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Mirrored illusions

In general, mirrors reflect reality, but in the world of art, different laws apply. Certainly in the world of Maurits Cornelis Escher. Here, nothing is what it seems. His prints are instantly recognisable, but the man behind them was something of an enigma. He looks at you in mirror prints such as Hand with Reflecting Sphere and Three Spheres II. Confident, empathic. But also composed and perhaps even a little mocking.

In his prints, he created a world full of reflections in which he constantly encountered himself and his themes, and his objects also encounter each other. It was a very important theme to him and these reflections feature in all sorts of ways. Sometimes very directly through the use of a mirror and because a print is always a mirror image of the woodblock or lithographic stone. Sometimes indirectly, through the repetition and reflection that mirroring entails. His prints often feature tessellations with repeating patterns, but also mirrored halves that are superimposed. Well, almost – it can also be that one half subtly differs from the other. Escher saw the world as a place where order and chaos fight for attention, with chaos often triumphing. Creating order out of chaos was an important motive for him and reflections were an important and useful tool to that end.

M.C. Escher, Three Spheres II, lithograph, April 1946
M.C. Escher, Still Life With Spherical Mirror, lithograph, November 1934

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait, silverpoint drawing, 1484. Collection: Albertina Museum, Vienna
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, oil on oak panel, 1434. Collection: National Gallery, London

It is often said of Escher that he was a one-man art movement. He did not fit any of the prevailing art movements and there were virtually no artists working on the same theme, but he was certainly not alone in his fascination with mirrors. Ever since humans first saw themselves and their world reflected in a shiny surface, they have been fascinated by that image. At the end of the Middle Ages, with the rise of the independent craftsman, the use of mirrors also became fashionable. The self-portrait emerged as a way of promoting oneself as an artist. A mirror was very useful for this. The mirror itself, however, was rarely depicted. The artist usually looked directly at the viewer. Albrecht Dürer referred to the mirror in a self-portrait of 1484 by writing on the drawing that he had made it with the help of a mirror. When an artist does show the mirror, the image raises deeper questions about the work and what it means to look at someone’s inverted image. A painted reflection reminds us of the painter’s artistry, his view of the world and his power to shape what we see. Austrian painter Johannes Gump portrayed himself working on a self-portrait with the help of a mirror. A triple self-portrait, in other words. The American painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell did the same over 300 years later, placing his work among self-portraits by Dürer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso and illustrating the long history of the art form.
Johannes Gumpp, Self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1646. Collection: Kunsthandel Peter Mühlbauer, Schloss Schönburg, Pöcking
Norman Rockwell, Triple Self-Portrait, 1960. Collection: The Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Parmigianino, Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, oil on panel, 1524. Collection: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Clara Peeters, Still Life with Flowers, a Silver-gilt Goblet, Dried Fruit, Sweetmeats, Bread sticks, Wine and a Pewter Pitcher, oil on panel, 1611. Collection: Museo del Prado, Madrid

Powerful examples of those early works in which mirrors play an important role include Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck and Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524) by Parmigianino. With Van Eyck, the mirror is a subtle but essential part of the representation. With Parmigianino, the work itself is actually a mirror. The Flemish artist Clara Peeters mainly produced still lifes, but she often used the mirrored curved surfaces of caps, lids and jars to present a miniature self-portrait. A characteristic feature of these three examples is the use of a convex mirror, with the reflection being distorted at the edges. The artist thus emphasises that the mirror image is something other than the subject that is reflected. It becomes a metaphor for another world. It was a way of looking at things that fascinated Escher immensely. He made several self-portraits with these spherical mirrors.

Caravaggio, Narcissus, oil on canvas, 1597-1599. Collection: Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, oil on canvas, 1656. Collection: Museo del Prado, Madrid

The significance of mirrors in art is characterised by ambiguity. Does the reflection reveal the truth or instead present an illusion? Does it show what is normally hidden? Does the reflection invite self-reflection or is it a sign of superficiality? Take Narcissus, for instance, who saw himself in the surface of the water and was unable to tear himself away from that image. An artist can play with this double meaning by, for example, suggesting that the reflection shows the truth, thus imposing an interpretation on the viewer. The mirror may reveal a character the viewer would otherwise not see. In Escher’s Still Life with Spherical Mirror, the newspaper, the book and the simurg (the Persian mythical creature that frequently features in his prints) feature twice, but the mirror also shows Escher himself and the rest of his study. The reflection thus reveals the hidden. In Las Meninas (1656-1657), Diego Vélazquez depicts the Spanish King and Queen alone in the mirror. Their daughter and her court are central. The artist himself is also prominently featured, looking straight at the viewer. He seems to be painting the royal couple, but that is not certain. His canvas can only be seen from behind. Vélazquez plays with the relationship between painter and viewer, between reality and illusion. Escher did something much simpler yet at the same time more radical in Still Life with Mirror. The image is so ‘ordinary’ that the reflection in the mirror is bound to tell the truth, and yet this is not the case. Because of this ambiguity, a work in which a mirror plays a central role soon acquires a symbolic charge. The reflection suggests a deeper truth, an interpretation that primarily occurs in the mind of the viewer, incidentally.

René Magritte, La reproduction interdite, oil on canvas, 1937. Collection: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
Paul Delvaux, Le miroir, oil on canvas, 1936. Private collection

The Belgian surrealists Paul Delvaux and René Magritte used mirrors to illustrate their own themes. For example, the mirror image in Magritte’s La réproduction interdite is not mirrored at all. The title can be read as ‘depiction prohibited’ though also as ‘depiction impossible’. In Delvaux’s Le Miroir the mirror functions as an allegory: the reflection comments on the figure sitting in front of it. The reflection reveals a hidden world, as in Escher’s Still Life with Mirror. These artists use their images to highlight the fact that a painting or print is not a representation of reality, a subject that is also typical of Escher.

‘Vanitas’ is another art theme that is markedly intertwined with mirrors. A vanitas image is about the transience of life and the certainty of death. A skull is often used for this purpose, sometimes in combination with a mirror. A woman looking at herself in a mirror, accompanied by her earthly possessions or by ‘death’, is also a common way of visualising this. Together, they comment on young and old, on life and death, and on the inevitability of time.

M.C. Escher, Eye (seventh and definitive state), mezzotint, October 1946
Jelle Korevaar, ..., 2017

Escher, too, played with the vanitas theme. In his print Eye, you see a skull reflected in the pupil of one eye. His eye stares out at you, and in its centre is the symbol of the transience of life. For Escher, however, Vanitas no longer had the connotations that it did for medieval and Renaissance artists. With a little intervention, he gives the viewer a push to think about themes such as death, eternity, introspection and reflection. The contemporary artist Jelle Korevaar does something similar with … (Dotdotdot). Korevaar produced an installation centred on a skull. A skull that cries endless tears of oil due to an ingenious construction. The works function as mirrors in which the viewer sees his own mortality reflected. What does it mean to be human, is there a soul and when does a human life end? Korevaar also touches on the humanity of robots, our dependence on fossil fuels, humankind as creator and autonomy versus heteronomy. Do you take your fate into your own hands or do you place it in someone else’s? Both Korevaar’s art and Escher’s art mirror the soul.

Mirroring and symmetry thus play a major role in Escher’s oeuvre, but he also takes liberties with these principles. The left-hand side of his work resembles the right-hand side, but differs in subtle and sometimes obvious ways. Below are a number of examples. Compare the print with a mirrored version by moving the slide back and forth.

Day and Night

M.C. Escher, Day and Night, woodcut in black and grey, printed from two blocks, February 1938


M.C. Escher, Encounter, lithograph, May 1944

Predestination (Topsy-Turvy World)

M.C. Escher, Predestination (Topsy-Turvy World), lithograph, January 1951

Convex and Concave

M.C. Escher, Convex and Concave, lithograph, March 1955

More Escher today