Project The mirror phase

This project involves reviewing an essay by Jacquest Lacan on the ‘Mirror Phase’ and then:

  1. finding two surrealist paintings which might have echoes of the ‘Mirror Phase’ and
  2. two examples of how the contemporary media makes use of the idea.

Lacan and the Mirror Phase

Lacan is notoriously difficult to understand. Bur his work is highly influential. He was a follower of Freud and his work was originally founded on reinterpretation of Freud. Indeed his approach overcomes two key criticisms of Freud. One is that it is sexist: male centred. The other is that it is sexual: as if the unconscious centre of all we are is our sexuality, and only that. By re-framing Freud’s Oedipus story, Lacan addresses these two problems.

Lacan retains the idea that we are driven subconsciously by desire but in his terms this is a desire to experience what he calls La Reelle, raw reality. Lacan believed that we cannot experience reality directly. We perceive the world around us through language and images and all the limitations that this imposes. Lacan believed  that although we cannot know la réelle, in any way whatsoever, we have an obscure sense of it and its richness. We desire it. It is La desir.

Looking again at the Oedipal Complex, Freud represents it as a conflict, centred on sexuality, between mother and father. In Lacan, it is a conflict, located in désir, between the two things that we use to  describe the world: images (associated with the mother) and language (associated with the father).

For Lacan, we are “who we are” only in relation to other people. Our aims and desires are shaped by the desires of others, in interpersonal terms and in terms of social expectations and prohibitions. Our knowledge of the world comes to us by way of other people; the language we learn to speak prexists us, and to a great degree our thoughts conform to preestablished concepts and linguistic structures.

The ‘Mirror Phase’ is concerned with the formative exposure of the child to the images from the outside  world. These are characterised as the child seeing an image of itself in a mirror and recognising it as an image of itself, as a cohesive whole. Although the child recognises itself it also perceives the image as other, a form of idealised self or as Lacan puts it an Ideal-I. This is the beginning of what becomes a lifelong preoccupation with the idealised self image.

Surrealism and the Mirror Phase

This painting by Belgian painter Rene Magritte has echoes of the Mirror Phase for me.

Dangerous Liaisons René Magritte

A naked woman is holding a mirror which faces away from her. Her legs, hands and the top of her head are visible around the mirror. The mirror is reflecting the back of a women, which I assume to be the same woman. The parts of the woman’s body visible in the mirror image are the same as the parts of the woman holding the mirror which are obscured by the mirror. We would have course expected to see ourselves in the mirror. Is this painting suggesting that when we hold a mirror up to ourselves what we see is not ourselves but rather an idealised image…

The second painting is by Paul Delvaux and is called Mirror.

Mirror 1939 by Paul Delvaux

This shows a woman dressed in a long gown sitting on a stool looking into  a mirror. The room has a bare wooden floor and peeling wall paper. The mirror in contrast has a gilt frame and a crown on the top. In the mirror we see an image of a naked woman sitting on a stool with an idealised renaissance landscape in the background. This seems to me to be a clear reference to Lacan. Whilst the figure in the mirror is the same woman it is an idealised unattainable image of her. The contrast between clothed appearance in the room and her nakedness in the mirror might be a reference to unfulfilled sexual desire and the contrast between the bare room and the idealised garden a reference to a desire for a grander, richer life.

Contemporary Media

This is typical of what I was expecting to find in the advertising media.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall… 2009 Lanvin Ad Campaign

It shows a beautiful woman dressed in glamorous and expensive clothing, complete with the full range of accessories. She is looking into a mirror. She is sitting on an expensive looking chair and has her legs resting on a matching cushioned stool. Her bag is thrown carelessly on the stool. We only see the back of the real woman, so in a sense the real woman could represent anyone, and in particular the viewer of the ad. The vision in the mirror is one of great beauty, and I believe is intended to be a vision of what the viewer might expect to look like were she to buy and wear Lanvin clothing….

Mirrors also feature widely in album covers for popular music. The cover for the Ja Rule album The Mirror is typical.

Album Cover Ja Rule The Mirror

What you see is a representation of a mirror image of the artist/rapper. For the viewer it is intended to represent what they might see if they looked into a mirror, viz a rap star. Again it is appealing to the notion of the Ideal-I, someone we aspire to be.