Stories in Reflection: Finding a Narrative in the Mirror

Mirrors are everywhere. We see them inside and outside, in our homes, in our cars, on walls, floors, and even ceilings. They are almost as ubiquitous as windows. Only it’s harder to resist the temptation of checking one’s hair or straightening an item of clothing as you pass by a mirror.

Obsidian Mirror (70.7.1) possibly about 1400-1500.

Natural mirrors, like the surface of a calm lake, have always existed, but manmade mirrors date back thousands of years to the earliest uses of polished obsidian (volcanic glass). Over the intervening centuries, the role of the mirror has evolved just as we have. Today, mirrors are an essential step in our morning routines, they keep us safe on the highway, help us to capture images for posterity, and let us see far out into space.

For a glass museum, it would be remiss of us not to have a few mirrors lying about. Examples in our collection showcase the many different ways that reflective surfaces have and will continue to be used as transformative objects. So, let’s take a look at some of them, and see what there is to see.

The first mirror on our journey is Reverse-painted Portrait on Mirror Glass Depicting a Mughal Nobleman, perhaps Nawab Shahamat Jang (2014.6.18). This mirror, made in India between 1760-1780, possibly by a Chinese or Indian artist, is “a fantastic embodiment of the vogue among Indian princes for European mirrors, the Chinese skill at reverse painting on glass, and the way in which mirrors of all types were then adapted and incorporated into non-European design and aesthetic,” says curator of early modern glass, Christopher Maxwell.

By reverse painting onto mirrored surfaces, artists could create scenes that wouldn’t become damaged or fade over time, thus enabling a viewer to glimpse themselves as part of the action without any imperfections corrupting their fantasies for many years to come.

Reverse-painted Portrait on Mirror Glass Depicting a Mughal Nobleman, perhaps Nawab Shahamat Jang (2014.6.18).

This object is not just an ornate example of a mirror used to reflect your visage back each day, but a storytelling device that transports you to a new time and place. The nobleman depicted is kneeling on a mat looking out from his terrace, with a sword by his side. What adventure or danger awaits him, and indeed you, when you enter the scene? The opportunity to imagine yourself in the company of some great personage is too enticing to ignore.

This narrative quality is the perfect segue to our next object. Mirrors have been used in storytelling and film for a long time and have become one of cinema’s most popular tropes. One of the most fun examples might be the hall of mirrors.

Unlike an amusement park or a haunted house, however, we don’t have a hall of mirrors here at the Museum (although, wouldn’t that be cool!), but we do have mirrors of all shapes, sizes, colors, and uses in our Innovations Center. This next mirror, shaped like one small piece of a much larger sphere, is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

The spherical mirror can be seen in action at the 1:33 mark in this short video.

The spherical mirror (99.8.30) acts as an optical illusion, it plays with the properties of glass to do something unexpected. As you approach the mirror you initially find your reflection upside down and strangely distant, but in one particular spot, known as the mirror’s focal point, you suddenly appear the right side up and much larger than life. It’s as if you’ve been swallowed by the mirror and now appear inside it.

These sorts of tricks have been utilized in movies and carnivals to bring a touch of the weird and wonderful to all who gaze into the mirror’s depths. It certainly works here, as guests gasp in surprise and delight. There are other fun mirrors nearby too, including a periscope that lets you see all of Corning without taking a step.

Of course, the most basic function of a mirror is to let you see… yourself. Mirrors are used for moments of reflection, both the physical and emotional kind and this last mirror embodies that idea.

33″ Rainbow, Tamas Abel (2019.3.33).

Tamas Abel’s 33” Rainbow (2019.3.33), on view in the sunlit halls of the Contemporary Art + Design Galleries, is a multicolored mirror that frames the face of every onlooker within six colors of the rainbow. The artist used this mirror as part of a larger performance in which he reflected the rainbow onto national monuments in his native Budapest as well as Washington, DC. “This subtle and resonant protest,” says Susie Silbert, curator of postwar and contemporary glass, “beautifully asserts the presence and value of the LGBTQIA+ community into the spiritual heart of each nation.”

But even without the performative aspect, Abel’s mirror speaks to you (like mirrors that predict the future, perhaps?) It opens up a discourse about identity and presence that can involve everybody—we don’t just see ourselves but others too.

Two other notable mirrors with stories to tell that you won’t want to miss, include this black mirror by artist Fred Wilson that takes its name from Shakespeare’s play Othello, and this ornate framed mirror soon to be on display in the Museum’s upcoming major exhibition, In Sparkling Company: Glass and the Costs of Social Life in Britain During the 1700s, opening May 7, 2021.

These examples are just some of the unique ways that mirrored objects in our collections have been used throughout time. How many more mirrors can you find in our collections, and when you look into them, what will you find?

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