So the other day I was talking about Odalisque paintings. Something thing I have noticed about these paintings is the reoccurring image of the girls studying themselves in the mirror. So I wanted to think about this a little bit, and some of the possible ideas behind it.
I think we probably need to look at this from a couple of different points of view: What it may mean to a male audience – What it may mean to a female audience – Some wider ideas regarding the reflected image.
I suppose one level of interpretation could be that these women, who are usually high-born and glamorous, are working to perfect their image for the head of the household. It makes sense as the woman portrayed are often concubines or odalisques who’s job would involve seduction and pleasure giving. Which means the women depicted lounging about and looking in mirrors, are in fact working to perfect their craft.
On this theme, there could also be a point where this image is a reference to the painter and the audience themselves. In drawing these women, some painters were trying to study and reproduce the female figure. Like Ingres, some may have been searching for the ‘ideal female form’. The woman in the picture is studying her own figure, searching for imperfections – the same way as the painter is. This also reflects the spectators intention study the figure, albeit for different reasons. So, if the mirror reflects us then it becomes a gendered object of sorts. In the example above, the mirror becomes male.If this is the case, then the female figure is posing for the male mirror, and seeing herself reflected in him. This also get interesting if we look a little bit at what Jacques Lacan has to say about mirrors and the reflected image. Lacan (1901- 1981) was a French psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and philosopher. One of his most famous ideas is called ‘The Mirror Stage’. From what I understand, the Mirror Stage refers to a moment in life when a person looks in the mirror and identifies themselves with the image reflected. But the image reflected is in truth not an accurate portrayal, instead it’s a sort of perfect version of the self. A version that we aspire to be, because it is free of all the chaotic, emotional complications that the real person is full of.
So maybe – if the mirror represents the male gaze, and the reflection represents the ideal image that the woman should aspire to – then the work itself becomes about striving to achieve perfection, as set out by the artist. Which I suppose makes them a little bit like this:
Now lets try to look at this from another point of view.
Many of the images portraying women with mirrors are a bit like this one, and the one at the top of this post. Do you notice anything? Or more to the point, what don’t you notice? Well, what I noticed is that we don’t actually see the reflection.
This means that the ‘ideal image’ we’ve been talking about is a mystery to us, and can only be seen by the woman in the picture. She can see what we cannot. Like the way that what actually goes on in a Harem or our friends sleep-over parties is a mystery to us (a secret even), so is the woman’s reflection. This reflection could now symbolise the ideal image of her or a ‘truthful’ image – Her real self, along with her thoughts, opinions, etc. So in many ways it could be seen as being rather empowering in this way. The fact that no matter how much we study the surface, much remains hidden from us. What exactly is she looking at and why? I don’t know.
Just as a quick sideline – In Orientalism the East is often portrayed as either Female or Feminine (there is a difference). The feminine is seen as being mysterious, exotic and lovely which is why the male is attracted to her. All of these Odalisque images really seem to carry this idea within them. The very idea of the Harem seems to go towards explaining where some of these ideas came from.
I did an acting course in Italy about this time last year, and the teacher told us that looking in the mirror is important. As an actor it’s important to know your body. How it looks, how it moves, how it feels. Sounds obvious right? But I think sometimes we can get embarrassed about looking in the mirror. I think this comes from the fact that we are very used to caring about the way we are seen by others and the image we project. I often look at myself and think about what I could change or what should be better. But I think this isn’t really looking at yourself, this is sort of like looking through someone else’s eyes. It’s not easy to really just look in the mirror and it’s easy to forget that no-one will ever see what we do when we look at ourselves like this. Does this make any sense? I guess what I’m trying to say is that mirrors are good. But they are personal – when we look in a mirror we open a dialogue with ourself or our ‘other’ as Lacan might have put it. So don’t think for other people when you’re looking in a mirror, just enjoy your conversation with the ‘other you’.