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June 21, 2006

Las Meninas and mirrors

Last fall, after a business trip to Madrid, I posted a mini-essay about Velazquez' great, complex, and enigmatic painting, Las Meninas. My essay was mainly about the difficulty of looking at and enjoying a work so famous and so heavily interpreted--and how that same self-consciousness is a subject of Las Meninas itself.

Now Colin Dexter from London has written to propose a theory that, to the best of my knowledge, is original as well as plausible and attractive. As he puts it: "Surely the whole painting is a mirror image." See here for two slightly different versions of his theory.

In poking around for online histories of mirrors (to confirm that there could have been very large mirrors at the Spanish court in 1656), I found this fascinating excerpt from Glass: A World History by Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin:

Some who have traced the rise of autobiographical writing during the Renaissance have suggested that this 'discovery of the self' was linked to mirrors. Likewise it is pointed out that Renaissance artists such as Drer explored the inner man through the use of mirrors during their painting. This is an argument forcefully put by Lewis Mumford and he cites the self-examining portraits of Rembrandt as the high point in this artistic introspection.

The timing of the causal link is right; good mirrors developed in almost exact pace with the development of a new individualism between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The geography is right; the epicentres of Renaissance individualism in painting and other art forms were Italy and the Netherlands, two of the most advanced areas of mirror-making and their use. The psychological link is plausible; people saw themselves in a new way that detached them from the crowd and allowed them to inspect themselves more carefully. We can see the process at work in a number of great artists. Yet as with all supposed connections there are doubts. Most cultures have mirrors of some sort and one wants to know more about how mirrors are used, the relative clarity of metal and glass mirrors and so on.

On the question of use, it is clearly important to discover the way in which mirrors were regarded. In the west they were largely looked into to see the person. This was both a cause and consequence of growing individualism. In China and Japan and perhaps other civilisations mirrors were used for different purposes. It is worth examining one example in some detail to see the differences that mirrors and culture could make.

A number of analysts, both foreign and Japanese, agree that in Japan mirrors were traditionally used in a very different way from that in the west. They looked through the mirror image and through the 'observing self.' The mirror was not an instrument of vanity and self-assessment, but of contemplation, as can be seen in Shinto shrines where the mirror is the central object. The individual does not gaze into the mirror to see a rounded portrait of the physical and social person in front of the mirror, but to gaze through the physical into the innermost, mystical self.

I like the idea that mirrors were both a "cause and consequence" of individualism--the kind of individualism that we see so strikingly in Las Meninas. It makes sense to me that the technology of reflective glass would have different effects depending on the cultural context. Likewise, I reject the simple theory that the invention of printing increased freedom and undermined authority. There was a complex reciprocal relationship between technological and cultural change in the era of Gutenberg--just as there is today.

June 21, 2006 7:49 PM | category: fine arts | Comments

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