Mirrors and reflections are enormously important in art, and so common a theme, that you should keep an eye out for them: they will help explain the work’s underlying meaning. Here’s why. The mind has been likened to a mirror for as long as humans have written, painted, sculpted, etched and composed poetry. The Greek root for Plato’s word idea, eidos, literally means not just image or likeness but an image reflected in water or mirror.1 Even in English, minds reflect and speculate. So, since all true art depicts the artist’s mind, mirrors and reflections are bound to play a highly significant role. Mirrors suggest that the viewer should turn inwards to gain self-knowledge rather than outwards to the natural world. In paintings, the discovery that the surface itself represents a mirror contradicts the very principles on which conventional art history is based: that artists depict the world outside. Indeed it is only once you accept that artists do not depict material reality that you begin see so many mirrors in art because you cannot see what you do not believe.
Here is an example. No-one to my knowledge has ever noted that Velazquez’s iconic masterpiece Las Meninas, once known as The Painting of Paintings, is not a naturalistic depiction of the Royal Family but a reflection in its entirety. Depicting his mind as a mirror, the Spaniard composed the painting as though the canvas itself, across its entire surface, is a giant looking-glass. In the center, in the distance, he painted a second, smaller mirror with the king and queen looking back out at us (or, more accurately, him.) They are him, as any alchemist of the time might have recognized: royal symbols of the creative mind in spiritual perfection, united androgynously, male and female. The whole canvas is his mind; the small mirror his inner eye. It is a theme repeated time and again, from Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait to Edouard Manet’s Olympia and beyond.
For all true artists, even atheists like Picasso, our minds are a reflection of God or, put less religiously, the cosmic power of Creation. Many mystics have described our minds as a mirror of God, even St. Paul, the founder of the Church as an Establishment. He wrote: “Now we all, with unveiled face, reflecting the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, are being changed from glory to glory into his own image, for this comes from the Lord who is now Spirit.”2
Believe this, if you can, because if you do your understanding of art, which artists think is virtually synonmous with true aesthetic satisfaction, will be enriched.
1. Thomas Moore, The Planets Within: The Astrological Psychology of Marsilio Ficino (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books) 1989, p. 51
2. 2 Corinthians 2:18
All Articles (Alphabetical by Artist, then Title)
Two protagonists in one painting must both represent the artist. It's a given in art so it's your job to find out how.
See how Picasso understood Manet's meaning, a meaning that still escapes art historians who think and see superficially
Not a particularly successful picture but an excellent learning tool
Hear how Karen Kleinfelder interprets Picasso's scene
See how Picasso writes his own identity over someone else's face
See how an Impressionist painting is really constructed
Beware of biographical stories trying to explain a great portrait; they are rarely, if ever, true.
Even simple sketches can be pregnant with meaning
How the setting is so rarely what you think....you must think differently
Several clues, easy to spot, reveal the true underlying meaning of two similar masterpieces
Learn how to look and what to look for, and how touching is painting
An essential question about any picture: does the figure resemble an artist at work?
Once you see how Norman Rockwell, the so-called illustrator, turned contemporary politics into a contemplation on the creative process, you should start to appreciate how ageless the theme is.
How even in the 15th century an artist thought of himself as Christ...and said so.
Even the most natural-looking portraits can be something other than they seem
Baudelaire's linking of Painting with cosmetics in the nineteenth century was not a novel idea, as long believed, but one with a very long history indeed
Train your visual memory to recall similar poses in quite different situations; they usually have some meaning in common
See how Titian tricks us into thinking there is one reality in art when there are, at least, two
Artists often identify with other artists, using them as an alter ego. Here is an exceptionally clever one.
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