Humans are among the few animals who can recognize themselves in mirrors, along with a few other apes (chimps, orangutans, bonobos), and perhaps dolphins and elephants. The ‘mirror stage’ when children first recognize themselves is widely understood as a critical phase of human development.
This is one of Magritte’s series of ‘word paintings’, in which the words and the image seem to be in conflict. The text and the image are given the same importance even though they contradict each other. Even the exact identity of the object is uncertain, despite the clarity of the style of painting. Magritte loved visual puns and paradoxes and was interested in the relationship between the painted image and the visible world and between text and image.
Mystic people all over the world stare into reflective objects – mirrors, oil, water, crystal balls, knives … – and go into a sort of trance. This was already practiced by Olmec shamans, Greek priestesses, Roman magicians, and Medieval wizards. It is a common superstition that someone who breaks a mirror will receive seven years of bad luck. The ancient Egyptians, as well as the Etruscans, Romans,
and many other cultures, buried people with mirrors, probably because these magical surfaces were thought to capture the soul and help preserve it in the afterlife. Similarly, the Chinese thought that demons only became visible in mirrors, so they put them on their backs to defend themselves from malevolent forces.
When two mirrors reflect one other, the endless abyss of mirrors-in-mirrors created between them might form a kind of spectral architecture. Jules Verne had an idea about using mirrors for space travel, where the infinite reflection travels an infinite distance in negligible time. This was derived from a story by Edgar Allen Poe involving a man trapped between two mirrors by the infinite distance between himself and his reflections. Magritte anticipated this also, and I’ve always thought mirrors should work like this;
Anamorphis is a form of art that was first used during the Renaissance and became particularly popular during the Victorian era. It involves distorting an image so that it is unrecognisable unless viewed in the right way. For example, Hans Holbein’s (German, 1497/8-1543) ‘The Ambassadors’ , today at the National Gallery in London, contains a skull (symbolising the transience of life) that has been grossly stretched. Beginning in the 17th century, artists painted even more severely distorted pictures, leaving a round circle in the middle. When a tubular or conical mirror was placed there, it reconstituted the picture so that you could see what it really was.
“Mirrors should think longer before they reflect.” ~ Jean Cocteau
Jean Cocteau was a poet wrapped inside a painter wrapped inside a filmmaker and actor. And he was even a boxing manager. Each was a skin, a costume, which he sometimes wore at the same time. Cocteau shed few of these skins and over time, even posthumously, acquired several more. In the 1980s, he was specifically promoted as the presumed Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. In 1997, his painting inside the London Notre Dame de France church became one of the key promotional items for Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s “The Templar Revelation”, the work that would go on to inspire “The Da Vinci Code”.
Though these claims are largely fabricated, Cocteau did have a fascination with the Italian master. In 1959, Cocteau contributed to a work on Leonardo Da Vinci, for which he wrote one of his famous poems: “Homage to Leonardo”, stating that his work expressed “better than this short work [i.e. his own contribution] that what Leonardo inspired me to do and the fraternal love I have for him.” Fraternal love… is this not typically used by members of certain types of secret or initiatory societies – a brotherhood?
Who was Jean Cocteau? In short, he saw himself as a poet. But he himself felt it was very dangerous to hold the mirror too closely, if only because Cocteau was obsessed with mirrors. In “Blood of a Poet”, a trend-setting short film made early on in his career, mirrors act like an event horizon, a watery substance, that propel those who attempt to penetrate through that veil to a strange realm, a world of deities, the dead, imaginary beings… the real home, it seems, of the poet. The poet was neither living nor dead; he was spoken of by few, understood by even fewer, if only because he spoke a language that was both of this and of another world. By the time we see Cocteau at work in “The Testament of Orpheus”, in which he not only directs but also plays the leading role, playing Jean Cocteau (who else?), we are blessed with eighty minutes of absurd, yet brilliant fantasy. In the movie, Cocteau tries to paint a flower in his own typical style, but instead he ends up making a self-portrait. Each time, his effort results in a self-portrait. Hence, a man wearing a skull mask appears and states that a painter will always end up painting himself, no matter what. And we can learn much about Cocteau by looking at what he did. Of course, artists of all kinds have always made self-portraits. Van Gogh was famous for his series of self-portraits. I’ve made a few self portraits over the years. Mostly because when it comes to securing a model… I was always available. All I had to do was look in a mirror. Which leads to this…
Drawing of the Day ~ “At the Beach” 1973