I saw some wood-framed convex mirrors hanging on the wall in a shop the other day, and stared at my bulbous-nosed reflection peering anxiously back at me. I remembered the scene in Ramona and Her Father where Ramona, unhappy that her mother wasn't able to make her a proper sheep costume, stares at her miserable face reflected in a Christmas ornament before finding the courage to go onstage. Then reached out with my hand, remembered the image of a painting at the back of my memory, thought of John Ashbery's words. (There was a little interview with Ashbery in a magazine a little while ago, which is why he was in my thoughts). He was born in Rochester, New York, in 1927, and more than seventy years later I would find myself in that same city reading a poem aloud in a classroom overlooking the trees and grass of my university campus.
The painting (which I can see vividly in my mind as soon as I close my eyes) is by Parmigianino, a self-portrait done in a convex mirror. He had seen himself reflected in a barber's mirror, and the young painter had taken a sphere of wood, sawed it in half, and sought to replicate that reflected image in paint. It is a beautiful face, framed by a smooth sweep of hair, a ruffled collar that repeats itself in a frilled cuff, all under a coat trimmed with fur. The hand seems almost larger than the head; such is the optical illusion created by the convex mirror and replicated by the artist, the pale hand emerging from the white sea-foam of the shirt-cuff, adorned by a gleaming ring.
As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslim, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose...
It rambles on for pages and pages, a long, unwieldy poem, but the opening words run into my mind whenever I think of that portrait, that beautiful face framed by the pleated collar, the curve of the chin echoed by the curve of that swooping hand.
...The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much further
Than your look as it intercepts the picture...
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
It is true. I cannot look at that clear-eyed gaze of the young Parmigianino for too long. It knows too much, sees too much, and I have to turn away, as I turn away from Ashbery's words, words that pierce as cleanly as a gaze.
Ashbery, John. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Penguin Books, 1976. pp 68-69.