God in love with His own beauty frames a glass, to view it by reflection.
Quote from Thomas Vaughan (1621-1665) – alchemist and Rosacrucian
www.mfa.org – Surimono by Gakutei (岳亭: 1786?-1868) of a cat frightened by its reflection in a black lacquer mirror stand. Look at the top of the stand and you will see the edge of the mirror. Also notice the gray cloth draped around it.
Helen Mirviss, one of the world’s experts on surimono, tells us that this print may have been produced in 1830 to commemorate a tiger year. She also notes that there are reasons to believe that it was printed by Tani Seikō and adds: “Seikō’s studio was the premier producer of surimono and deluxe commercial prints in the Kansai area during the 1820s through early 1830s.” Gakutei had moved to Osaka in that region in the late 1820s and had developed a working relationship with Seikō. Additional proof can be found in the gourd-shaped seal below the bowl of water, Seikō’s seal.
Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna – a self-portrait by Parmigianino (パルミジャニーノ: 1503-1540) when he was only sixteen.
I have known of this painting for decades. The first time I saw it was in a small book with beautiful color reproductions. It amazed me then and it amazes me today. Now, after posting this based on the mirror factor, I started looking for information about it and I am now doubly and triply awed by it. As it turns out, Parmigianino took it along with a few other paintings as ‘calling cards’ on a visit to Rome. He is said to have given it as gift to Pope Clement VII, who gave it to Pietro Aretino who showed it to Vasari. It entered other collections before it ever got to Vienna. Oh how I wish I had visited the Kunsthistorische when I was in that city, but I didn’t. Sigh.
One of the startling surprises I came across is that this painting was painted on a convex surface. As is usual with most paintings, it isn’t just painted on a flat plane. No, it repeats the form of the convex mirror itself. Astounding. David Franklin in The Art of Parmigianino gives a wonderful description: “The painting is on a convex panel measuring 24.4 centimetres in diameter, and is as novel for its support as for its image. The artist has depicted himself in his The artist has depicted himself in his studio, with light pouring from a window; an easel is visible to his left, as well as part of a mirror (underscoring his fascination with mirrors as props for self-examination). Parmigianino’s handsome face is perfectly centred in the pictorial field, showing none of the distortion one would expect from such a mirror; his enlarged right hand, however, looms in the foreground plane, conveying a more accurate if somewhat eccentric illusionism on the bulging support. The placement of this hand can be no accident, as it advertises in a kind of visual pun the source of the artist’s talent and material fortune. Indeed, the desire to accentuate it must surely account, in part, for the choice of this unusual support.”
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
Kahlil Gibran (ハリール・ジブラーン: 1883-1931)
A variation of the image shown above is M. C. Escher’s Hand with a Reflecting Sphere.
“…a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies,
at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be
accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shews the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather
blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water
to gather and the puddle to form.”
Stendahl (スタンダール: 1783-1824) from The Red and the Black (あかとくろ)
Below is Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage Portrait and below that is a detail of the mirror hanging on the wall in the background, showing the backsides of the happy couple.
National Gallery, London
A story of particular facts is a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful;
poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which it distorts.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (パーシー・ビッシュ・シェリー: 1792-1822)
Vanity doesn’t need a mirror!
Me – November 6, 2015
Below is Las Meninas by Velazquez (ベラスケス: 1599-1660) in the Prado. The detail below that shows an enlargement of the mirror on the back wall. In it are reflected the images of the King and Queen who are watching the whole scene while posing for their own portraits. The intellectual depth of this clever composition is remarkable.
The dandy should aspire to be uninterruptedly sublime. He should live and sleep in front of a mirror.
Charles Baudelaire (シャルル・ボードレール: 1821-1867)
The doctor should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show him nothing but what is shown to him.
Sigmund Freud (ジークムント・フロイトの: 1856-1939)
Then there is the Caprichio print by Goya entitled Hasta la muerte (‘Until death’). Keep in mind the quote from Ecclesiastes 1: “All is vanity.”
Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts
I’ve only been in love with a beer bottle and a mirror.
Sid Vicious (シド・ヴィシャス: 1957-1979)
Mirrors in Japanese prints and paintings before 1800
www.mfa.org – The illustrations of the book that these two pages come from are attributed to Hishikawa Moronobu (菱川師宣: 1618-94) and date from the late 1680s.
The good enough mother, owing to her deep empathy with her infant, reflects in her face his feelings;
this is why he sees himself in her face as if in a mirror and finds himself as he sees himself in her.
Bruno Bettelheim (ブルーノ・ベッテルハイム: 1903-90)
www.mfa.org – Attributed to Kiyonobu I (清信: 1664-1729) print of an actor, Ichikawa Danjūrō (初世市川団十郎), backstage being prepped for a performance. This dates from 1697 . The actor’s mimasu (三升) crest of three nested rice measures can be seen on the sleeves of his robe.
Life is for each man a solitary cell whose walls are mirrors.
Eugene O’Neill (ユージン・オニール: 1888-1953)
There are two copies of one print from 1700 by Kiyonobu I in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It is a real boon to connoisseurs and non-connoisseurs alike because one is plain and only printed in black ink and the other has been colored in beautifully, I might add, by hand. It gives the viewer a great opportunity to study both They represent the courtesan Kogenda looking down at her mirror while tying her obi. Enjoy.
Both are at http://www.mfa.org
“”I look for a new teacher,” said Emerson, ” that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle;
shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul…”
The mirror never lies… Well, not exactly – At some point all female roles in kabuki theater were played by men. So when artists portrayed them as they appeared to them, more often than not, the average modern viewer would be unable to know the truth of the image. In many later prints there were ways of telling the men from the women, but not always. For example, below is a print by Torii Kiyomasa I showing the actor Sanjō Kantarō as Yaoya Oshichi. It is dated to 1718. Would you be able to tell it is a man dressed as a woman if I hadn’t told you. Now be honest with yourself. Bet you couldn’t have. So, my point: what would the mirror being telling us? In this case, the mirror is not the image of the mirror in this print, but the artist himself.
Mirrors were believed to be very helpful in unmasking frauds. Okakura Kakuzō wrote: “Sometimes a mirror was made to detect the true nature of men. Such were invaluable to kings. And always mirrors were believed to penetrate disguises. No thing of evil could hope so to disguise itself as to pass in a mirror for anything but what it really was.”
So haue I now called you here, to recompence you againe with a great and a rare Present,
which is a faire and a Christall Mirror; Not such a Mirror wherein you may see your owne faces,
or shadowes; but such a Mirror, or Christall, as through the transparantnesse thereof,
you may see the heart of your King.
James I in a speech to Parliament on March 21, 1609
Rijksmuseum – bijin looking in a hand mirror by Okumura Toshinobu (奥村利信), ca. 1730
New York is a field of tireless and antagonistic interests—undoubtedly fascinating but horribly unreal.
Everybody is looking at everybody else—a foolish crowd walking on mirrors.
Wallace Stevens (ウォレス.スティーブンス: 1879-1955)
An important change came when printers started printing benizuri-e (紅摺絵) in three colors instead of using employees to hand color prints. The Mangetsudo (万月堂: active in the 1740s) image below from the British Museum is dated to ca.1744-48.
© Trustees of the British Museum
Bring us the mirror, you ignorant thing, and be sure not to sully the image by the transmission of your reflection!
Molière (モリエール: 1622-73)
The BIG CHANGE
The ‘big change’ comes with prints of Suzuki Harunobu, a giant of an artist – metaphorically speaking. For the first time we are presented with multi-colored prints or nishiki-e. Before that there were simple black-line prints with no color, then there were hand-colored examples – kind of like coloring books – and then prints which were produced using a two or three limited colored blocks. But none of this prepared the Japanese art market for what was to come with the great Harunobu and all the rest that followed. This was a sea-change, a revolution, an explosion, a cat never to be put back in the box. The difference is apparent to even the untrained eye.
www.mfa.org – The title of this Harunobu is ‘The Autumn Moon of the Mirror Stand’. It dates from 1766.
The war was a mirror; it reflected man’s every virtue and every vice,
and if you looked closely, like an artist at his drawings, it showed up both with unusual clarity.
George Grosz (ジョージ・グロス: 1893-1959)
Harunobu doubled down – I am dizzy with looking for and at images with mirrors in them. Harunobu may not have been the first Japanese artist who used this two-mirrors motif, but as with most images he created he did it so smoothly, so seamlessly. I mean… look at the subtle way he has reflected the back of the woman’s hairdo. Sweet!
© Trustees of the British Museum
At bottom, man mirrors himself in things; he considers everything beautiful
that reflects his own image: the judgment “beautiful” is the vanity of his species.
Friedrich Nietzsche (フリードリヒ・ニーチェ: 1844-1900)
Harunobu knew that mirrors could reveal the truth – Below is an early Harunobu print from the collection in Boston. It shows a beautiful young woman, Kuzunoha, wistfully looking out of a window at the water below which is reflecting back an image of her true self.
One more point that would not quickly come to modern viewers: this little print is also a calendar indicating in Western terms that this was produced in the year 1765. How do we know this? The falling leaves of the weeping willow take the form of the long months of that year. That’s how.
There are many versions of the story of the fox spirit Kuzunoha. I might as well add my own to the mix. Abe no Yasuna is in love with a woman who dies. His grief drives him mad and a fox takes pity on him, transforms itself into a human which looks just like Yasun’s lost love. They get married and have a son. Remember the male fox (spirit) took the form of a human female and gave birth. Then at some point the male fox/human woman-mother is forced to flee and as he/she/it does the fox returns to his/its original form. Both Kuniyoshi and his student Yoshitoshi did wonderful prints of this climactic moment. I have chosen the Yoshitoshi in this case. Look carefully at the mother/fox escaping behind the shoji screen as the son reaches out to stop her/it.
Logic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world. Logic is transcendental.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (ルートヴィヒ・ウィトゲンシュタイン: 1889-1951)
Who needs the Caitlyn story or the recent vote in Houston about using public restrooms when we have such precedents in Japanese folklore? Not a lot new under the sun, eh?
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child:
but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly…
I Corinthians 13
Harunobu could play on the concept of revelations – The collection of Harunobu prints at the Museum of Fine Arts is beyond belief. It is not complete, but even without encompassing his entire oeuvre is a world unto itself. Take for example the print from 1769-70 showing a beautiful young prostitute standing on the threshold of her place of business, listening to the flute being played by a young komuso, a wandering mendicant monk, or someone pretending to be a komuso. Sedge hats were also worn by samurai patrons to houses of ill repute so their true identities would remain anonymous. The name of this house is advertised on noren hanging down on our right. The kicker to all this is that the young woman could see what ‘the komuso‘ looked like by looking into the reflection of the young man’s face in the water held in a low rimmed basin at her feet.
www.mfa.org – Does it get any better than this?
Speech is the mirror of action…
Attributed to Solon (ソロン: ca. 630-560 B.C.) by Diogenes Laertius
Harunobu could be naughty – There is Harunobu pillar print in the Rijksmuseum in which a male attendant is looking into the water of well while holding a ladder which a beautiful young woman is climbing up to reach for fruit. Why is he looking down when he could be looking up? Why? Because this way he can look up her ‘skirt’. The lech.
A personal aside: In the years since I have moved to Washington state there have been the arrests of a number of men, reported on the nightly news, who were using cameras to take photos looking up women’s skirts. As I recall, most, if not all of them, have been released because it wasn’t illegal? Say what? If it isn’t it should be. Maybe the legislature fixed it and I didn’t hear about it. But just saying…
Little Prage is the place where the Emperours Court is placed vpon an exceeding high mountaine:
there is a Castle, wherein are two fayre Churches, in the one he found a monument,
which might well haue been a mirror to himselfe, and that was the Sepulchre of a notable Coniurer,
which by his Magick had so inchanted his Sepulchre, that who so euer set foote thereon,
should be sure neuer to dye in their beds.
From Faust (ファウスト) by Christopher Marlowe (クリストファー・マーロウ: 1564-93)
Espying, spying, I spy… Another great image is a pillar print by Kiyonaga. It is a mitate, a renewed interpretation of a scene from Act VII of the Chūshingura. It dates to the early 1780s.
© Trustees of the British Museum
The mind of the perfect man is like a mirror. It does not move with things,
nor does it anticipate them. It responds to things, but does not retain them.
Chuang Tzū (莊子: 4th c. B.C.)
Having a big head – There is a whole genre of Japanese woodblock prints called ōkubi-e (大首絵). What’s better than to use a mirror, as can be found in the British Museum Shunchō (春潮) print, ca, 1792, of Takashima Ohisa (高島おひさ) applying lip coloring. What’s funny about this one is that I own a mirror – an admittance – that can be flipped. One side is a normal mirror, but the other side shows things as they are when enlarged, close up. Vanity? Maybe.
© Trustees of the British Museum
For death remember’d should be like a mirror,
Who tells us life’s but breath, to trust it error.
William Shakespeare (ウィリアム・シェイクスピア: 1564-1616)
A job is a job – Below is a two page spread from the 1784 edition of the book Iroe shokunin burui (Color Pictures of Various Artisans – 彩画職人部類). It shows a mirror polisher being watched by two beauties. The artist is Tachibana Minkō (橘珉江).
National Diet Library
That big gun in your hand makes you look grown up—you think!
I’ll bet you spend hours posing in front of a mirror holding it, trying to look tough!…
Richard Brooks (リチャード・ブルックス: 1912-1992)
Why is the mirror more important to the Japanese culture, traditionally, than to anyone else on earth?
Why? Because the mirror is one of the three relics which signify the legitimacy of the imperial tradition that the emperor is descended directly from the sun goddess Amaterasu. [I will be adding a ton more information about this link in the near future. If you are intrigued, come back often to see what I have added.]
Below is a 12th century bronze mirror made in Japan.
© Trustees of the British Museum
Their curatorial files say:
“In this example, the birds are separated by twigs of pine needles and an outer circle contains more fronds of
pine needles. The central boss of the mirror is pierced with a hole to take a cord loop for holding it or suspending it.
Cranes mate for life, so they are often used as emblems of marital fidelity. They also appear at New Year to signify
long life. Here the cranes fly together in perfect symmetry, while the pine boughs, also symbols of New Year,
are scattered more informally across the design.
This mirror was one of a group of 18 donated to the Museum in 1927. The patina suggests that this particular one
may be ‘Haguro mirror’, from a group of 600 mirrors recovered from a sacred pond in front of the shrine on
Hagurosan mountain inYamagata prefecture.
It is thought the mirrors were brought by pilgrims from the imperial capital Kyoto and other areas, and offered
to the divine spirit in the pond.
Mirrors were a religious item owned by a temple or shrine or a luxury item meant only for the powerful and rich – There is a particularly curious box in the collection of the British Museum, They waffle a bit about its age, but basically they place it in the Kamakura period of the 13th century. Centuries later similar boxes were made during the Edo period. Be that as it may, it doesn’t change the fact that such care was devoted to something as basic as a mirror. There had to be something special about it.
© Trustees of the British Museum – Kamakura period, 13th c.
In the story of Shintokumaru a very wealthy and powerful man and his wife have been unable to have children. So they made a pilgrimage to Kiyomizu-dera to appeal to the Kannon for intervention and grant them a child, either male of female. In a dream Kannon appears to them and tells them that they are unable to conceive because they had done such selfish, wicked, life-destroying deeds in former lives – he had been a woodsman who set a fire which consumed the eggs of two pheasants thus destroying their lives and that of there chicks and she had been a monstrous snake beneath the bridge at Seta and had eaten the eggs of two swallows which were associated with the Eternal Land. For these reasons, the couple would never have children.
At first the wealthy man was angry and threatened Kannon, but wiser counsel urged him to calm down and take a different tack. He agreed and offered to enrich the temple devoted to that god. His wife made her own offering which stated:
If you grant us a child, I will give you seven Chinese mirrors, seven clear mirrors, and seven copper mirrors.
With these twenty-one mirrors, I will present to you an eight-foot dangling sash, five feet of hair,
and a twelve compartment handbox of heirlooms.
She offered much more, but it is the gift of the mirrors which interest us here.
Who created the first mirror? That’s easy, Mother Nature – In the 1908 Boston Museum Bulletin Okakura Kakuzō wrote: “The first mirrors in any country were undoubtedly still pools, such as Narcissus found to his cost.” Below is the painting of Echo and Narcissus by John W. Waterhouse.
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
We all know the story of Narcissus and Echo as told by Ovid (43 B.C. – 17 A.D.) – well not all of us do – but few of us know the second version told by Pausanias.(2nd c. A.D.)
In Ovid’s version Cephisus raped a woman in a stream and nearly drowned her. Later she gave birth to a beautiful son, Narcissus. By the time he was 16 and was both a boy and man he was so striking that:
…both boys and girls looked to him
To make love, and yet that slender figure
Of proud Narcissus had little feeling
For either boys or girls.
Then Echo entered the scene and pursued him lustfully, but Narcissus would have none of that. Besides, we aren’t interested in Echo because we are more interested in mirrors, right now. However, there was one boy who was love sick for Narcissus and when he couldn’t have him the boy prayed to the highest heaven:
“Oh may he love himself alone…
And yet fail in that great love.”
Nemesis heard the boy’s prayer and granted his wish. Now we get to the crux of the matter with Dryden’s translation:
Narcissus on the grassie verdure lyes:
But whilst within the chrystal fount he tries
To quench his heat, he feels new heats arise.
For as his own bright image he survey’d,
He fell in love with the fantastick shade;
And o’er the fair resemblance hung unmov’d,
Nor knew, fond youth! it was himself he lov’d.
The well-turn’d neck and shoulders he descries,
The spacious forehead, and the sparkling eyes…
By his own flames consum’d the lover lyes,
And gives himself the wound by which he dies.
To the cold water oft he joins his lips,
Oft catching at the beauteous shade he dips
His arms, as often from himself he slips.
Nor knows he who it is his arms pursue
With eager clasps, but loves he knows not who.
Now cutting to the chase, Narcissus pines away for love of his mirrored reflection.
Pausanias basically repeated Ovid’s tale, but he also gave us an alternative version.
There is another story about Narcissus, less popular indeed than the other, but not without some support. It is said that
Narcissus had a twin sister; they were exactly alike in appearance, their hair was the same, they wore similar clothes,
and went hunting together. The story goes on that Narcissus fell in love with his sister, and when the girl died, would go
to the spring, knowing that it was his reflection that he saw, but in spite of this knowledge finding some relief for his love
in imagining that he saw, not his own reflection, but the likeness of his sister.
The first reference to a mirror in China is said to date back to the 12th century B.C. The mirror there was a sheet of water. Between then and the time of Christ the Chinese used stones, jades, iron and bronze as mirrors. By the 6th century they were importing glass mirrors at great expense. Unfortunately only the bronze mirrors have survived. Nevertheless, the Chinese were said to have perfected the art of making highly reflective mirrors of one kind or another by the 5th century B.C.
It is said that one of the final steps in making a bronze mirror was to treat the polished surface with mercury, making it more reflective. “For cleaning that precious and delicate surface nothing served so well as the juice of a plum or of a pomegranate.”
In 1908 Okakura Kakuzō (岡倉 覚三: 1862-1913) wrote: “…to know what you face the world with is, in a measure, to know your soul…” Kakuzō went on to explain that the mirror was seen as a symbol of fidelity and purity. He also noted that certain Buddhist sects in Japan would carefully etch images of Buddha into the surfaces of mirrors. These were done in such a way that the images would appear as if miraculously. Later buddhas were even cast in high relief and were more obvious. Such mirrors were thought to have sacred qualities.
“…Taoist monk [in China] wore [mirrors] on their backs on their backs to ward off evil spirits, and frequently mirrors were placed on the breast of the dead for the same purpose. The belief was that evil destroys itself on recognizing itself. Hence mirrors could ward off sickness, since evil spirits cause it, and, by an easy deduction, could cure if ground up and taken as a medicine. How efficacious “powdered mirror” was the records do not say, but for long it was listed in the Chinese materia medica. One wonders still more at the belief that mirrors were a protection against robbery. Seven of them imbedded in the ground in a certain form, on a certain day, under auspicious conjunction of the stars, were held to form an impassable barrier to thieves.” Funny thing is that I live in a community nearly completely Chinese free that would still believe that such things would work. Next thing you know we will be seeing the arrangement of seven mirrors everywhere here to ward off thieves. Who needs to pay expensive insurance premiums anymore?
Kakuzō added: “Even today [remember this was in 1908] a Chinese lady in the perils of child-birth holds a mirror to ensure greatness for the son hoped for.”
One of the strangest and most unique Japanese prints from the 18th century is attributed to Katsukawa Shunshō (勝川春章: 1726-92) dating from 1772. It shows the reflection of the ‘Shibaraku’ makeup of the actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V in a mirror. Visually it seems to be different than almost all other Japanese prints with mirrors in them from that time. However, I must add, I don’t doubt its authenticity. Its odd look comes from the fact that it is an egoyomi (絵暦) or calendar print with the numbers of some of the months hidden in the fabrics in the foreground.
©The Art Institute of Chicago
Let’s go back to the special features of some Japanese mirrors – In the Proceedings of the Royal Society in London in 1878 a paper was delivered on ‘The Magic Mirrors of Japan’. “Just before leaving England, in 1873, the attention of one of the authors was directed to the so-called magic property of certain Eastern mirrors by the late Sir Charles Wheatstone, who explained to him that the Japanese had a clever trick of scratching a pattern on the surface of a bronze mirror which, after being polished, showed no traces of the scratches when looked at directly, but which, when used to reflect the sunlight on to a screen, revealed the pattern as a bright image.”
Henri Poincaré (アンリ・ポアンカレ: 1854-1912) once said: “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it, and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and life would not be worth living.” Right after that is the rest of the quote: “I am not speaking, of course, of the beauty which strikes the senses, of the beauty of qualities and appearances. I am far from despising this, but it has nothing to do with science. What I mean is that more intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp.”
Of course, Poincaré is considered the ‘Father of the Chaos Theory’, the ‘théorie du chaos‘ – カオス理論. I mention this because this post at the beginning may seen to be a bit chaotic and difficult to follow. However, I assure you that I am not one of those individuals he referred to who has ‘a pure intelligence’. Mine is far more chaotic and it shows. But, please stay with me on this one and everything will become clearer – and more reflective – as I add to this post. Come back often and you will see what I mean.
Just to give you a hint of what might be coming in future mirror posts – Remember this is just the first one dealing with that ever present mirroring effect. Below is ‘Rabbit’ by Jeff Koons looking very like a mylar bunny balloon which is actually made of stainless steel.
This image was posted at Flickr by Jason W. Lacey.