MIRRORS AND REFLECTIONS
It was in a mirror, at some time, in some place, that the first act of recognition occurred, the point when man stared into the ocean, saw his face in its infinity, grew anxious, and began to ask, ‘Who is that?…’
(Sándor Márai: Casanova in Bolzano)
Who would not be tempted, would not be thrown into a fever at times, trying to visualise the world fettered to the three dimensions of existence, on the two-dimensional plane, or even in the four-dimensional hyperspace? Beautiful as it may be, the undertaking is futile: foredoomed to failure. For all intents and purposes, we are unable to imagine our visible world other than in its three dimensions, neither from here nor from beyond. Even when thinking of points, lines or planes, we always do so as parts of space; moreover, let us admit, when we envisage the notion of time, even then it is along endless networks oscillating in space that nostalgias projected into the past and the future haunt us. There is one single component of our created world, one physical and metaphysical entity that is an exception, and that is the mirror. The mirror and the mirror-image. Behind the luminous surface, the replica of reality without dimension, existence faced with itself, visibly three-dimensional, yet its planar image, the dividing line that can touch the whole universe. Not space – only its husked vision, not depth – only its releasing mystery, not creation – only its symbol divested of dimensions: the mirror. Albeit obscurely, nevertheless through the mirror we can recognise the world. Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate… And perhaps it can be represented through the mirror.
When we seek the origins of artistic representation, the mirror-image is generally the first to be mentioned (as the counterpart to the cast shadow). Did Narcissus know – who fell in love in the trace in that obscure, illusory replica, rippled by waves, who looked back at him from the mirror of the river – that the mirror-image that had just been born would also grow old with him? Perhaps he suspected so, but nevertheless secretly hoped that the facsimile would with some sort of artifice remain ageless and outlive him. It is this belief, the hope in immortality, that sustains occupation in art.
Man encloses the plane of creation into an angle of 180 degrees. To put it another way: our basic condition is the mirror – our sentence, and our fate, is just that. Man originally entered into the world in such a way that he would see himself in things. He is incapable of seeing, feeling or comprehending anything as independent of himself. He can only correlate every experience with himself. “My poems hope to sing of universes, but never reach beyond my lonely cell” – wrote Mihály Babits, and this immodest attitude, whether acknowledged or not, prevails in every author. “Thinking functions in such a way that one thinks one’s self, art in such a way that it becomes conscious of itself, and the poet will be a poet by beholding himself. To compose poetry, to reflect, to look in the mirror … all these ultimately are one and the same.” This narcissistic recognition formulated by Valery brought on perhaps the most significant change in the arts: the open acceptance and declaration of self-reflection, and it is conjecturable that societal alienation from the arts was also a consequence of this proclaimed isolation. Nowadays if someone depicts a mirror, or a reflection appears in the picture, either consciously or instinctively, it speaks about art itself. Of course, I suspect that it has always been this way.
The painter’s master is the mirror – wrote Leonardo at one point, and we can choose as we like among the many possibilities to comprehend the sentence left mysteriously open. In the professional circles, they often recommend checking the finished work of art by looking at it in the mirror. If the picture is good, its mirror-image should also work. The mirror can come into play as a device to aid perspectival drawing. There is a sketch of Leonardo, in which a draughtsman fixes the picture of the object depicted on a mirror, and he draws around it. This solution is quite similar to the presumed procedure by which Brunelleschi invented the technique of perspectival depiction. And of course, the quotation can also be comprehended philosophically: it is the task of the artist “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”. We can also observe that concealed in the slightly old-fashioned word “speculate” is the Latin speculum, i.e., the mirror. The primary meaning of the verb was to watch, to scrutinise, which, of course, is closely related to the mirror, but by now in the European languages rather the secondary meaning referring to meditation, excogitation entered. The French spéculer (= argue, profiteer), the English speculate (= ponder), and the German spekulieren (= reason, profiteer) all stand close to the Hungarian spekulál referring to cogitation. Among my works engaged with mirrors and reflections there are those that evoke older well-known mirror representations. I have produced graphic paraphrases of the famous convex mirror of Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, and that of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. My compositions employing mirrors belong to the most curious, or if you like, the most speculative portion of the anamorphoses.
For a good number of years, I have engaged in the slightly naïve, slightly mystic offshoot of the depiction of perspective that was so popular in the 16-17th centuries, then became a forgotten genre. Art history uses the terminus technicus for such amorphic illustrations, without meaning, that take on significance from an uncommon viewpoint, or on the cloak of an object of reflective surface they expose their secrets. The viewer of an anamorphosis, and not only – in following the infamous saying of Duchamp – the artist, completes it; he “does” it himself, identifying also his own viewer’s nature. As he discovers the exact viewpoint, as he recognises the image that is re-distorted to become intelligible, at the same time, he also defines his own spatial coordinates. The viewer of an anamorphosis observes not the sight appearing on the retina, but rather the correlations between the artwork and her/himself. S/he should concentrate on where s/he finds her/his place in the space created by the work of art, or more precisely that designated by the visual rays diverging from the work, and on what sort of mutations the movements of the meaning of the image lead to. While this occurs in the physical space, s/he also involuntarily observes the reception in her/himself, if you like, the mental mechanism of “artistic pleasure” in the spiritual space generated by the anamorphosis. The viewer who makes contact with anamorphoses might feel more independent, but also more vulnerable. For s/he has awakened to the altered position: now it is not her/him standing at the centre of the world. On the one hand, s/he senses the wonder of the creation of the image, but also the fact that s/he is left alone with the illusion that appears in her/his consciousness, but does not even exist in reality.
Perhaps familiar with my mirror-plays and my reflections with these games, I came to the mind of Bruno Ernst , who decided to send me the drawing that he had originally intended for Escher. He sent me a pencil sketch, depicting a mirror and a portal, moreover, in such an artful arrangement that the area behind the opening of the gate can only be seen through the mirror. He had originally destined the idea for Escher, offering it to him to make a lithograph based on the design, but the sickly artist could no longer do the work. In effect, the mirror-cylinder for anamorphoses fills exactly the same function as the mirror in the Ernst-sketch, since both render the hidden meaning of the image visible. In the first case, the mirror is a part of the drawing, while in the other, it is a real object, independent of the picture. This however, is not the definitive difference, but rather the nature of the image appearing in the mirror – the “picture within a picture”. As opposed to the two-dimensional “reality” of the drawing, the image of the anamorphosis is merely a virtual phenomenon, which cannot be grasped either in the horizontal figure, or on the surface of the placed over it mirror. It coasts somewhere on the rollercoaster between the retina and the cerebrum. We might say mysteriously that it is a “speculation” of two-and-a-half dimensions, referring again to the correlations between speculum and speculari.
Based on the Ernst-sketch, I produced a number of works. I would say that among them, my etching entitled The Well remains closest to the original conception of Bruno Ernst and M. C. Escher, at least if I think that they wanted to show a fabled landscape behind the portal. The “fairytale” attribute refers to carefree youth, as I tried to portray a panorama of the Amalfi bay, where Escher spent such beautiful periods. I formed the bleak environs on this side of the portal in such a way that they would conceal a 1934 self-portrait of Escher, which was could be rendered visible with the aid of a mirror-cylinder, i.e., anamorphically. The etching-anamorphosis was made in 1998, for the one-hundredth anniversary of Escher’s birth, and its first public presentation was at the centennial Escher Congress in Rome. In my lecture, I expressed that although I had prepared the etching, nevertheless I think of The Well as the work of the three of us: Ernst, Escher and myself. While I will admit that there is a measure of ostentation in this formulation, nevertheless I will continue thus: in every artwork born in the present, somehow, within, hidden, perhaps unintentionally, are the countless layers of cultural history, deposited one upon the other. Sometimes they may be discerned, similarly to the wall of a profouondly deep well.