Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Further gazing at "The Venus Effect": Some questions

Magritte, Not to Be Reproduced

A couple of posts ago, I posted a couple of images that show their subject(s) interacting in some way with a mirror. I also linked to this page by Marco Bertamini, who claims that the work it sums up is the first psychological description of what he and his colleagues call "The Venus Effect": that in certain instances, such as Velázquez's Venus at Her Mirror, observers will say that the subject is admiring herself when, in fact, it's demonstrable that the subject is actually looking at the viewer. Following the links will lead you to descriptions of tests performed on subjects with paintings similar to the ones you see here, and with actual mirrors. The upshot of their research is that people are generally confused about how mirrors work and that that confusion manifests itself when we look at paintings.

What's curious to me, especially given that the researchers are psychologists, is that they offer no speculation as to what that confusion might reveal about the psyche. Maybe the answer to that question is so self-evident that it doesn't bear asking. But I ask it anyway because, surely, it is an issue that came into play for the painters of these pictures--Bertamini, in fact, mentions that the earliest description of the Velázquez Venus describes her as looking at herself--and one that matters vitally, given Venus's mirror's ancient association with self-knowledge.

The following is from Robert A. Johnson's book She: Understanding Feminine Psychology (found here):

Aphrodite is the principle of mirroring every experience back into our own consciousness. As man is occupied with expansion and exploration and finding that which is new, Aphrodite is reflecting and mirroring and assimilating. Aphrodite's mirror is symbolic of a most profound quality of the goddess of love. She frequently offers one a mirror by which one can see one's self, a self hopelessly stuck in projection without the help of the mirror. Asking what is being mirrored back can begin the process of understanding, which may prevent getting stuck in an insoluble emotional tangle. This is not to say there are not outer events. But it is important to realize and understand that many things of our own interior nature masquerade as outer events when they should be mirrored back into our subjective world from which they sprang. Aphrodite provides this mirror more often than we would like to admit. When ever one falls in love, sees the god or goddess-like qualities in another, it is Aphrodite mirroring our immortality and divine-like qualities. We are as reluctant to see our virtues as our faults and a long period of suffering generally lies between the mirroring and the accomplishment. Psyche takes just such a long journey between her falling in love with Eros and the discovery of her own immortality. (Emphases mine)
The mirror-as-self-knowledge certainly is a two-edged sword, leading as it can either to an honest appraisal of one's virtues and faults or to vanity. I got that. Here, though, are the questions that this leads me to ask: 1) Are we somehow misreading these paintings because of the Venus Effect? That is, are we in effect excluding ourselves from the scene depicted because we assume it is "about" Venus and not us, that the painting is ultimately about Venus's vanity and not an invitation to us to see ourselves more truly? [Aside: in view of our cultural ignorance of the Greek and Roman gods and the associations they once held, we may be misreading them anyway, Venus Effect or no, but that's another issue emtirely] 2) Or, alternately, were at least some of these painters aware of this phenomenon (I wouldn't put this possibility past Velázquez, for example, though the ter Borch in the earlier post might be playing with this as well) and in some way make use of it?

Comments are welcome, as always.

1 comment:

Camille said...

One of my favorite art teachers, Kazu Sano, used to say that "we look for ourselves in every painting, that everything we look at is ultimately a self-portrait." Some artists actually put mirrors in their work so you can literally see yourself.

The Venus Effect certainly raises lots of questions about the act of viewing, the ideas of projection and even what is real.