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February Issue 2011

A Few Words From Down Under
Reflecting on Paintings

by Judith McGrath

The old saying, "A painting is a window on the world", refers to the illusion of reality in art. However, when we look through a window, we not only see what is beyond the glass, we also see a reflection of ourselves. The painted 'window' does the same.

Before artists signed their paintings, many placed an example of their work, or an image of themselves, in the picture. Some were unobtrusive, others rather flagrant. For example Masaccio painted himself as an apostle in his fresco The Tribute Money (1427), Piero della Francesca sleeps by Christ's sepulchre in his great fresco The Resurrection (1463), and Raphael is seen as one of Euclid's pupils in his fresco The School of Athens (1510). But the winner in the humility stakes has to be Michelangelo who painted a grotesque self-portrait on the flayed skin of a martyr in his The Last Judgement for the Sistine Chapel.

Slightly less humble is the self-portrait of Velazquez in his Las Meninas, painted in 1656. Not only does it serve as his signature, it also places him in excellent company! The work includes the Spanish Infanta Marguerita, along with her entourage of duenna, damsels, dwarfs and a dog visiting the artist's studio. The King and Queen's presence is suggested by their reflection in a mirror on the wall to the right of the artist. True, Velazquez was a favourite in the court of Philip IV (who often visited the studio to watch the artist paint) and held many posts beyond that of Court Painter but to place servant and master together in this manner says much about the artist's ego.

If artists can put themselves among the mighty, they can also place the high born in the company of fools. Paintings and lithographs, by Honore Daumier of 19th Century France, were often scathing comments and caricatures of the highest in society including lawyers, politicians and the Bourgeoisie. As a Social Realist, his art served as a window onto a dark political world.

Placing images of their own work in a painting was another way an artist could put himself in the picture. A pen and ink drawing, Artist and Model Reflected in a Mirror (1937) by Matisse, puts the artist in his studio but as a self-portrait it reveals only one facet of Henri, that of the artist. Matisse painted many images of the interior of his studio including his own artworks. These paintings of his paintings are probably more accurate reflections of the man than any mirror image self-portrait.

In Edouard Manet's Portrait of Emile Zola (1868) a sketch of the artist's Olympia is pinned on the wall behind the novelist. And if that was too subtle, a pamphlet written by Zola, entitled MANET, is in plain view on the desk.

Despite his use of warm colours, the darkest windows of all are those by the American artist Edward Hopper. Whether on the inside looking out or on the outside looking in, the only mood reflected is loneliness. His oft-reproduced image, Nighthawks (1942) is a perfect example. On a dark night we look through the large windows of a corner coffee shop. Four figures are arranged around the counter in warm light yet each is isolated from the other. There is no entry, so the viewer remains outside on the deserted street. This is a window on a world of alienation, a reflection of life in the city.

All forms of visual art, from Hollywood films to a child's drawing, mirrors some facet of reality and presents us with a different way of seeing ourselves. The Surrealist artist, Rene Magritte, tried to smash the idea of a 'window on the world' approach to art with his La Clef Des Champs (Free to Go Anywhere). His painting depicts a serene landscape seen through a broken window while the shards of glass on the floor retain pieces of the view.

I've often wondered if the artist was trying to escape from, or get back to, reality.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia, 25 minutes east of Perth. She received a BA in Fine Art and History from the University of Western Australia. McGrath lectured in Art History and Visual Literacy at various colleges around the Perth area, and was an art reviewer for The Sunday Times and The Western Review both published in the Perth area. McGrath is currently a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. She also co-ordinated the web site Art Seen in Western Australia found at (http://www.artseeninwa.com).


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