EN3246   Literature and the Other Arts: Poetry and Painting

Rajeev S. Patke



Lecture 5  John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)




The Parmigianino Self Portrait

Source: http://people.virginia.edu/~djr4r/parmigianino.html


*John Haber on Parmigianino: http://www.haberarts.com/parma.htm

Poetry magazine feature on Ashbery: http://poetrymagazine.org/webexclusive/fromthearchive.ashbery.html

*One Poet’s Notes: http://edwardbyrne.blogspot.com/2007/07/john-ashbery-self-portrait-in-convex.html

Ashbery resource center: http://www.flowchartfoundation.org/arc/home/

*Visual art references index: http://www.flowchartfoundation.org/arc/home/ashbery_influences_interests/pop5.visual%20art/

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ashbery

Ashbery interview: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/a_kind_of_musical_space/

Marjorie Perloff on Ashbery: http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/ashbery.html

Poets.org: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/238

*On convex mirror: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5926

*New York School: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5941

Meghan O'Rourke on how to read Ashbery: http://www.slate.com/id/2114565/


   Ashbery’s poem consists of 552 unrhymed lines, comprising 6 un-numbered sections.
    Online text:                     Link: full poem
    Section        Lines
    I                   1-99                  
 "Ashbery more or less offers a faithful verbal representation of the image of the self  the painting contrives."
    II                   100- 150          
"The first of the series of digressions from the painting. In this section, the poet's attention has begun to drift, as it sometimes does when one is looking at a painting, and he finds himself thinking about his own circumstances."
    III                  151-206
"Consideration of what takes place as one views or produces a painting by considering how much more difficult it is to represent such experiences, as the present is the hardest to get into perspective, beings till in the state of being."
    IV                 207-250
"Ashbery draws on Freedberg to present the High Renaissance background out of which Parmigianino's painting emerges".
    V                  251-310
"A movement from Parmigianino's situation to a contemplation of the poet's own. A transition occurs here, where the history of Parmigianino's painting leads Ashbery to recount the history of his relationship with the painting, and so the history of the writing of his poem. Focus of art shifts more to Ashbery's own poetic work and act of creating poetry."
    VI                 311-552

"The painting has all but disappeared from view by this last section, and what we see instead is Ashbery proposing his own aesthetics, and examines his own ideas about the circumstances that surround us as we produce and consume art."

 [Source for prose summary of the main "argument" of the 6 sections:  David Herd, John Ashbery and American Poetry. New York: Palgrave, 2000, pp. 163ff.]

Some of the basic ideas and preoccupations voiced by the poem in its ruminative, meditative style:
1.  Parmigianino's self-portrait might suggest that painting is an art form that captures "reality", or at least its "surface", thus raising the question of whether surfaces are the "truth" or not.
2. But the painting also gives some basis for the opposite speculation, especially because of the way in which painter's image looks at us, the viewer's as if the soul of the person represented in the painting could communicate directly with us, exemplifying the ancient belief that the soul looks out through the eyes of a person.
3. This idea of the painting "capturing" the soul is developed further to suggest that the body, and painting, and hence art too, keep the soul captive.
4. The gaze of the image is restrained yet powerful in conveying tenderness, regret, amusement, yet the wordless nature of the visual medium means that the painting, like all paintings, is silent about what it "intends" or "means": words belong to a different medium (poetry). So the mirroring of life by art leaves open the
opposite speculation (punning on mirror=speculum) that the entire notion of the soul and its secret confinement might be a fiction of the imagination.
5. The englobed circularity of the painting excludes, as much as it includes. Its use of the concave reflecting surface accentuates that effect in visual terms, making the enlarged hand both shore up and hold back.
6. The self-contained quality of the painting contrast with the all the ways in which life, on our globe of the earth, both is "surface" and yet is not all so readily containable, as the painting (and hence all art) might suggest. Ashbery describes this as the problem of "pathos vs. experience" (95): i.e. the perfection of art, which is also its remoteness from the life it is based on, as "pathos", contrasted with the much less organized nature of life as "experience".
7. These reflections cause Ashbery to turn away a little from the painting to contemplate the larger issues it can be said to exemplify, in which an artist contemplating the artistic task of representation (and all representation is, after all, a sort of self-representation) brings in all our experiences, memories, human contacts, etc.
8. The roundness of the painting makes the poet think of life and the problem of representing it as a kind of carousel in which everything that constitutes "experience" is whirled round, and yet, as in the Parmigianino painting, it can all be assimilated, "accepting everything" (133) with his wraith-like smile. The ordinariness of mundane existence is thus ruled out, it appears, forever, as "the extraneous" (144): the painting thus contains and excludes, at once.
9. The poet then moves on, in part 3, to consider the ways in which the present moment is difficult to put into perspective (since the poet does not have anything like the laws of linear perspective invented/discovered by Renaissance art to fall back on, when issue sin time are, and are not, analogous to issues of space).
10. Ashbery then goes to consider how Freedberg points out the bizarre aspect captured by Parmigianino's apparent "realism", which can take in disharmony, distortion, while still retaining elements of idealized beauty. Ashbery broods, in section 3, on the tension between beauty and disharmony, as dramatized by the ambivalence of the painting.
11. Section 4 dwells on the report by Vasari of the angelic quality to Parmigianino, which his self-portrait captures so enigmatically, "in the concept / Rather than its realization" (226-7), unlike his later portraits, which are more overtly Mannerist.
12. Section 5 reflects on the turbulent times and personal circumstances in which Parmigianino's painted his work. That provides the occasion for a much broader set of reflections on how "something new is on the way" (268), which has both a negative and a positive connotation for the poet, who now turns from the picture in its time to the picture as something that both is and is not relevant tot he poet in his own time, with his own set of circumstances and problems as an artist. This represents a partial turning away from the painter to reflect on the poet's own situation.

13. That brings us to section 6, with its crucial meditation on how and why the painting is "life-obstructing" (line 464). More on that in class.



2    Parmigianino 


 Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, or  Parmigniano

Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (c. 1523/24) (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)

Segment of a wooden sphere (Diam. 24.4 cm)
Image source: http://www.khm.at/system2E.html?/staticE/page240.html
Alternative source: http://www.wga.hu/art/p/parmigia/convex.jpg
Wikipedia Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parmigianino

 Parmigianino [Mazzola, Girolamo Francesco Maria]

 (b Parma, 11 Jan 1503; d Casalmaggiore, 24 Aug 1540). Italian painter, draughtsman and printmaker. Beginning a career that was to last only two decades, he moved from precocious success in the shadow of Correggio in Parma to be hailed in the Rome of Clement VII as Raphael reborn. There he executed few large-scale works but was introduced to printmaking. After the Sack of Rome in 1527, he returned to northern Italy, where in his final decade he created some of his most markedly Mannerist works. Equally gifted as a painter of small panels and large-scale frescoes both sacred and profane, he was also one of the most penetrating portrait painters of his age. Throughout his career he was a compulsive draughtsman, not only of preparatory studies for paintings and prints, but also of scenes from everyday life and of erotica.

 Source: The Grove Dictionary of Art. Link: http://www.artnet.com/library/06/0655/T065539.asp

 Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists :

 “Then came upon him the desire to see Rome, hearing men greatly praise the works of the masters there, especially of Raffaello and Michael Angelo, and he told his desire to his old uncles. They, seeing nothing in the desire that was not praiseworthy, agreed, but said that it would be well to take something with him which would gain him an introduction to artists. And the counsel seeming good to Francesco, he painted three pictures, two small and one very large. Besides these, inquiring one day into the subtleties of art, he began to draw himself as he appeared in a barber’s convex glass. He had a ball of wood made at a turner’s and divided in half, and on this he set himself to paint all that he saw in the glass, and because the mirror enlarged everything that was near and diminished what was distant, he painted the hand a little large. Francesco himself, being of very beautiful countenance and more like an angel than a man, his portrait on the ball seemed a thing divine, and the work altogether was a happy success, having all the uster of the glass, with every reflection and the light and shade so true, that nothing more could be hoped for from the human intellect.

The picture being finished and packed, together with the portrait, he set out, accompanied by one of his uncles, for Rome; and as soon as the Chancellor of the Pope had seen the pictures, he introduced the youth and his uncle to Pope Clement, who seeing the works produced and Francesco so young, was astonished, and all his court with him. And his Holiness gave him the charge of painting the Pope’s hall.”

The painting was given to Pope Clement VII as a gift by the young artist.

 Source: http://gallery.euroweb.hu/html/p/parmigia/convex.html



3    On Parmigianino and Ashbery 


 H. W. and Anthony Janson: http://www.people.virginia.edu/~djr4r/parmigianino.html

The artist's appearance is bland and well groomed. The features, painted with Raphael's smooth perfection, are veiled by a delicate Leonardesque sfumato. The distortions, too, are objective, not arbitrary, for the picture records what Parmigianino saw as he gazed at his reflection in a convex mirror. Why was he so fascinated by this view "through the looking glass"? Earlier painters who used the mirror as an aid to observation had "filtered out" the distortions, except when the mirror image was contrasted with a direct view of the same scene [as with Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait (1434)]. But Parmigianino substitutes his painting for the mirror itself, even employing a specially prepared convex panel. Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate that there is no single "correct" reality, that distortion is as natural as the normal appearance of things. The painting bespeaks an interest in magic as well: the convex mirror was valued in the Renaissance for its visionary effects, which seemed to reveal the future, as well as hidden aspects of the past and present.

 Links: Damian J. Rollison (ed.) PAINTING WITH WORDS: An Anthology of Ekphrastic Literature:

 POETRY: http://www.people.virginia.edu/~djr4r/anth_poems.html



4    Other Works by Parmigianino alluded to by Ashbery


 Ashbery, lines 222-25:

Later portraits such as the Uffizi

‘Gentleman,’ the Borghese ‘Young Prelate’ and

The Naples ‘Antea’ issue from Mannerist


Portrait of a Man (Uffizi, Florence) (Ashbery’s ‘Gentleman’)

Source: http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/p/p-3.htm#parmigianino

‘Portrait of a Man  (Rome) (‘Ashbery’s Young Prelate’)

Source: http://www.wga.hu/art/p/parmigia/port_man.jpg      

Portrait of a Man with a Book (c. 1526) (Private collection)

Source: http://www.artrenewal.org/asp/database/image.asp?id=16225

 Antea (c. 1535) (Naples)

Source: http://www.artonline.it/eng/opera.asp?IDOpera=480


Jonathan Jones, The Guardian (January 18, 2003): http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/portrait/story/0,11109,876906,00.html

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists: Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giorgio_Vasari



4    Parmigianino’s Style - Mannerism 


 Mannerism, the artistic style which gained popularity in the period following the High Renaissance, takes as its ideals the work of Raphael and Michelangelo Buonarroti. It is considered to be a period of technical accomplishment but also of formulaic, theatrical and overly stylized work.

Mannerist Art is characterized by a complex composition, with muscular and elongated figures in complex poses. Discussing Michelangelo in his journal, Eugčne Delacroix gives as good a description as any of the limitations of Mannerism:
“[A]ll that he has painted is muscles and poses, in which even science, contrary to general opinion, is by no means the dominant factor… He did not know a single one of the feelings of man, not one of his passions. When he was making an arm or a leg, it seems as if he were thinking only of that arm or leg and was not giving the slightest consideration to the way it relates with the action of the figure to which it belongs, much less to the action of the picture as a whole… Therein lies his great merit; he brings a sense of the grand and the terrible into even an isolated limb.”

Source: Artcyclopedia. Link: http://www.artcyclopedia.com/history/mannerism.html

Mannerism: Wikipedia Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mannerist



5    Other Paintings with Mirror Motifs 


Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait (1434, National Gallery, London)

 Source: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/V/van_eyck/arnlfini.jpg.html

Detail (Mirror):

Source: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/v/van_eyck/eyck_arnolfini_dtl_mirror.jpg

Another image for Detail (Mirror)

 Source: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/eyck/arnolfini/

 Another Circular Convex Image from the late Renaissance

 Caravaggio, Medusa  (c.1590) , Florence

 Source: http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/caravagg/index.html



6    Review Questions 


1.      How would you describe Parmigianino’s painting?

2.      What would you identify as its distinctive features?

3.      Compare and contrast what you find interesting about the painting with what Ashbery says about the painting? That is, what are the features he singles out?

4.      What do you understand from Ashbery as his reason(s) for being interested in Parmigianino?

5.      What is the significance of mirroring as a metaphor for art, in Parmigianino? And in Ashbery?

6.      How does the choice of a convex mirror affect the painting? What is the significance of this choice?

7.      How does Ashbery apply Parmigianino’s strategies and preoccupations to poetry and art in general?

8.      In what ways does Ashbery depart from the Parmigianino painting in his poem?

9.      How might you apply the mirror metaphor, and the choice of a convex mirror image, to Ashbery’s relation to Parmigianino?

10.  What do you understand about the ekhphrastic relation between the pictorial and the verbal from Ashbery’s `reading’ of Parmigianino?





Last Updated 30 March 2012