The List #10
A monthly list curated by Antonella Dedini
Mysterious and fascinating objects, mirrors have long created magical effects, can trick the eye, and have been used to make spaces bigger and brighter.
If mirrors could talk, they would tell tales of what they have seen over time: expressions, emotions, physical changes, secrets and stories which have been reflected on their surfaces.
This month’s The List is all about mirrors, and to start out, I want to quote the great art critic Gillo Dorfles in his self-portrait film/documentary In un bicchier d’acqua (In a Glass of Water), which I produced with Silvia Robertazzi, production company MIR Cinematografica, and director Francesco Clerici in 2017, a few days before Gillo’s death.
In the film – an intimate tale Gillo tells using his favorite objects in his home, which is both a real and symbolic as well as mental and physical space – Gillo talks about the things that are dearest to him. He blends art, history and everyday objects, family heirlooms and sculptures, memories and perceptions. He also shows the director his bathroom, where he defines the mirror above his sink as a “safe that guards my personal history”.
I always think of this statement when I look at myself in a mirror, knowing well that I will leave something of myself behind in that looking glass.
CONCEPTUAL ART AND MIRRORS
Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer’s phrase: "This is a Mirror, ..." is intended to recount to us his doubts about the meaning of reproductions of works of art, while at the same time provoking us with the use of a typeface which had never been used as an artistic medium.
In this first conceptual piece by Camnitzer, he uses the word “mirror” in the title, conveying a message about art and reproductions. In printing, each work is a faithful and inverted copy of its original, similar to the relationship between a body and its image reflected in a mirror.
Camnitzer was one of the pioneers of conceptual art, part of which is based on the printed language: cryptic propositions, random lists of words, and unrelated descriptive phrases. As elusive as it might seem, for him art was not about claiming mastery of a medium or perfecting an identifiable style. He wanted to use very basic and unglamorous visual and linguistic tools to liberate thought, without interference from the market. He considered himself an “expressionist printmaker”.
THE MYTH OF NARCISSUS
In love with his own mirrored image.
Narcissus is perhaps the best-known mythological figure, so much so that he has become an example of human behavior. In The Metamorphoses, the poet Ovid recounts the story of Narcissus, the young son of Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. Narcissus was so handsome that he lost his life because he fell madly in love with his own reflection in a fountain. He became the victim of his own fascination with himself, and tried in vain to embrace his own reflected image. Narcissus slowly became consumed until he was killed by this unattainable love.
“To quench his thirst, inside him, deep within him, another thirst was growing, for he saw an image in the pool, and fell in love with that unbodied hope, and found a substance in what was only shadow. He looks in wonder, charmed by himself, spell-bound, and no more moving than any marble statue…He wants himself; the love becomes the lover, the seeker sought, the kindler burns”.
MIRRORS IN ART PHOTOGRAPHY
In this film, the mirror table was part of the scene and the film, allowing a story to be told within the story.
The technical term “mise en abyme” (in French literally “placed into abyss”) was used by great photographers and was coined by Rosalind Krauss, an important American art critic. The term is used to explain the technique of placing a copy of any image within the image. This allows images reflected by a mirror to represent reality either by repeating the sequence infinitely, or by revealing another perspective, thus becoming the co-protagonist of the scene that reveals symbols and metaphors hidden in the characters’ souls.
VALENTINA’S MIRROR REFLECTION
In this lithograph, we see Valentina, the 1965 creation by Italian comics artist Guido Crepax, looking at herself in the mirror. Crepax managed to create the most sensual female comic book character in history. It was a climactic historical and political time in Italy, and Valentina was an inimitable, free-spirited and independent woman who was aware of her beauty and seductive power. She burst onto the scene with her bob à la Louise Brooks – a silent film diva – and her “fringe that shocked Italy”, as critic Gianpiero Mughini once said.
With this new oneiric eroticism, Crepax revolutionized how comics were drawn.
ANCIENT EGYPTIAN AND ROMAN MIRRORS
By 3000 BC, the ancient Egyptians succeeded in creating special reflective objects thanks to polished and decorated metals and alloys obtaining mirrorlike objects. Flat in shape, they were carefully polished and had an attached handle which was often in the form of a rod, a female figure, or a deity when they had a religious or funerary function. These objects acted as a link to the sun god, so much so that they were considered symbols of life and regeneration.
The quality of the materials used and their sophisticated craftsmanship made them true works of art. A text from the end of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, describing the nobility’s rise to power, spoke of the luxury of the wealthy: “The woman who looked at her face in the water now has a bronze mirror”.
But it was the Romans who introduced the technique of colorless glass which, when combined with sheets of lead, bronze and later tin, was able to form a reflective surface.
Contemporary designer Marcel Wanders designed a huge Pop-Art-style wall mirror in the iconic shape of a hand-held mirror. This mirror not only adds character to any space, but also calls to mind the history of this significant object.
THE CONVEX MIRROR
In Renaissance paintings, the convex mirror was often used to reveal to the viewer an important background to the scene depicted, almost as a kind of amplification of reality. It was a trick that increased the visual space within a work.
Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck painted the marriage portrait of a famous merchant from Lucca and his young wife who were living in Bruges. It appears to be a formal painting, set in the couple’s bedroom, but in the background in the center of the painting is a convex mirror hanging on the wall. Its reflection shows two individuals who are still an enigma: one of them could be Van Eyck himself, or simply two spectators who, thanks to the convex mirror, become part of the scene of the painting. It is a magical object, also known as the “witch’s eye”, which therefore offers various allegories.
These aspects are more interesting than the mere description of a mirror that, thanks to its construction, always gives a virtual, straight, shrunken but wider image of the space reflected in it, as is the case with street mirrors.
From images reflected in the mirror to a reflection on the artist’s own identity, work, and the very essence of Pop Art: Roy Lichtenstein did not interpret reality with his paintings but rather recorded it, “reflecting” it by using his own language from the world of comics to “desecrate” the culture of the American mass media.
The surface of a reflective sphere is magical due to its ability to contain a space which the human eye cannot grasp. Even the smallest of spheres can contain the images of the world around us. Spheres are fascinating, sensorial objects that are almost supernatural as they have the capacity to stimulate our curiosity.
It is no coincidence that Dutch artist Escher depicted a mirror in his meditation on reality and its physical and spatial laws. Observing a reflecting sphere, we realize that our everyday perception of reality can be questioned and limited, yet through the sphere, which widens our reality, we extend our field of vision, seeing various angles from which we can look at and learn about the world.
In this famous self-portrait shown here, Escher’s universe is revealed in a single image. We are invited to discover the studio where he works, catching glimpses of various objects and details.
From 1369 onwards and throughout the Renaissance, the pioneers of mirrors as we know them today were the Venetians, and especially craftsmen from Murano.
Thanks to various technical improvements, they created mirrors with a clear surface (previously, mirrors had a greenish color) and that reflected undeformed images. They became a status symbol for the wealthiest and most powerful families. In 1665, there was a first case of industrial espionage in Europe when the French government of Louis XIV sent spies to Venice to recruit specialists in mirror making, causing a serious diplomatic row.
HALL OF MIRRORS
The Hall of Mirrors occupies the entire west façade of the Palace of Versailles and was built to replace a terrace overlooking the large park which was considered too exposed to the weather and not used enough.
It is the largest room in the palace and was used for receptions and official ceremonies. Measuring 73 meters long by 10.5 meters wide, and with a height of 12.3 meters, it is the only room in the palace where there are no fireplaces because it is too large.
The hall has 17 large windows that open onto the park, flanked by 17 mirrors of the same size, each composed of another 350 smaller mirrors that have not only a decorative function but give perspective thanks to their ability to amplify both natural and artificial light from candles.
In the 18th century, the use of mirrors as furnishings was considered a sign of extreme refinement and wealth. It is said that they even cost more than a painting, and that only Venice, Italy held the secret as to how they were made and the monopoly on mirrors worldwide.
MIRRORED SHEET METAL ARMCHAIR
This armchair is made from sheets of stainless steel held together by bolts. And thanks to the strength and elasticity of the material, the chair is comfortable and robust. And its mirrored surface makes the armchair visually light and easy to position in spaces with a variety of colors and styles.
Inspired by the artist and designer Gaetano Pesce, Ron Arad has always had an interest in industrial materials for use in domestic environments. In the 1980s, he explored the potential of sheet steel, choosing to shape it by hand, giving the sheets a characteristically rough but reflective finish that would become a signature of his work.
This stunning armchair exalts the metal it is made of and fully expresses the material’s potential.
MIRROR CENTREPIECE AND TRAY
This mirror tray was made from a thin sheet of laser-cut steel and folded by hand to form a sinuous fruit bowl or centerpiece whose shape was suggested by the material itself, but also by the desire to create a symbolic shape. The twisting of the metal sheet resembles two hands, ready to receive but also to give, while the mirrored surface amplifies its contents.
Do materias suggest shapes to designers, or do shapes suggest the right materials? There is a powerful relationship between the shape of an object and the material one chooses to create it with, beyond its functionality.
An object’s shape only partially derives from the practical function of the object. If this were not the case, once a perfectly functional form is discovered, there would be no need for other designs. Instead, we continue to experiment with new techniques and materials. The shape of an object is linked to a plurality of factors of a functional and technical nature, but also symbolic and psychological ones.
mirror surfaces in Art and Architecture
REALITY AND SURREALITY
What artists try to do – and succeed in, in Anish Kapoor’s case – is to alter our perception of space. The Indian artist has stated that “a stone may lose its weight or a mirrored object may so camouflage itself in its surroundings as to appear like a hole in space”.
Reflective objects are not only visually light, leaving space for their surroundings, but also allow us, thanks to skillful artists who know how to mold their surfaces, to lose ourselves in a surreal world. Opposites that coexist in the same object, presence and absence, solidity and intangibility, reality and illusion.
DESIGN MIRRORS AND THEIR USES
Architects know: mirrors are a clever way to make a space seem larger. For centuries, mirrors have been used in interiors both as decorations and as a way to increase natural and artificial light, as long ago they reflected the flames of candles used to illuminate spaces.
More than just furnishing accessories, mirrors are functional objects, whether we need them to create an optical illusion or get ready in the bathroom. The size of a mirror is important, based on where we want to place it, and the frame is fundamental to transform it into a decorative object.
But what materials are mirrors of today made from? They consist of a sheet of glass where a thin layer of silver or aluminum is applied via vacuum. But let’s not forget that in the 16th century, Leonardo Fioravanti invented a technique for mirror making using mercury or tin, which are reflective metals. This technique was taken up by the Venetians, who became masters in the art, trading mirrors all over the World, including in the Orient.
Mirrored furniture and accessories create optical illusions that enhance the beauty of a space, and are the perfect way to make objects or collections stand out.
The history of mirrors incorporated into furnishings dates back to the 19th century, with pieces ranging from dressing tables to mirrored wardrobes in France at the time of Louis Philippe I, to the trumeau (or cabinet) in living rooms.
WATER AS A MIRROR
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Le Miroir d’Eau, or the Water Mirror, is a reflecting pool that is one of the most visited and photographed places in the world. Located in one of the most important squares in 18th century French neoclassical architecture, the original idea for the square, created by French town planner Claude Boucher, was to give the city of Bordeaux an opening towards the great river Garonne.
Today, the Water Mirror visually expands the boundaries and perspective of the majestic facades of the Palais de la Chambre and Palais de L’Industrie buildings, creating a continuum between the river bed and the square. Measuring 3,450 square meters, it is the largest artificial body of water ever created. Landscape artist Michel Corajoud created a large granite pool with little more than a 2 cm-deep sheet of water, while an 800 cubic meter cistern allows the water to flow down and up to the surface thanks to a sophisticated pumping system. The space is at times veiled by a magical mist, and walking on its surface makes you feel as if you were in paradise.
HOUSE OF MIRRORS
American artist Doug Aitken installed a traditional wooden house covered with mirrors from top to bottom in the snowy mountains in the Swiss town of Gstaad. For two years the house remained there, “reflecting and interacting with the mountain landscape over the changing seasons”.
In an interview with design magazine Dezeen, Aitken said: “Right now it’s completely minimal, removed of all color and definition. It’s a whiteout, covered in a blanket of snow…The viewer can come back to the piece as the seasons are changing, in fall in a storm or in the summer when it’s a green pasture. As our lives change, the artwork is shifting with us”.