaces. The figures appeared to stand on the same floor as we, the viewers. We, in turn, were reflected in the mirrored surfaces, and thus seemed to be inside the picture space along with the figures.

We became part of the picture.

But other than the occasional use of mica (a glistening mineral) rather than textile to depict mirrors held by mermaids in early tapestries, and the use of gold leaf to suggest glory or infinity in medieval paintings, painting has eschewed highly reflective surfaces. Indeed, the nonreflective character of paint has traditionally been valued for that very reason. The image the painter makes (unless he is Pistoletto) can thus be seen without interference from distracting reflections.

Nevertheless, artists down the centuries have been fascinated by the challenge of depicting, with paint, mirrors and their reflections. Strangely, a recent exhibition at London's National Gallery and the longer-lived, more-detailed book that accompanied it, seem to be virtually the first serious studies of this subject. (An exception is a lecture given by art historian John K.D. Cooper in 1991, in which he surveyed a wide range of artists who introduced mirrors and their reflections into their paintings.)

The London exhibition was organized by Jonathan Miller (the comedian, physician, opera-director, and now exhibition-organizer). He explored various facets of both mirrors and paintings with characteristic lucidity and wit. (His book is reviewed on page 19.)

One point Miller emphasized was this question of the illusory ways in which painters beguile viewers into believing they see a mirror and its reflections within a painting, when in fact all they see is paint.

Some painters seemed to believe that paintings were in direct competition with mirrors. They saw paintings as (ideally) exact imitations of the visual world, just as mirrors were faithful reflections of it. A mirror's surface disappears in proportion as we concentrate on the reflection in it. So realist painters wanted the surface of their paintings to vanish as the subject became real.

But to achieve this was extremely difficult, if not impossible. Leonardo da Vinci, in particular, found mirrors frustrating. He wrote: "Painters often fall into despair ... when they see that their paintings lack the roundness and the liveliness which we find in objects seen in a mirror ... but it is impossible for a painting to look as rounded as a mirror image ... except if you look at both with one eye only." Art historian Ernst Gombrich has suggested that this may have been "the ultimate reason" for Leonardo's "deep dissatisfaction with his art."

Evidently, such agonies did not bother Jan van Eyck. If this 15th-century Flemish realist felt challenged by mirror reflections, he responded not by giving up, but by finding ways in which he could convincingly incorporate representations of mirrors in his paintings. In his "Arnolfini Marriage" he succeeded marvelously. In the process, Van Eyck began a train of thought taken up by numerous artists in succeeding periods.

Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velzquez, in his masterpiece "Las Meninas" ("The Maids of Honor"), used a similar back-wall mirror. This 17th-century Spanish court painter knew Van Eyck's painting firsthand because it was in Spain's Royal Collection. His mirror was, however, rectangular and flat, while Van Eyck's was round and convex.

In the 19th century, Gustave Caillebotte and Edouard Manet painted notable pictures in which enormous mirrors filled much of the picture space, making for intriguing ambiguities. They identified large areas of paint-surface with mirror-reflections to a greater degree than any earlier painters. But still their paintings are the logical extension of what Van Eyck began centuries before.

Van Eyck's little mirror allows him to depict what the couple in the painting can be presumed to see in front of them. It introduces fascinating puzzles into the idea of a picture.

The mirror reflects figures, witnesses to the marriage - or is it the painter himself? The mirror also adds to the deep space of the depicted room the extra space of the room in front of the couple. Van Eyck is attempting to make painting convey three-dimensional space in a new way. But the device poses questions as to what is relatively real or unreal in a painting.

On the one hand, the image in the mirror, being a mere reflection, seems less real than the other things Van Eyck so scrupulously and almost tangibly represented in the painting. We know these are only painted images, of course. But the illusion of reality is sharpened by contrast with the less-real, intangible, mirror-reflections.

On the other hand, the mirror brings into the unreal world of the painting an apparent reflection of the real world outside the painting. We can almost imagine it is an actual mirror in an actual room.

Admittedly, we viewers cannot see our own reflections in the mirror (as in a Pistoletto). But the reflections are of people standing precisely where we are standing. By implication, we are not only viewers, but witnesses to the marriage, or even the artist himself.

In our several roles, we are thus brought right into the painting. And by the same token, a painting, with brilliant artifice, is convincingly made to appear as real as we are.

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