Mirror of the Mirror

I wonder how many people can guess the author of this Portrait of a Young Man?

And also, how many would consider this bloated, hermaphrodite face “angelic”, the beauty of which “raises goose bumps on the skin, and whose gaze “pierces the heart”?

Speaking about the gaze – how many people would remember the color of his eyes (without looking again – at this point – back to the picture to recall it?)

All these adjectives and descriptions are not invented, they are from the contemporary reactions to this –

Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror

It just so happened that my very first ‘mirror story’ was about Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez (although technically speaking, I was not writing about ‘mirrors in art’ then, and wrote about this painting not (only) because of the mirror; I need to re-write it, to better fit this blog).

But in any case, in this story, about Las Meninas, I quote the words by Michel Foucault who regarded this art work reflects (sic!) the pivotal moment in modern history, a true dawn of modernity and modern subjectivity.

As I write there, Foucault was wrong – both with the interpretation of the painting, and with understanding of modernity, too. If one would need a ‘pivotal painting’ to begin modernity with, you can dream about better example than this Autoritratto entro uno specchio convesso, “The Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by Parmigiano (who for some reasons is more often referred as (diminutive) Parmigianino). It is the dawn, and immediately the zenith, culmination, climax, of this whole modernity thing, up until today, with our iPhone self-portrait with the platypus faces.

Having written such a masterpiece, the master both opened a whole new area of ‘mirrors in art’, and simultaneously ‘closed’ it; you can’t add much more to the theme. Perhaps, understanding it very well Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola never painted any mirrors in his life anymore.

First, a few facts & figures: this is a very small painting, it’s less than 25 cm in diameter. It’s in Vienna now, in the so-called Kunsthistorisches Museum (I wrote a few swearing words about them: the museum is nice, but their website is horrible, both content- and interface-wise).

This is how the painting looks like:

Interestingly, but online you can also find another version of the frame, much more elaborate and decorative:

I do not know if it’s an earlier version of the frame, which then was replaced by the real, or it’s a fake, more touristic version:

Another interesting (and important) detail is that the painting is in fact a panel, and it’s painted on a somewhat convex surface, some sort of a wooden ‘lens’. It’s hard to see tin on the frontal pictures (and there are not so many alternative options online – I understand that it’s not allowed to take pictures in the museum). I found only one, taken half-secretly, as I understand:

Let’s now move to the ‘content’ – which seems to be self-evident from one side, but on the other hand is amazingly paradoxical and generally mind-blowing (and I mean, literally).

Contrary to the usual, banal interpretations, the artist here does not (only) paints his own image in the mirror – he paints the very surface of the mirror! And noting else; in  fact, it is a portrait of a mirror, the surface of the panel is equal to the surface of mirror it paints, one to one. 

Each of you can easily reenact what is happening in this painting by picking up a lid of a  pan or frying pan, and looking at his/her own reflection (this particular version is not of me, I was too lazy to took a very similar picture):

Parmigianino does not hold his lid mirror, he simply place his (left) hand nearby – which became left, of course, in the mirror, but also appropriately distorted, stretched and twisted:

The idea is that we, the viewers, should form a complete illusion that we are looking at a convex mirror. Perhaps, this illusion is stronger in the museum – or not, I am not sure if the convexness of the surface adds to the immersion.

But the real cool think is that we could start believing that it is a mirror; and that we are looking at our own reflection. And that the face of the person there is your face.

Perhaps this explains those “goose bumps on the skin” that its first viewers experienced, if we believe to Giorgio Vasari, the first biographer of Parmigianino?

A couple of words are due about these ‘frist viewers’, and in general about the mast who create this piece.

Girolamo Francesco Maria was born in the family of the artist called Filippo Mazzola, in 1503, in Parma (his nicknames, Parmigian and then Parmigianino derives from the name of the city). His father died in 1505, when the boy just two years old, so it was his uncles, Michele and Pier Ilario, also artists, who raised him, and who also taught him some craft (both paintings and frescos). The very first known painting by him is dated 1519, when he was only 16 years old.

This ‘self-portrait’ is usually dated as 1524, when Parmigianino was 21, but it may be a very accurate attribution. We know that in this year he went to Rome, where he managed to present a few of this works to the Pope Clement VII (also known as Giulio de Medici), a well-known patron of the arts. It is also known that Parmigianino came to the city with already painted small works, his portfolio, as we would call it today, which most likely included this self-portrait, too – which may mean that the ‘convex mirror’ could be created even some years earlier.  

Below are the first lines of the famous poem by an American poet John Ashbery, written in 1976 and entirely devoted to this art work. It’s named, rather unpretentiously, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer

And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises.

The word “advertises” here refers specifically to the fact that it was indeed a part of portfolio, a promotional tool to advertise the master to its clients, powerfully demonstrating its technical skill to the future customers.

Never mind that it was a student’s work – it went near the top of the “mirrors in art” hall of fame (if not to the very top). Simply for a record – nothing remotely comparable to this “conceptual audacity” was created only during his time, and when something comparable was created, it happened few centuries later – by Escher, for example:

It is somehow unquestionably believed that artists always painted their self-portraits (there is a lovely project, EPPH, that takes this ideas to extreme, arguing that every painter is capable to only paint himself). But is it really the case?

To produce a self-portrait, an accurate self-portrait, is impossible without a mirror. Yes, you can see some sort of reflection in water, but you are not able to even recognize the color of your eyes there. Not surprisingly, the first stories about self-portraits are connected with mirrors – see, for example, the story of Marcia. But the mirrors had been used in these cases simply for spying on yourself – you look at yourself, then paint, then look again, etc. There is not much difference compared to the usual portrait-making.

Later some masters – Bellini, and then Titian – began to portray that amazing psychological space emerging between a mirror and a person looking at it.

Parmigianino was apparently the the first who managed to put you right into such a space, thus pulling out, to the outside, this very intimate, inner process. When looking at this work, we find ourselves in a delicate and fragile “mirror cocoon” – but the cocoon of another person!

As I wrote already, he never ever painted any other mirror (although he created many other, otherwise very good and interesting works).

In one of his later works, Madonna with the Long Neck (Madonna dal Collo Lungo, 1534 – that also demonstrated that he became a full-steam mannerist) we see an interesting application of reflection at work:

Here, perhaps more metaphorically than really, the Child Jesus is reflected in (his own?) cross of the vessel:

But that’s it, it’s all that I was able to find so far. Parmigianino painted a few other self-portraits, but none of them had any mirrors (unless you consider this amazing red hat an allusion to a convex mirror, of course):

upd: As often happens, I didn’t notice an elephant in a porcelain store: some details of this panel hint that the master was trying not only create a self-portrait, but a self-portrait of him making this self-portrait with the use of a mirror!

Notice how distracted his gaze – it’s not the gaze of the person looking straight at himself in the mirror. Instead, he looks at the mirror but then looks at the panel where he paints this portrait (a small curve to the right). A great cocktail of phenomenology and epistemology, in one bottle.

PS: I wasn’t making the icons for a while (mostly because of laziness, but also because I haven’t seen any patterns recently). But this work definitely deserves its own icon, and a level in my hierarchy of mirrors in art:

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