Where to start? Much to my surprise, I found myself in the middle of the Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the National Gallery last week. To my surprise because it involved a lot of late medieval religious paintings (which I don’t like) and even more Pre-Raphaelite paintings (which I also don’t much like). And you know what? It was really quite interesting. The point of the whole thing was to basically tell a story – or rather an interrelated group of stories.
It begins with the Ghent Altar Piece – determinedly medieval and conventionally religious, with an almost photographic sharpness and eye for detail. Paintings like this are problematic on several levels. Firstly, you have to be able to “read” the images – I got some of this right, except for the wealthy businessmen (who turned out to be OT patriarchs and prophets) and the pope, (who turned out to be Christ the King). Secondly, you have to understand the symbolism and the worldview that it represents. Smart readers will hold this thought – we will need later it in a different context.
There’s then what is generally reckoned to be a self-portrait of Jan Van Eyk. I like this and totally get it. The photographic realism is still there, but this is a million miles away from all those confessors and pilgrims and martyrs. This is a real person who looks straight at you across five hundred-odd years.
And then you get the Arnolfini Portrait – real people in a real, domestic setting, with light streaming through the window and a cute little dog. And then there’s that mirror. To modern eyes, just something in the background, but in its day and in the history of art, revolutionary. The key thing about this is that, as well as allowing Van Eyk to show just how clever he is – and he is very clever – it allows you to see “outside” the picture – even to see the painter himself. Velasquez used a similar device in Las Meninas (to which we may also need to return) and may have been consciously borrowed from Van Eyk, as he would have seen the Arnolfini Portrait in the Spanish Royal Collection.
People have been making mirrors for thousands of years, but you get the feeling that the convex mirror that almost seems to stand at the heart of painting is perhaps technically superior to anything that’s gone before – a triumph of the lensmaker’s art. At the time, it may have been no more than a curiosity – a piece of early 15th century domestic high tech or perhaps a first step from using mirrors to examine ourselves to using them to view our surroundings differently, to explore the universe through incorporation in telescopes and the nature of light itself.
Strictly speaking, of course, the reflection in the mirror should be of the person viewing the painting and their current surroundings – a reflection in time and space.