Subject, aims and methods of investigation

The discovery of the mirror not only brought humankind closer to itself but also propelled it farther into the infinity of the universe than any other medium. Not that humankind had not guessed as much from the beginning, but added to this guessing innate to human talent, came the millennia of untiring labours and the play of art and science and thought. The human love-affair with reflection (to cite Mark Pendergast’s subtitle ‑ Mirror/Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection [New York 2003]) has always been a platonic one and I hold that this is what has assured its multifarious prolongation in art, the humanities, the sciences. This affair was definitely also a narcissistic one, but notwithstanding, that aspect does not constitute the major subject of this book for various reasons.

Investigation of the mirror phenomenon in humanities research has hitherto focussed on the generation of the sense of self and of ‘consciousness’ – explicitly and primarily so. As a medium of self-knowledge, the mirror’s self-reference set the limit to its scholarly apprehension – self-reference as the great subject of all psycho-analytically informed approaches to research. As a void in the apprehension of the world, the mirror obtained a scholarly perspective and the more so in areas beyond its own qualities as a medium, i.e. in images and metaphor, the paradigms of all research looking to image and text.

This investigation sets out to comprehend paradoxes of this kind as the marks of a meta-complex of method out of which new models of the image continually arise. The waxing intangibility of proliferating images be they of the mind, in dreams, through gestures, and the equally rampant growth of microstructuring in allocations of knowledge lay a challenge before any aspiration to apply them to transdisciplinary and meta-medium phenomena. The mirror is an apt instrument to question such concepts to the core. As a scholarly framework, the problems posed by the mirror through history, as a meta-medium of visuality, serve well. The artistic and scientific applications of mirrors as media of acquiring a visual knowledge of the world hence form the backbone of the inquiry. ‘Mirror’ as a term is therefore applied (unless otherwise stated) as a noun of type or in the plural, to refer to surfaces that reflect light to a greater or lesser extent.

The same circumstances mean that I have had to place motifs, metaphors and models based on the mirror into their historical perspectives and to forgo any detailed elaboration of literary connections or insights of depth psychology. What surfaces the better are the applications of mirrors as medium and material, and space (albeit  no expanse) is there to consider the methodological pros and cons of such a selective approach. Even in this synopsis, it has to be and can be stated that what makes for the affinities between psychological, literary and image-research approaches in research on the mirror is the shared perception of the mirror as a factor in the formation of consciousness. The same goes for the predilection for phenomena that manifest in a context of archiving media (image and text). Yet the medium quality of the mirror comes about by dint of its undeniable property of transmission, unlike media of storage. That ricochets through media theory, theories of art and culture and through cultural historiography. A repository is one thing, a transmitter another: the distinction will act crucially on the quest for appropriate perspectives and classifications of what in terms of disciplines would rather appear as a heterogeneous material. To visual art relying on storage media, the mirror appears above all as a motif and a metaphor. While, now explicity, now latently, it is taken as the other side of the pictorial paradigm, it has been undergoing preparation since Classical and medieval times for its new mandate within art and architecture, as a material, a medium and a model. Entering by and by into the ambit of optical-catoptrical, mechanical and chemical as well as electronic appliances for the recording, transmission and storage of light and acoustic signals, the analogue medium of the mirror passes through further paradigmatic metamorphoses which visual art, too, should find highly significant. To give a stored image a conceptual frame will in future be possible only within such exegesis as addresses eye and ear, or eye and touch – so that the image now functions either as a frozen potential of performance or as synaesthesia gone mute. It stands in contrast with the mirror, which assumes the status of a medium facility or meta-medium of visual transference, encountering its only medial and operative limitation within the analogue or digital repository media. 

The present proposal for an artistic and cultural history of the mirror  is consequently based on the premise of being a part of this media relationship between mirror and image, polarising as my description of it is, but with no need to perpetuate the visual paradigm. Seen as a whole, the history of the mirror is that of the brittle continuity of a medium – if the key metaphors of seeing, light and the mirror are conceived of as media. Light as the vector of seeing conveys optical signals across distances, as the mirror as a vector of light can intensify or direct the latter. Light, the faculty and act of seeing and the mirror are constructs not only within media history but also for that of art and of culture. As the sentence is to language, so the mirror is to the quality of the visual. If the sentence is the logical form of reality, then the mirror is the aesthetic form of the visual. Both are culture rather than nature, for both in their respective plurality must be ‘polished’  or ‘constructed’ before they can become themselves. Thereby, too, reflection in its non-metaphorical, catoptric sense should be comprehended as a fourth cultural technique which, alongside the word, image and number, has merited the epithet of ‘culture-endowing’. In this apperception the mirror can dispense with a further medium, it IS the medium. All the rest are ‘inter-subjective’ observers of the first, second and n-th order bound into their circumstances (the associations between objects). Ergo the mirror is of inter-objective nature. It, and not its vis-à-vis – the metaphorised, hypertrophied subject be it dead or alive, - is intercalated between ‘image’ and ‘reality’. The subject is only ‘witness’ and that quality requires no attribution of any para or subsensory ‘powers of image-ination’ – all that is needful is the mirror’s occasional presence as material or as medium. The present and absent subject needs no prescribing of distance and angle relative to ‘its’ objects nor of what it should ‘picture’ in the process. Instead of ‘hermeneuting’, surely, he or she should be in motion, be allowed to alter circumstances, reflect them in parallel and not least, arrange the mirrors of one’s own accord and construct and essay all circumstances and attendant connections (i.e., reality) both old and new. Nor is there reason to fear for the cogency of objective argument in the tide of subjective references. Given to fact and perspective, the present elucidation of what is the splendidly heterogeneous stuff of the history of the mirror likewise takes a subordinate position before this greater ‘significance’ – qui nimium probat, nihil probat. Regarding the history and future of the cultural technique called reflection, the present investigation can be said to conclude, it would be a fine thing if art and science alike proceeded with both greater deliberation and greater boldness.


Seven chapters in chronological order and twenty-four sections are the framework for an exploration of the mirror as both a generator and a vessel of art and culture.

Chapter I will follow the traces of the mythology and metallurgy of the mirror in Greek and Roman culture and in the context of the rise of the first Bronze-Age civilisations and subsequent mirror production.  With mineral embryology and other motifs in European folklore as the point of departure, an approach adhering to the resource materials proceeds via meteoric and mythological metallurgy to the other metallurgical, symbolic  and magical, religious ideas of the ‘anti-pictorial’ Bronze Age. With the bronze mirror that appeared at the same time, the first, or at least central, culture-forming medium of transmission entered the scene of human history. The mythology-creating status of the media of dance, image and script is examined via the rise of Europe’s first advanced civilisation, in Crete. In this context I shall focus especially on the status and significance of the Daedalean myth cycle for the history of the western concept of art. The episode with the reflecting shields as instruments of mythological conflict-resolving is a precursor to examining the first based religions in the context of the geology and geography of mirror manufacture. This will be followed by a contemplation of the rise of western philosophy and science in the Pivotal or Axis Age and thereafter, looking in particular at the treatment of optical and catoptrical phenomena. The first chapter concludes by leading from optics and catoptrics to the metaphysics of light of the Early Middle Ages.

Chapter II examines mirrors in the religions, philosophy, art and science of Classical times and the medieval period. The fragilie continuity of mirror reflection as a cultural technology begins by running a course from the Classical materialism of myths and origins to the medieval idealism of vices and virtues. The corresponding ‘functionalising’ of the mirror will be a subject of the chapter as will early mirror-making itself. In that context, one crucial factor will certainly have been the appropriation of the mirror by metaphor and literature, a phenomenon which will be shown to be a complement to the gradual assimilation of the optical and catoptric investigations of Antiquity and the Islamic world.

In Chapter III, the aim is to summarise the mirror as a motif and a metaphor in the art of the Early Modern period. The development of academic conventions of representation are to be discussed in the context of the diversification and canonising of genres of painting, with reference to examples from the history of art. The mirror motif will be observed in its various metaphorical/allegorical combinations which were decidedly apt to stimulate an inflationary hyperproduction of pictorial interpretations of one and the same work. On the other hand the same potency contributed to crystallising out a by no means infinite canon of acknowledged masterpieces. This study will demonstrate that in them, the interest hinges with almost predictable regularity upon the mirror. Painted mirror images were a pointer to the laws of the medium in question precisely by continually transgressing their limits, either implicitly or explicitly. In the medium of painting, the genres of Allegory and Genre (1), of the Still Life (2), of allegories of the Senses (3), of the Portrait and Self-portrait (4), and finally, paintings of Venus and the nude generally (5) will come under scrutiny. Concluding, the perspective will be extended beyond the bounds of the genre canon, a particularly eminent example serving to demonstrate the transition from the ‘history painting’ to the ‘everyday object’ – followed by the early hall-of-mirror settings.

Chapter IV takes up the debate directly by placing the mirror centre-stage as material. Before crossing the threshold of the the halls of mirrors and other theatres of the art and science of the modern era, the chapter presents a brief outline of the history of European (glass-) mirror production and distribution, followed by a discussion of the design and reception of mirror frames, to end with the halls of mirrors with their important consequence of the ‘architecturalisation’ of the mirror and the ‘mirror-glazing’ of architecture. Finally the question of ‘decadence’ in the history of both mirror and taste, and of ‘progress’ in the practice and theory of art in the eighteenth century,  provides a link to the relationship between mirrors and the sciences as it has become established in the interim.

Chapter V is devoted to the ambiguities of mythology and morals, of modernism and fashionableness in the nineteenth century. Observations on the position of the mirror in the context of the industrialisation of art and culture leads to the significant section on the mirroring world of the Daguerrotype, of photography and telescopy, of ‘mirrors with and without a memory’, and a critical discussion of the discourse on the contemporaneous ‘techniques of the viewer’ and the ‘philosophical toys’. Mythology, archaeology, art and philosophy in the wider context of the mirror problem on the one hand and the mirror in visual art and in the urbane world, on to the innovations in mirror manufacture, in telescopy and in electrification, as well as early television on the other hand, form the subject of discussion here. We can reasonably assume that in the nineteenth century, after the irreversible experiences of the breaking of the bounds of ‘painted space’ and its extension into halls of mirrors and garden landscapes, the representation of mirrors in painting will have been seen in an altogether new aesthetic and cultural perspective. From 1800 on, the great incentive was to push forward the material-physical and optical-mechanical and especially the media ‘exploitation’ of the mirror. The significance of the mirror as a central meta-medium of the visual emerged in a particularly striking way in the late 1830s, when the daguerreotype was presented as the first process by which light values, transmitted via mirrors, could be stored. The enthusiasm at this ‘miracle of the preserved mirror-image’, however, clouded with idealism the insight that this ‘miracle’ was achieved via a three-part, optical-chemical-mechanical procedure. Chemistry in a certain sense pushed mechanics and optics into the background. In the awareness of the protagonists, the public and the critics, it was now only at a metaphorical level that the ever-indispensable mirror retained its inherent characteristics as a medium. Yet the shift of emphasis from optical transmission to mechanical-chemical storage brought about an artistic, media and cultural change of paradigm the durability of which only few media ‘revolutions’ were able to check. In the process of ‘mass-mediumisation’ of the medium of photography the mirror played the part of a meta-medium (detached from all content) that would in many ways prove to be the principle behind the cultural reorientation from three-dimensionally performative media of transmission to the planar, image storage media in many ways. This process brought in its wake some crucial consequences, not only in the sphere of culture and science. Individuals now saw themselves and the world almost exclusively in the image, as an image and by means of the image.

In Chapter VI, the artistic and scientific mirror reflections of the twentieth and early twenty-first century will be treated in greater detail than in the previous chapters. Preceding this will be a section on the concepts of the Picture and contexts of the Mirror in the late nineteenth and late twentieth century. The role and significance of the mirror in two-dimensional visual art is presented with reference to the practices and theories of painting and object art. At the same time I offer a more detailed critical appraisal of what has become known as Foucault’s Paradigm, along with its influence on art and on image theories, followed by a brief look back at the ‘mirror art’ of recent years.

Chapter VII surveys the techniques and concepts of artistic and scientific observation of both self and the world outside. An introduction on the expansion of scientific insight into spectrums of both light and mirrors ushers in examples of ‘mirror art’ and ‘mirror architecture’, of cinema and of performance art. Aspects of art using electronic media will be elucidated with particular reference to cybernetics and video technique, to feedback and to closed-circuit video installations.

The study’s final conclusions recapitulate on the topic of the ‘power of scientific method’ from a theoretical perspective which, in including the critical context of the post-Structuralist ‘methodology of power’ ends with a summary evaluation of the mirror as a meta-medium of the visual in its cultural portent and proposes the feat of mirroring/reflection in current scientific practice as the ‘fourth technique of culture’ alongside the image, script and number.