Magazine article The Spectator

Reflecting on Reflections

Magazine article The Spectator

Reflecting on Reflections

Article excerpt

We live in the age of the exhibition as multi-media event. You've read the book, you've seen the films, now come to see the show. But Mirror Image: Jonathan Miller on Reflection represents as highly a developed example of the phenomenon as we have seen to date. Indeed, while walking around, one finds oneself asking a post-modern, hall-of-mirrors type question: what is the true, the genuine form of Mirror Image? Is it book, television, or gallery exhibition? Which is the original and which the reflection?

Each has something to be said for it. The book (25 hbk, 14.95 pbk), of course, has by far the most words and therefore the most subtle and complex form of Jonathan Miller's argument. As a way of presenting ideas, the book remains by far the most effective piece of technology there is. On the other hand, I have been told that the television programmes are the most fun, because there you have the amusing, hyper-articulate Jonathan Miller in person explaining it all (I cannot comment on this, as, though I was sent a tape, I have neither television set nor video cassette recorder).

So what has the exhibition got going for it? There is room, naturally, for only an extremely attenuated precis of the ideas in the book, squeezed on to information boards. Dr Miller, equally naturally, is absent. On the other hand, you can see some of the illustrations in the original though not all. Certain key mirror-pictures - such as Velazquez's `Las Meninas' are not available for loan. Also, there is a gadgety, quite enjoyable installation including a mirrored corridor, a mirrored seat, a two-way mirror, and distorting mirrors outside on the way to the loo.

It is all, undeniably, fun. But what do we learn from it? Jonathan Miller's ideas fall into the same tradition as Sir Ernst Gombrich's Art and Illusion. That is, it is an attempt to apply the findings of science to the understanding of art - in particular, optics and the psychology of perception. Reflections are omnipresent in the visual world - either as mirror images if the reflecting surface is smooth enough, or as gleams, glistenings and sparkles.

All of these are important weapons in the naturalistic painter's armoury of devices for creating an illusion of life. It is the blob of white paint on the end of the nose, the highlights on the eyes that make the face convincing. Without them, as Miller demonstrates by removing the sparkle from some eyes by Botticelli, the image is strangely flat. Similarly, cunning use of reflections can give silver sheen, make water seem lustrous and liquid, and glass glassy.

In some cases, as again Miller demonstrates, take away the context and the illusion disappears. An area of rippling, reflective water cropped from a landscape and shown on its own doesn't look watery at all. It was its position in the picture that made us see the shimmering lake or still canal.

There are other, less narrowly optical points to this. Figurative paintings are a sub-division of the class of images, which also includes photographs and reflections (you could think of a photograph as a momentary reflection, captured on film). Certain painters were highly conscious of this. Velazquez, for example in `Las Meninas' - present in the exhibition in the ugly, unsatisfactory form of a large colour reproduction -- offers a catalogue of different varieties of images on the back wall: framed mirror, with a reflection of the king and queen, framed paintings, 'real' person framed in a door. It is, among other things, a meditation on illusion and reality, the paradoxes of depiction. …

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