Mirror Images

mirror broken

(This is a post that has previously appeared here, however now with four illustrations by Susanne Rempt).

All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realised that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence.  It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All that was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.

Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples)voodoo mirror

are decorated with mirrors as they are conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’

In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) by Vivant Denon the artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.mirror hand

One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’

However, for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. _20180102_164940 (1)Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.

Sens-Plastique

Malcolm de Chazal
Malcolm de Chazal

Born into a wealthy colonial  family with roots in the French aristocracy and which included several Rosicrucians and Swedenborgians, the writer, painter and visionary Malcolm De Chazal (1902-1981) spent his whole life on the island of Mauritius, with the exception of six years in Baton Rouge, where he completed his secondary education before attending Louisiana State University as an engineering student. Upon his return to the island he worked as an agronomist in the sugar plantations before quitting the field after he published a scathing critique on the methods and economy of the industry. He then worked as a civil servant before retiring at the age of 55. From 1940 however he increasingly dedicated himself to writing and later painting.

His most famous work is Sens-Plastique, a collection of thousands of aphorisms. The work was suggested after a visionary encounter with an azalea. While out for a walk, de Chazal observed the flower and then realised that the azalea was looking at him. He was then struck with the revelation that: “I became a flower while being myself all the time“, and that everything in the universe, be it animal, vegetable, mineral or human, was analogous. The aphorisms is Sens-Plastique are a riot of poetic analogy and concrete, visual metaphor.  It was hailed by the Surrealists; Andre Breton, Jean Paulhan, Georges Bataille and the originator of the term Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet all lauded de Chazal as a genius. Outside of French artistic circles the poet W.H Auden also championed Sens-Plastique.

In the 1950’s De Chazal took up painting at the suggestion of Georges Braque. His paintings are charmingly emblematic images of the landscape, flora and fauna of his beloved island home, the bold colours blazing with a visionary intensity.

An early supporter of Mauritian independence and the dismantling of a racial caste system that allowed vast inequalities to exist, de Chazal also wrote a ‘spiritual history’ of the rocks and mountains of the island. He became increasingly reclusive in his later years

Below are a selection of aphorisms from Sens-Plastique and a slideshow of his fauvist flavoured paintings.

Sens-Plastique

A fish in fear of its life turns into water. In the mutual pursuit of sexual pleasure—the fear of joy and the joy of fear—our bodies liquefy each other in the waters of the soul, becoming so spiritual that hardly any corporal self is left. When we wake up after love, we look around desperately for our lost body.

If our five senses didn’t serve as brakes to slow us down and filter our sensations, sexual pleasure would strike us like lightning and electrocute our souls.

We see a friend’s eye as one and indivisible. A stranger’s eye we take in part by part: the white, the iris, and the pupil.

Silence is a lawyer who pleads with his eyes.

A flowing river is an infinity of superimposed production belts.

The sunflower keeps its eye on the sun with its back turned to the shade. We die facing life with our backs to death, as if we were walking out of a room backwards.

Petals are a plant’s eardrum. Distant sounds make them quiver like the needle of a seismograph.

The kiss ends at the point of a needle. Sex ends fanning out. The kiss is an arrow. Sex is a fountain.

All the colours ‘rot’ in maroon, the rust of all rusts, the putrefying corpse of all dead colours, the sun’s humus, earth-color, resurrection’s winding-sheet, the shroud of life itself, the mound of eternity, the tomb of Light, Eternity’s burial vault.

Look too intensely at blue and your eye sees indigo. Look too intensely at red and you see garnet. If you look too intensely at yellow it turns green. A hypnotic stare injects blue into everything.

Water meanders on a completely smooth surface and toboggans down the glossiness of leaves.

The idealist walks on tiptoe, the materialist on his heels.

Ah is the shortest of human cries, Oh the longest. Man is born in an Ah and dies in an Oh, for birth is immediate and death is like an airplane taking off.

I am the owner of my shoulders, the tenant of my hips.

No matter how much leaves are fixed face to face they always look at each other aslant, whereas all fruits end up head-on however carelessly jumbled. A bunch of flowers is a house of coloured cards. A heap of fruit is a hive of coloured bees.

The flower has no weekday self, dressed as it always is in Sunday clothes.

The light would reach us more quickly in the morning and fade more slowly at night if the whole earth were divided into vast flower beds that called forth the light at dawn and clutched it longer at nightfall. Nature instituted summer for flowers long before man took summer over for his own uses.

To ‘hang on every word’ means to suck the eyes of the speaker.

The diamond scintillates less brilliantly when the fingers move rapidly than when they undulate and pivot. Glossy leaves throw off less light in a high wind than under the calm wavering of a breeze. Brusque movements of the eye cast a single gleam, and slow movements add a thousand others.

from Sens-Plastique

Malcolm de Chazal 1947

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Convulsive Beauty

The Lovers' Flower-From Nadja 1928-Leona Delcourt
The Lovers’ Flower-From Nadja 1928-Leona Delcourt

Andre Breton had ended Nadja with the bold statement that: “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” In L’Amour Fou (Mad Love) from 1937 he further expands on the theme with the declaration: “Convulsive beauty will be veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magic-circumstantial, or won’t be at all.” Accompanying the text are three photographs illustrating the types of convulsive beauty: Man Ray‘s Veiled-Erotic, a stunning nude study of the Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim, Fixed-Explosive also by Man Ray and Brassai‘s strange Magic-Circumstantial. All the images had previously appeared in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure.

The Voyeur

Jean-Marie Poumeyrol

I saw you clearly, as you are,
For the first time in a long while
From the perspective of the hallway
In the stillness of the afternoon
The bedroom (our bedroom) door
Wide open of any passing voyeur
To see and stare at the scene
Spot-lit by a pellucid light
Glaucous and migraine inducing
Nearly naked but of an undone bra
Twisted black satin and frilled lace
Lying almost still on the bed (our bed)
Pale flesh limpid in the peculiar glow
Your limbs entwined entangling
Intimately with his legs and arms
I flatten myself against the wall
But never for a second avert my gaze
Still my breath, strain to catch
Any stray whispered endearments
Sweet nothings or talking dirty
Hypnotic mesmerizing scandals
From this vantage point, this angle
I am unsure as to the identity
Of my lover’s lover, he could be
My brother, best friend or any
Stray random other, my betrayer
I am enraged, ashamed, enraptured
After all these years how could she?
The shame should be theirs but I’m
Intruding on an illicit secret passion
My skin burns hot with rushing blood
Perversely enjoying the raging hellfire
Of a jealously never to be quenched
Fanning ever anew with fierce delight
At the thought of this vivid tableau
Unknowingly arranged and presented
For my vast ever constant delectation,
A whole world of infinite heartbreak
In a pair of hastily cast-aside shoes.

The Paintings of Melancholia

Melancholia-Lars Von Trier-2011
Melancholia-Lars Von Trier-2011

Lars von Trier’s end of the world science fiction/domestic melodrama Melancholia from 2011 is full of allusions to other art forms; the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde plays throughout the film; one of the two sisters is named Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in a clear homage to the unfortunate character created by the Marquis De Sade; but these nods are outnumbered by the numerous references to paintings.

In the stunning prologue Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting Hunters in the Snow features prominently. It will make a reappearance in the middle of Justine’s disastrous wedding reception. Retreating to the study of her brother-in-law mansion, she is confronted by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsborough) who tells her to at least try to be happy on her wedding day. However Justine is suffering from severe depression and no amount of fake smiling is going to cure her. Claire returns to the debacle of the party leaving Justine alone in the orderly, tastefully decorated room. She notices on the shelves art books open on images of bright and jazzy geometric abstraction paintings, particularly the work of Kazimir Malevich. In her frame of mind this is absolutely intolerable and searching through the enviable rows of art books she curates a collection of images that better suits her melancholic mood. Below are the works I have been able to identity, followed by a brief description.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder-Hunters in the Snow-1565
Pieter Bruegel the Elder-Hunters in the Snow-1565

Although this painting undoubtedly possesses a postcard picturesque quality, it also speaks of dejection and dearth. The hunters wearily trudge through the thick snow with only an emaciated fox to show for their labours. To the right of the dogs and the foremost hunter can be seen the footprints of a small animal, maybe a hare, quarry that escaped. The muted colours are suitably bleak and wintry.

John Everett Millais-Ophelia-1851-1852
John Everett Millais-Ophelia-1851-1852

Millias’s hallucinatory, almost hyper-realist painting of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Driven insane with grief, Ophelia fashions a garland of wildflowers before falling into a river. She calmly keeps singing as she floats before the waterlogged dress weighs her down to drown a muddy death. Earlier in the prologue Justine is seen floating in a stream wearing her wedding dress and clutching a bouquet.

David with the Head of Goliath-Caravaggio ca 1605-1610
David with the Head of Goliath-Caravaggio ca 1605-1610

Justine next selects a painting I cannot identify, followed by Caravaggio’s brooding and psychologically complex David with the Head of Goliath. The young David hoists aloof the head of the slain Goliath, a particularly grim self portrait of Caravaggio himself. David appears more troubled and reflective than triumphant however. Caravaggio said that the model for David was ‘his own little Caravaggio’, which presumably refers to his studio assistant and widely rumoured lover Cecco del Caravaggio, or alternatively to his younger self whose wild excesses had contributed to his future destruction. Which would make it a macabre double self-portrait. The painting was sent as a gift to the influential Cardinal Scipione Borghese while Caravaggio was on the run for murder and had a literal price on his actual head.

There is a clear descent show here, through need and dejection to grief and insanity and finally to the most intimate act of violence, the murder of the self, suicide.The trajectory of depression. After the disastrous wedding, Part One, Justine’s half of the film, ends with the horse she is riding refusing to cross a bridge.

Part Two is from the viewpoint of the pragmatic Claire as a practically catatonic Justine returns from an institution. Justine spends a lot of time in the study, even sleeping there. Towards the finale of the film, when the end draws nigh as the rogue planet Melancholia approaches on its collision course with the earth, a new image can be send in Justine’s gallery of despair.

Hieronymus-Bosch-The Garden of Earthly Delights,-Central panel-Humankind Before the Flood-ca 1490-1510
Hieronymus-Bosch-The Garden of Earthly Delights,-Central panel-Humankind Before the Flood-ca 1490-1510

Undoubtedly the strangest and most enigmatic painting in the entire history of art, Bosch‘s triptych is a vast gallery of bizarre imagery and terrifying drolleries with its unforgettably vivid Hell. The detail highlighted is from the left-hand edge of the central panel, (close to Paradise but with most of the figures facing towards Hell) and is believed to represent Humankind before the Flood.

The very title of the film is a reference to Albrecht Dürer‘s famous engraving Melencolia I. It is also, I believe, a play on Susan Sontag’s famous dictum that ‘Depression is melancholy minus its charm’. The great art born out of depression universalises personal tragedy, imbuing it with charm to become a melancholia that has the potential to take on an operatic grandeur.

Yet, von Trier paradoxically seems to suggest that this romanticizing of depression is morally dubious and in questionable taste, at the very least. Suffering as a entertaining spectacle. Watching the Gotterdammerung from a terrace while sipping wine. For the terminal depressive, existence itself is an unmitigated evil, without the possibility of any redeeming charm.