Saturday, November 9, 2013

11. The Mirror Effect

My fascination with the representation of mirrors in art emerged when I took an art history class at the University of Oregon a year ago. It was then when I discovered these two great artists and their mysterious paintings that I'm going to discuss in this post. These artists are from different eras, but the mirror theme unites their works of art and keeps me trying to unravel their mysteries. Here's my interpretation of the paintings.

1. "The Arnolfini Portrait" by Jan van Eyck (1434) 
Also known as "The Arnolfini Wedding," this painting represents Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, an Italian merchant couple, and the scene of their marriage. What is striking about the painting is the presence of a concave mirror in the background that reflects two figures in a doorway. Above the mirror we can see the artist's signature written in Latin, which translates to "Jan van Eyck was here."
Image via Pirates & Revolutionaries
Image via Pirates & Revolutionaries
This signature gives us a clue that one of the figures in the mirror might be the artist himself, suggesting that he was a witness of that moment. As the mirror is centered and directed towards us, my guess is that the second person's reflection is the viewer's own. To me, this interpretation is the most thrilling one as it makes me feel connected to the artist despite the five century gap as I imagine standing right next to him in the room and watching the wedding scene. There may be a great number of other interpretations, but it is clear that the artist's intention was to prove the legitimacy of the marriage by including the reflections of two witnesses in the mirror and his own signature. This painting serves as a sort of wedding certificate, as well as a wedding "photo," for the couple.

2.  "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere" by Edouard Manet (1882)

Image via Peter Ghiringhelli
This is a depiction of a bar scene at the Folies-Bergere music hall in Paris. At first glance, there is nothing striking about it - there is a barmaid standing behind a bar counter in a crowded hall, which is reflected in the mirror behind her. But as we look closer, we can notice that the reflections of the objects and figures are displaced too far to the right. If the barmaid is standing right in front of us and looking straight, then her reflection should be directly behind her. Also, despite the illusion that she is looking at the viewer, the mirror reflection tells us that she is talking to a man in a top hat, whom we see in the mirror; however, we don't see his actual figure in front of the bar. These inconsistencies suggest that the artist intentionally captured two points in time in his painting. It's like two sequential snapshots merged together - one is when the barmaid is talking to the man, and the next one is when she is directed towards us, as if we were her next customer. My other guess is that the reflection is not part of the reality at all - the barmaid's facial expression is contemplative, so the reflection might be just her fantasy or reminiscence of her encounter with the man.

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