VR self portraits with Van Eyck
Humans have been painting their own faces since the advent of art. The need to see one’s own visage on something comes from the fear of being forgotten after we leave. As such it should come as no surprise that artists, one they had mastered the art of recreating the human face, began to make portraits of themselves and others. For the sake of this essay we’ll be examining the importance not only of who the subjects are but also who is in the painting. Sometimes the true purpose of the painting is hidden in the back ground. To properly analyze we will be looking at Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding in 2 parts: the painting as an elaborate self portrait and the mirror painted within which acts on the same principles of immersive medias like VR.
The image of the self
Painting mirrors, whether depicting a reflection or an approximation of such has been a sign of truly skilled craftsmanship in the world of painting. In the time of the renaissance it was common place to feature mirrors in paintings to show off their grasp of perspective and the distortion of view by mirrors. The pictorial trope of the mirror’s reflective surface as the sign of painting was, in a Renaissance historiography of art, famously tied to the developing technology
of perspective and optics” (Warwick 256). Optics was starting to be understood in a more complex way and it is only natural that it would find its way into art, furthering the plane of what artists could do with a flat canvas. The more skilled the artist the more mirrors would appear in their works. “Inset mirror images served to remind the viewer that a painting, however persuasive in its imitation of nature, was in fact a flat surface covered with coloured pigments” (Warwick 255). Being able to paint mirrors became a means of cementing an artist’s prowess, by recreating miniature versions of the world in a curved surface, replicating the way light distorts itself in real life.
Old school selfies
Many artists have famous works involving their own faces. Frieda Kahlo, Van Gough and Salvador Dali all painted their own faces in their requisite styles. By painting the face on the artist, who is usually hidden behind the canvas, rather than displayed on it’s front. The immortalization of one’s face is common with artists, as often is the only record of their face since most become famous posthumously. The problem with self portraits is that often a client would rather a painting of themselves or someone they knew well rather than a painting of the artist. As such not a lot of commissioned work was of the artist themselves, and if so, they were ordered by friends or family. Assistance from financial patrons allowed for more experimentation with subjects and techniques, but while art was a passion, it also had to pay the bills. While Van Eyck did has done at least one self portrait title Man in a Red Turban, he has chosen to include himself in at least one other painting. Arnolfini Wedding is just that. Van Eyck placed himself into the back ground of the painting. As you can see in the photo, Van Eyck placed his signature, a statement of his presence over the mirror, stating he was there in 1434. “They are sort of the trademark or informal motto of the artist, showing that he was there” (Harbison, 254). Van Eyck was know dating his paintings, and this one is no exception, however in addition to a signature he used a miniature version of his face as a water mark.
Stepping into paintings
Most artist made their livings off commissions. Being tasked with painting events or portraits of those that could afford the artist to live a comfortable lifestyle. In the early 1400s Paintings for costumers were a luxury that the emerging merchant class could now afford. Giovanni Arnolfini was a self-made man, earning his fortune in the Italian cloth business. He commissioned a painting of him and his new bride, Giovanna Cenami, to commemorate their nuptials (Seidel, 57). However, even though the couple are featured prominently featured in the painting, and that they were the source of funds for Van Eyck, he made the painting as much about the witnesses as the couple itself. Within the very center of the painting is a mirror in which are two reflections. One is of presumably Van Eyck himself, in clothing similar to his self portrait, while the other is an unknown man. It is strange to think a painter would feature himself in someone else’s painting, and so prominently too. While the mirror is smaller compared to the other things within the painting it is the focal point. Van Eyck’s perspective lines converge predominantly above and below the mirror. The eyes may notice the vibrant green of the woman’s dress or the strangely shaped hat of the man but eventually the gaze settle on the mirror placed in the center, the typical location of the main subject of paintings. “Jan Van Eyck was here 1434” is written above the mirror. The artist writing sort of signature on the back wall of the room, as a witness to this marriage. “ (Harbison 253). To further remind the viewer just who the painting is about, Van Eyck unambiguously states his presence at the scene and the implied importance of such.
Las Meninias, a famous Spanish painting, features the artist Diego Velázquez. However, unlike Van Eyck in Arnolfini Wedding, Velázquez is literally to the side. The perspective of the viewer is that of presumable the king and queen, whose faces appear in a small mirror across the room, once again centered in the painting. The true focus of the painting is the little princesses and prince playing with each other or kicking their dog, rather than the artist himself. Yes, he is included, but not the main focal point. Arnolfini’s wedding contains a much subtler inclusion of the artist, however unlike Las Meninias, the mirror is the main attraction. This is not done by accident. Research done by shows that the perspective lines while not perfect, frame the mirror intentionally. The lines from the bed and top of the window sill all bring the eye in to the center, with the vibrantly coloured couple seem to be trying to cup the mirror in their hand. Van Eyck wants the viewer to settle on the mirror and its importance. The painting is not about Arnolfini and wife but the artist and his perspective. In picture above you can see the lines as the direct the focus to the mirror. While the lines do not lead directly to the mirror, they end above and below, still leading the eyes to their desired location. The images of the new bride and groom seems to take a secondary position to the visage of the painter, reflected in a miniscule mirror
VR techniques in Paintings
The curious thing about Van Eyck’s appearance in the mirror is that simultaneously he is himself but also the viewer. Typically, when looking at a painting the viewer will stand in the center to view the work from unobscured angles. “At the same time, it must also have been Van Eyck’s position as he painted the work (Warwick 258)”. Not only does the portrait superimpose the artist into the painting, it turns the viewer into the artist, working us into the painting. The artist was a witness to Arnolfini’s wedding, and as the viewer, looking at the mirror which reflects the artist’s face, we see the artist as ourselves. Essentially, we have become the witness, turning the once static relationship of viewer and subject into an interactive experience. The dog, the window, the oranges, all become things we see not as objects in the painting but as the artist present at the time. All who look at the painting become witnesses to the matrimonial proceedings, further legitimizing it. Private weddings performed at homes were not always disputed by the church but were highly discouraged nuptials performed outside a church. “These clandestine marriages were not always, after they took place, denied legality by the Catholic Church; they were, however, strictly discouraged, even forbidden” (Harbison, 252).
The techniques Van Eyck is using techniques are effects used in games and art today. The viewer is immersed in the world by viewing another body in a reflective surface, forcing us to identify with the person, taking in their perspective. In video games this is often done by reflecting the playable character’s face in a reflective surface, helping further bond the player to the person they are pretending to be. With the advent of VR, the connection is much easier cemented by removing outside stimulus that would distance the player from their perceived self. Van Eyck does this in a rudimentary form, but still is facilitating a connection between the painting and the person looking at it. “In the depths of the mirror we also see another pair of figures facing them, which is somehow strangely us, for they stand in what must be our position as viewers. (Warwick 258)”. We become witness to the wedding, further officiating it. The viewer inherits the power to say “yes the wedding took place and I am a witness of the events” for a couple long since dead. The tableau that we see in the painting (See below) is through the eyes of the artist.
While seeming to be a mundane painting of a medieval merchant and his wife, the painting harbours some interesting features. Not only does the author, Jan Van Eyck, include himself in someone else’s wedding portrait, but he makes a point of drawing the eyes to it using perspective lines. In addition to essentially taking the attention away from the presumably happy couple, he also shifts the importance from them to any viewer who happens upon the painting, giving them the power to say that the wedding took place with themselves as a witness.
Elkins, James. “On the Arnolfini Portrait and the Lucca Madonna: Did Jan van Eyck Have a Perspectival System?”. The Art Bulletin, Vol 73. No 1. College Art Association. March 1991. Pg 52-63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3045778
Harison, Craig. “Sexuality and Social Standing in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait”. Renaissance Quarterly. Vol 43. No 2. The university if Chicago Press. Summer 1990. Pg 249-291
Seidel, Linda. “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait”: Business as Usual? Critical Inquiry. Vol 16. University of Chicago. Automn 1989. Pg 54-86
Warwick, Genevieve. “Looking in the Mirror of Renaissance Art”. Art history. Vol 39. Number 2. Association of Art Historians. April 2016. Pg 254-281