lecturer at the University of Montréal




"Awareness seems to be a mirror of water from which sometimes the sky and sometimes the bottom comes towards the spectator : and often the bare, rippled water makes a host of mirrors and transparences — an intextricable image of images. "

Paul Valéry, Tel Quel (Œuvres, Vol. II, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, p. 604).


Using this old world in the broad sense permit-ted by its etymology, I would like to situate the role of the reflection in painting ; it is an effect rather than a theme stemming from a science whose definition would be the study of reflec­ted rays and broken rays. To locate, that is to say juxtapose this aspect using terms which might make it possible to define the phenomenon ; what comes to my mind is the body and its shadow whether projected on the ground or a sign of its relief, a sha­dow which can be detached in the first case as far as making the cause whose metonymy ( sil­houette ) it is disappear ; in the second case it can become encrusted until the shadow beco­mes the body (the relief ). Beyond this inversion, ail variations in style are possible ( multiple shadows depending on the type of light sources, shadows broken by the surface that they are projected on to).

A body is an absorbant substance, like the print that its mould would make — there is always a presence-absence — unlike light as a irradiating substance and which is implicit or explicit, direct or indirect (since it is blinding), one of whose projection effects is of course the reflection that we are attempting to describe. I would also like to mention the aureola of light, the nimbus, the metaphor of a body which is both opaque (terrastrial) and luminous (celestial), substances which combine in the icon whose depth are gold (shadowless light), or panchromatic ( like the rainbow for example, as in Grunewald's resurrection in the Isenheim Altar).

Should I also mention the "mirror-image" (the quality of being specular), a repetition of the body which is also present and absent (as in van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage Group), magnified and reduced as in the Parmesan's self-portrait ( Vienna), with form manipulated until the ana­morphosis permitted by the trick of using a mir­ror is reached ? Image, echo, re-echo ?... It is in fact only forms (which are made to resonate) and not substances, as if the history of western visual thinking repeated this ceaseless conf lict between strong presence and its specular doubling (ventriloquism in western painting?). I think in particular of the basic experiment in our history, closely studied by H. Damisch (in his book Théorie du nuage, Seuil, 1972, and followed by a study in the journal Macula 5/6, 1979, on the "origins" of perspective) : that of Brunelleschi faced with the bapistry in Florence, where the "perspective engine" (there is no other word for it ) made it possible to accurately determine the proportions of the building while giving the eye the leisure to contemplate the route of the clouds "reflected" by the mirror. But again, the reflection painted for natural and not artificial reasons is not a mirror image which is only a different reproduction of a body and its whole (or one of its parts shown) ; it is only a fraction of an hypothetical ensemble, a multi-plied fragment of a reality which is not invisible (as are celestial things) but glimpsed. The reflection, which is legible and often suggests an implied whole only gives a broken figure like an object which has been smashed and scattered in fragments like a jigsaw puzzle where you recognise certain pieces and which the eye completes mentally. It is basically discontinuous (in the topoligical sense) and its being rejects any oneness, any compactness assigned to bodies or objects (their discrete nature for example ) ; the reflection is therefore merely this possibility of glimpsing an ensemble through an irreductible multiplicity — diasporic, heterogeneous references to an ambient presence : here, cars, illuminated signs, patches of buil­dings, through the sheen of puddles. Reflec­tions are then the halo which can totalize without totalizing, possible or ambivalent pre­sences which to certain extent evoke the indefinite series of interpretative chains in C.S. Pierce's semiotics. The reflection is an upside-down world where we calculate that there is a place, as in the back of a tapestry which can still be read through its strands, that will show us a pattern. This is a metaphor for the world (in a philosophical sense) and I will not approach this point with regard to whether it is necessary reverse or traverse this screen in order to see Reflections are elusive and do they also bring to mind a generalised accidentality, an inability to construct a more or less loose mesh of latent forms ? A ' 'pointillist'  ( with dots everywhere ) solution obviously cornes to mind, but this only has consistence if the direction of the general contours is firmly maintained  (otherwise the representation fails). We have seen that the reflection is not this : a metonym, a middle stage enabling reconstitution, it is singular (in the mathematical sense) as a characteristic point or moment of the unfolding of a shape ; the reflection is neither element ( or point) nor glo­bal outline but a wavering forming a sense giving the eye the pleasure of imaginary recomposition.

Pierre BOUDON, semiologist

 Montréal - 1987