Painting Through the Looking Glass

Carolina Puigdevall Claver

This text was writen for MIRROR RIM (Bilbao, 2020) publication and was published with the text First and Formost, Doubt by Ángel Calvo Ulloa.


Mirror Rim took place at the DIDAC Foundation (Santiago de Compostela) between December 17 and January 28, 2018 and at Appleton Square (Porto) between May 16 and June 16, 2018.


The word mirror, originating from the Latin mirare, and deriving in turn from the Old French verb mirour, is etymologically linked with sight and so with the action of looking or observing. Ever since humans first understood the vision of themselves and the world around them as a fictitious image reflected from the crystalline surface of calm water, up until the overuse of the same image that we see today, the mirror has gradually taken on an increasing role in society, until it has become an important feature in practically all facets of Western culture. The action of using a mirror to regard oneself or to explore one’s image from other points of view is as spontaneous as it is recurrent. In both literature and the visual arts, this action is a repeating and widely examined theme. The motif of an image within an image, and of a repeated, split, or reflected image, has been a constant throughout the history of art. Moreover, painting has on numerous occasions made use of the mirror as a pictorial tool, in some cases using it to set a scene or an alternative story line in a space where, traditionally, it had been possible only to describe one action. Leonardo advised painters always to keep a mirror at hand when creating symmetrical compositions. By observing the painting’s reflection an artist could verify that the work contained no errors and that its shape and character corresponded fully with its natural model. Where no discrepancies were detected between the reflected image and the real one, the pictorial representation could be considered perfect. For the painter, just as a figure and its reflection are one and the same, so would a painting and its original model be.


Both the mirror image and the painting are exclusive phenomena of sight. None of the other senses can access either the reflected or the painted virtual reality. That is one of the characteristics that lead the two to share a kind of common space. However, just as the mirror is capable of reflecting a three-dimensional image,  creating a new fictional space in which that virtual existence is possible, the painting must manage to transpose the tangible three-dimensionality of things to a flat, two-dimensional surface, giving rise to new images that, although they may refer to reality, inevitably reformulate it.  Painting may at times narrow the distance between reflected and represented virtual realities, though the first is almost impossible to achieve. In addition to  mirror and glass, which are presumed to be flat, polished, and perfect, there are many other reflective surfaces capable of giving off reflections; because of their morphological features, however, they modify the proportions and the shape of the object itself. By means of painting, we can reproduce in  two dimensions  all the modifications that curved surfaces produce in a reflected image, and can construct these modifications artificially on a flat surface, just as they would appear on a spherical surface in three dimensions.



For painting, equating the vision of reality represented on a canvas to the seamless virtual reality on the reflective surface of a mirror has always proved a great challenge. The conflict between real image and reproduced image that mimesis presupposes in painting goes a step further when the object or model is positioned before a mirror: Contrary to what happens in pictorial reproduction, which requires a visible and generally non-reflective surface, such as canvas, an element’s reflection in a mirror requires only an invisible surface. Although the mirrored surface is there, with a perfect duplication of the original image it is omitted. And it is for this reason that it is the mirror, and not painting or the rest of the traditional representation systems, which is considered the epitome of representation.


Nevertheless, the human being’s awareness of how images shown on some reflective surfaces are an illusory duplication of reality goes back to ancient times. As Kandinsky underscored in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), ʽIn this way, the whole world becomes gradually disenchanted. It is realized that trees give shade, that horses run fast and motor-cars still faster, that dogs bite, that the figure seen in a mirror is not a real human being.ʼ  Despite the surface of a mirror’s being so perfect that it becomes almost invisible to our eyes, losing its autonomous surface to become a duplication of what stands before it, we nevertheless know for certain that it is there. As long as the observer may identify what they see as the reflection of something else, the surface, as in a painting, becomes visible. All reflections inevitably allude to the existence of something somewhere else, sometimes even beyond our field of vision. This consciousness of the image of reality and artificial duplication is what allows any given reflection to be identified as such, rather than as an autonomous entity. Recognising something as a reflection does not necessarily depend on the visible presence of that thing that has ended up reflected but on accepting the impossibility of being in two places at once. The phenomena of the glass, the mirror, and the other reflective surfaces are totally perceptual and they depend on one’s capacity for seeing. Even though it is space that makes these phenomena possible and not the other way around, the image in the mirror sits  inside an unreal, an impossible space and is within continuous change. It shows a virtual reality, and for its momentary, fleeting projection  to exist, it requires the presence of another situated in the tangible space. In this sense, as mentioned, the mirror is not autonomous as a producer of images; rather, it always depends on the object reflected in real time. While in a reflection the meeting point between material and intangible is momentary and fleeting,  painting can make it be eternal.


The recognition of the image in the mirror as a duplication and unreal is inherent to the awakening of an individual’s consciousness, and if the duplication were to respond in a way that we didn’t expect, this would make for a level of discomfort difficult to bear. In Not to Be Reproduced(1937), his famous portrait of Edward James, Magritte defies the laws of optics and calls into question the individual’s recognition or self-awareness in front of a mirror. The sight of a reflection returning the original image in a transmuted way is implied to be something unacceptable, besides being impossible. The reflection of the man in the Magritte portrait prompts the observer to question their eyes and the existence or nonexistence of the mirror in the painting, and to consider the possibility that this is a portrait not of one person but of two. Nevertheless, the observer is forced to abandon that theory by the perfectly orthodox reflection of the book that rests on the mantelpiece. The possibilities for images returned by the looking glass suddenly become wider,  and in Derrida’s words (1987), the mirror takes on not-being-ableness, the possibility of not to be being: the contradiction based on the fact that what is reflecting is not what is reflected but the transformation of itself thanks to the image’s own contradiction.


Similarly and perhaps because of it, the mirror has for centuries been considered a metaphor for painting, as artwork acts as a tool of self-revelation for the observer, stimulating thought to come into being around the representation, what is seen and what remains hidden, the relationship between reproduction and truth, and the validity of the representation in space-time. Mimesis. As in painting, what the looking glass captures can be understood as an absolute instant that seeks truth, escapes movement, and moves away from representation to become a metaphor of what is reflected. 


These ideas lead us to accept that the mirror—also—provides us with another reality. A reality that differs from each point of view and perhaps even for each individual who approaches it. In a certain way, it is possible to look through the mirror, beyond the image itself or the reflected elements seen at first glance, so as to observe and feel through the vision. And so, one of the most relevant actions that come from the use of the object-mirror as a mechanism, for representation and reproduction, is self-reflection. The mirror works as a dead-end street and sends us, irrevocably, back to ourselves. In front of the mirror, we have the ability to look at or observe our image. The reflection we see in the mirror when we look becomes a fleeting image that lasts only some few moments; while, when we look through this image, we are forced to see ourselves on a plane beyond the physical, one venturing into the terrain of self-consciousness. But in just the way  the image reflected in the looking glass is subject to constant change, life in the sense of a space of time that is constantly interpreted, is modified with each experience, and equally makes it the meaning that we give to things. Despite the fact that seeing ourselves, looking at ourselves or recognising ourselves in the mirror is a fully automatic action, when we pay attention to the image it returns to us, we perceive the paradoxical effect of seeing ourselves from another person’s point of view.




In Ovid’s classic myth, Narcissus drowns in a lake after long hours of contemplating his own image, which is so captivating to him that he cannot look away. According to ancient Greek tradition, human beings’ reflection  is not a mere image, but a direct window into their soul, and, in some cases, seeing a detailed reflection of oneself in water or any other reflective surface was considered an omen of death. In a universe where the worlds of tangible elements and of ideas are separate, the splitting off and confrontation of subject and object within one moment of space-time can even be irreconcilable.


Caravaggio’sNarcissus(1597-99) is the perfect example of the representation of the reduplication phenomenon. In the canvas, the reflection and the reality are symmetrical across the horizon line. The subject and its double are in complete symbiosis, the one eternally dependent on the other. The arms of the real person and of his reflection form an almost perfect rectangle against a neutral background, thus creating what could be a unique figure, which perfectly supports the composition. If the painting were turned upside down, there would be no apparent difference. The interaction between Narcissus and his own image becomes the only theme of the picture. In fact, all other elements that set the scene and identify the myth have been removed. This is significant, as one of the reasons we recognise our image in the mirror as a reflection from the first glance is that we identify the duplication of all tangible elements around us. The canvas is a practically perfect exercise in reflection about painting and the concept of self-contemplation. As Cassini notes in his study on the myth and the modern interpretation of narcissism, it is painters—and not philosophers—who understand that the figure of Narcissus embodies the symbolof the looking glass. In this fable, so often depicted in Western painting, the mirror becomes capable not only of reflecting the subject but of creating images and inventing forms. The mirror shows what exists on the outside (a young man enraptured by the image reflected in the surface of a pool), but also what we cannot see, what is reflected inside the individual, which can be accessed only by the gaze which crosses that unreal and impossible space and brings us back to ourselves. The mirror facilitates self-revelation. The mistake of Narcissus, who ended up drowning, was to take his image as such a perfect imitation that it escaped from the limited and metaphorical space of reflection and became a real possibility. Alberti said that it was Narcissus who truly discovered painting, not on account of discovering a perfect imitation of his image but on account of recognising himself as an image.



Approaching and going deeper into Alain Urrutia’s painting demands that we conduct a complete review of the way we observe, the way we receive images, and the way we interpret the meanings we attribute to them or which are given to us as the result of a kind of collective unconscious. Just as we understand the reflected images as a virtual reality, we assume automatically that figurative painting is pure mimesis or imitation of what is real. Nonetheless, although certain pictorial and literary echoes can be found throughout his painting, the process becomes more complicated when we attempt to identify preexisting images from nature or from other pictorial works. That happens because when we observe such images, we directly access the terrain of ideas and representation—in other words, the reduplication phenomenon of the canvas, which acts as a mirror or a window on the world, and reflects not only what we see in it but also what is invisible to our eyes.


Urrutia creates macro-referential structures: each painting contains references to things which may be real or not. The job of deciding whether the observer is standing before the direct reflection of something or else an image created out of nothing is entirely up to the observer. The fact that the image functions as a sign and a system, transferring concepts, leads whoever is observing it to question the vision not only of nature, of art and of the painting itself, but also of themselves. Once more, we are faced with a process of becoming aware or self-aware. As is the case when we observe our reflection through the looking glass in an act of self-interpretation, Urrutia’s painting facilitates that introspective gaze which goes beyond the represented image and turns within in search of answers.


Confronting Urrutia’s work is like sitting again before a looking glass: now it is the painting that marks the end of the road, turns our gaze inward once more, and becomes the starting point for a process of self-reflection.