Mirror in Contemporary Portrait Art

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“Mirrors are two-dimensional surfaces with virtual depth. If you measure the distance between the virtual object behind a mirror surface and the mirror surface, then you will discover that the distance is exactly the same as the distance between the real object and the mirror surface. Mirror images are in the mirror, not confined in or by the mirror’s surface.“ Admittedly, the role of the mirror has become elevated in relation to the exploration of self-acknowledgement in contemporary art. The mirror is the only thing we have to prove our self-awareness. Therefore, it is commonly seen that the use of the mirror is a motif for portrait artists in contemporary art, especially when artists examine and portray their own identities as the carrier. Since the reflected image of the mirror has unpredictable quality, it became a common instrument to facilitate portrait artists’ self-exploration. “The face in the mirror is always a revelation, not least for the artist. It provides a bracing glimpse of reality and an ultimate challenge to artistic perception, visual technique and skill. Yet it is also an illusion, a mere reflection on a surface. Can we trust appearances to deliver reality?” If an artist is mean to reveal the authenticity of the real world as part of his mission, what is exposed to us through the mirror? In this essay, I discuss the different directions that artists take to apply the mirror in representation of their self and the investigation of self-exploration; which I specifically categorize as three groups for discussion: I. Use of the mirror to reflect self; II. Use of the mirror to deflect self as others; III. Use the mirror to expand self in time and space. In Section I, I discuss how the mirror facilitates a reflection of the self in the works of the artists Claude Cahun and Peter Campus. In Section II, I explore how the mirror plays an important function of staging the self as other identities in the production of self-portraitures of artists: Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura. In Sections III, I discuss the three artists Maya Deren, Francesca Woodman and Yayoi Kusama in terms of how they apply the mirror in their works as a way of expanding their self-identities into time and space. Earlier Centuries: Mirror turns female into a site

In earlier centuries paintings, the mirror was commonly employed when portraying female figures. For instance, we see Susannah looking at herself in a mirror in Tintoretto’s painting Susannah and the Elders (c.1555). Another articulate example is Hans Memling’s Vanity (1435-1494), the woman in the painting is holding a mirror, rather than looking at the viewer or the painter, she’s obsessively looking at her reflection in the mirror. The eye contacts between the woman and her reflection from the mirror suggests that the woman is not capable to communicate directly with the audience; she can only relate to her reflection in the mirror. In other word, the use of the mirror turns the woman into a sight rather than subjectivity. Consequently, she is offering herself as an object of the man’s gaze. According to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing: “The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman. The moralizing, however, was mostly hypocritical. You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure. The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as first and foremost, a sight.” “Mirror of male desire, a role, an image a value, the fetishized woman attempts to locate herself to affirm her subjectivity within the rectangular space of another fetish – ironically enough, the ‘mirror of nature’” However, what is the true authenticity of the self when a woman standing in front of the mirror? Influenced by Surrealism, historical female artists, like Claude Cahun,...
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