'Every mirror is false,' Malcolm de Chazal reminded us, 'because it repeats something it has not witnessed.' Image: Shutterstock
'Art must take reality by surprise’ - Françoise Sagan
A monkey can't recognise itself in a mirror, but a chimpanzee can. In that continuum, humans naturally have an even more special relationship with visually conceivable reality.
'Every mirror is false,' Malcolm de Chazal reminded us, 'because it repeats something it has not witnessed.'
Philosophy demands that mirrors should perhaps think before they reflect. There is a concept called the metamir, a metaphysical mirror which doesn’t obey the law of optics but reproduces your image as seen by the person who stands before you. A generally less favourable image than the one normally reflected or the one you would like to project.
The oldest known mirror is a lump of polished obsidian found in the debris of one of the earliest human
settlements dating from 9000 years ago in Turkey. Self-reflection has been with us since the dawn of civilisation, if not consciousness.
The mirror made of glass, at the time a miraculous invention, was monopolised by the Venetians who forbade their export on penalty of death. The French King Louis XIV, who owned one valued at three times the price of a Raphael, offered gold to tempt Venetian mirror
makers across the Alps to live and work in France. During the Renaissance they used convex mirrors to enlarge their angle of vision. In the late seventeenth century amateur landscape painters used the Claude Glass to capture the artistic qualities associated with the picturesque. This instrument was a small, portable, slightly convex glass mirror backed with dark foil. When held up to reflect the landscape it was considered to provide optimum framing and a harmonious albeit tinted colour scheme.
The mirror was also considered to be extremely precious, hence the seven years' bad luck if you broke one as it had magical properties. For instance, when you look into a mirror which faces another mirror
, you are reflected back and forth until you disappear into infinity. It reverses images left to right, but not upside down. When a right-handed person looks in the mirror while shaving, he becomes left-handed. The reflection of the person you think you are, isn't you—it's your other you.
Anaïs Nin would spend hours writing her diary at her dressing table which had a set of mirrors so she could see herself in triplicate whenever she glanced up. 'I needed to reassure myself that I existed', she explained. In many ways our social media
persona is also a mirror image.
Beyond reflected reality, perspective is the more profound subject. Harold Ross, the legendary editor of The New Yorker, sifting through cartoons submitted to the magazine would sometimes scribble on the artwork, 'Where am I?' Often, when we need to put things ‘in perspective' what we really mean is that we prefer situations which conform to 'our point of view'. You can be judged by your perspective on issues. A single fixed-point perspective is an output of a rigid, motionless mind.
But let us return to visual perspective: The discovery of linear perspective is attributed to Brunelleschi. In 1420 AD, he demonstrated this illusionary ordered recession of space through painting the Battistero in Florence. Through his perspectile experiment he created a realistic 3D space on a 2D surface.
Perspective was considered magical. A two-dimensional surface could be made to appear three dimensional; large things could be made to look small, and small things large; a painting could look like the real thing.
The truth is a diamond cut with many facets. In his film Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa showed us four very different versions of "reality
". By altering the perspective and order of events for each character, we perceive the unreality of their contrasting perceptions.
Robert Pirsig observed that we build up whole cultural patterns based on past "facts" which are extremely selective. When a new fact comes in that does not fit the pattern we don't throw out the pattern. We throw out the fact.
David Ruelle gave an explanation: 'When we open our eyes, we receive an enormous amount of information from the outside world. But because this outside world has a lot of structure, the messages received by the eyes are highly redundant. The visual system performs data compression. This data compression begins at the level of the retina, and even before reaching the visual cortex the visual messages are already highly processed and compressed. What we see are interpreted images, interpreted by a visual system that has been shaped by natural evolution to cope with a certain type of outside physical reality."
Perceptions are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe
, wrote Francis Bacon in a penetrating insight. Perception is how we see the outside from the inside.
Werner Heisenberg was of the view that what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. What a piece of bread looks like depends on whether you're hungry or not. Our notion of reality is
moulded by our parents, schooling and culture. Since we all come from differing backgrounds so do our perceptions of things. We build our own models of reality.
Seeing Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at an exhibition, a man approached Picasso and asked why he didn't paint people the way they looked. “Well, how do they look?" asked Picasso.
The man took a photograph of his wife from his wallet and handed it over. Picasso looked at the picture; then handing it back, said, “She is small, isn't she?”
During his lifetime Van Gogh couldn't give his paintings away. The last auction of Van Gogh paintings was in November 2021 by Christie’s where four Van Gogh paintings sold for a total of $161m (1,215 crore rupees). The paintings have not changed but aesthetic and visual attitudes have.
Salvador Dalí invented the term 'The Paranoiac-Critical Method' to describe transformations of one image to another. It was defined by Dalí himself as "irrational knowledge" based on a "delirium of interpretation".
In industrial urban societies, the environment
basically consists of lines and angles.
Rectangular buildings and boxy rooms, elevated power cables, straight or curved roads, and parallel tracks of railways. We live in a geometry of linear perspective. Zulus, on the other hand, have a circular culture. They live in round huts with round doors, they even plough in curves. Cree Indians don't like right-angles or curves. They prefer diagonals and live in lodges built like wigwams, complicated structures of poles built at every conceivable angle.
What is often seen and hence templated becomes a cliché. It is a French word for printing block, a graphic means of repetition ad infinitum. Clichés survive long after the conditions that produced them are dead. Clichés are the fastest way to express something you know.
Here is a clichéd sign off—It's the same old story isn't it? In a nutshell, we've had all and sundry who, by and large, and with all due respect, can't see beyond the end of their noses. They're in their ivory towers telling us that clichés are nothing to write home about.
I say hold your horses
. I might rock the boat and ruffle some feathers, but in this day and age, the conventional wisdom smells fishy to me. Indeed, you might think I've bigger fish to fry or that I've got a chip on my shoulder, but clichés are meat and drink to me. Sure, they can stick out like a sore thumb, but mark my words, a good cliché, time and time again, can warm the cockles of your heart. I could go on about this until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, when the chips are down, a cliché is par for the course. I realise that I've got my work cut out but there's no two ways about it: to some, clichés might stink to high heaven, but I'll use them until hell freezes over.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, ‘The crack in the cosmic egg’.
Howard Gardner, ‘Art, Mind and Brain’.
Susan Sontag, ‘On photography'.
Alan Fletcher, ‘Beware wet paint’ & 'The art of looking sideways’.
Colin Ware, ‘Visual thinking for design’.
Shubhranshu Singh is vice president, marketing - domestic & IB, CVBU, Tata Motors. He writes Simply Speaking, a weekly column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.
Note to readers: I'm intrigued by information such as that eight percent of the population is left-handed, that giraffes only sleep five minutes every twenty-four hours and so on which is useless but important! In the eighteenth century, German aristocrats kept glass-fronted cabinets which displayed curios. They called it Wunderkammern. This column is some such thing. In an unmarked field it is easy to wander… I want to open windows to glimpse views rather than a whodunnit or a how-to-do-it. I have a licence to be long or short. To be structured or abrupt. This column has no beginning, middle or end. It's a journey without a destination. Simply speaking...
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