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Ashbery, Parmigianino, and the Convex Mirror


February 21, 2014
Ashbery, Parmigianino, and the Convex Mirror
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Of the origin of Francesco Parmigianino’s "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," 16th century painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote: "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. Because the mirror enlarged everything that was near and diminished what was distant, he painted the hand a little large."

Four centuries later, poet John Ashbery took up the painting in the title poem of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror:

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises.

Ashbery's ecphrastic poetry is unique because, as poet David Lehman has remarked, Ashbery uses specific paintings "as points of departure that discover themselves by meditating on objets d’art, and thus displacing them. . . . Gazing at the painting, the poet comes virtually to inhabit its room, to make its quarters his own."

It comes as no surprise that Ashbery is drawn to such subject matter, since even a rudimentary examination of Ashbery’s biography reveals an ongoing involvement with the arts: Ashbery was critic for the Paris Herald Tribune for five years and executive editor of ARTnews for nine years. Exploration of Ashbery’s poetry confirms the extent to which the poet has been influenced by art: he has frequently collaborated with artists; several of his long poems such as Fragment and The Vermont Notebook were published with accompanying illustrations; and critical assessment of Ashbery’s signature style is quick to note the influence of modern painting’s surrealism. Ashbery himself claims, "I have perhaps been more influenced by modern painting and music than by poetry."

Noting that Ashbery's poetry is analogous to modern painting, poet and critic Leslie Wolf begs the question, "But what does it mean to say that a visual art is analogous to a verbal or symbolic one?" While colors and shapes in paintings evoke associations in the mind of a viewer, the words and phrases of a poet have denotative meanings. How, then, does a poet emulate the abstraction that characterizes modern painting? Wolf suggests of Ashbery, "To reach this state of freedom in a verbal art, the poet must use the signifying quality of his medium against itself. . . . The poet must arrange ‘brushstrokes’ of his tableau in such a way that they yield contradictory clues."

In implementing what W. H. Auden referred to as "calculated oddities," Ashbery is greatly aided by a dexterity with syntax that allows him to craft serpentine sentences which evoke emotion and attitude even when they shun meaning. Richard Howard referred to this phenomenon as Ashbery’s impulse "to break out of the legalities of a compositional system." Wolf added, "Ashbery involves us in sentences whose machinery makes us feel how, not what, they mean. . . . The result is sentences, to quote a recent advertisement for this season’s swimsuits, that ‘look fast, even while standing still.’" The success of "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror" can in part be attributed to the degree to which that poem exhibits sentences featuring Ashbery’s characteristic ecstatic stillness:

Pope Clement and his court were "stupefied"
By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission
That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.

Considering the extent to which art influences Ashbery, it is not surprising that many visual artists have admired and been influenced by Ashbery’s poetry: In 1993, artist Jane Hammond commissioned Ashbery to create a set of titles that would act as catalysts for her work. The sixty paintings Hammond created in response to Ashbery’s titles are collected in The Ashbery Collaboration, published in 2002 by Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. And, in 1988, architect and sculptor Siah Armajani commissioned Ashbery to write a poem for a bridge of his design in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at Walker Art Center. The letters of Ashbery’s untitled poem were applied in bronze to the railings of the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge:

It is fair to be crossing, to have crossed. Then there is no promise in the other. Here it is. Steel and air, a mottled presence, small panacea and lucky for us. And then it got very cool.

Photograph of Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge courtesy of Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN. Used with permission