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Last Updated on September 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

The Limitations and Possibilities of Representing Reality in Art

Beginning as an extended comment on the specific painting with which it shares a name, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" eventually meanders to more general reflections. Ashbery repeatedly considers how art is only ever surface in order to discuss the limitations of using a two-dimensional medium (painting) to portray a three-dimensional world. Art freezes and flattens an intricate moment of time into a single image—and yet it is often the only means we have to make sense and meaning of the world. In short, Ashbery is deeply interested in art's ambivalent possibilities. As a poet and a friend of many visual artists, he is clearly interested in the process, perception, and possibility of art, but he also acknowledges its limitations. While he speaks continually of the fact that art can flatten a round moment—just as Parmigianino flattens his reflection in the convex mirror in order to represent it two-dimensionally—the poem itself is an artifact that transcends the prediction: in its ambivalence and ability to entertain multiple possibilities, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" is impossible to pin down to a single meaning, much like the life and art it examines.

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Contrasts Between Dreams and Reality

Ashbery acknowledges that promises, dreams, and idealized images are absolutely crucial to a rich life but notes that many can collapse when put under too much pressure. The veracity and beauty we see in Parmigianino's self-portrait, and indeed in any art that adequately represents life, rests largely on our own perceptions and dreams:

"The forms retain
A strong measure of ideal beauty," because
Fed by our dreams, so inconsequential until one day
We notice the hole they left. Now their importance
If not their meaning is plain.

On the whole, Ashbery suggests that it is important to dream—but it is also important not to too strictly conflate dreams with reality. Attempting to avoid dreams leads to the world becoming dull and flat, whereas the attempt to hold to any one dream too tightly will reveal it to be false and flat as well. The kind of poetic wonder Ashbery is interested in is best maintained through holding many dreams—a sort of Keatsian negative capability, the capacity to hold many meanings and contradictions in the mind at once—and ensuring that one does not try to test them all. "Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed," as Ashbery writes, and thus "Something like living occurs . . ." Dreams are not life, but they—like art—are so closely adjacent to it as to be sometimes indistinguishable.

The Nature of Time

Ashbery is also deeply interested in the passing of time and the differences between how we view past, present, and future. At a basic level, both the past and the future risk becoming flat. While the present is full of nuance and complexity, it is easy to simplify our memory of the past and hold to naive visions of the future that are out of touch with reality. On the other hand, however, the present on its own becomes dull and flat if it is not informed by the layers of meaning that past recollections and future dreams (whether personally or culturally experienced) can possibly add to it. Both past and future inform our aesthetics and experiences of the present:

. . . it is certain that
What is beautiful seems so only in relation to a specific
Life, experienced or not, channeled into some form
Steeped in the nostalgia of a collective past.

It is in the meeting of past, future, and present that the world takes on potential meaning, richness, and wonder.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658

“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is a poem about identity and time, especially about the elusiveness of the present. The differences between Parmigianino’s self-portrait in paint and Ashbery’s self-portrait in words cause the poet to question art’s distortions. Because works of art attempt to make time stand still, they inevitably distort the reality they seek to portray. Perhaps the simplest statement one can make about the poem is that it works out the differences between a painted self-portrait and a poetic one. If Parmigianino’s self-portrait is a “snapshot” of his face at a given moment, Ashbery’s self-portrait is a moving picture of his mind working in time. Parmigianino’s portrait circumscribes the painter’s identity more straightforwardly than the poem does. By describing, imitating, and challenging the painting, Ashbery’s poem questions the limitations and ambitions of art.

Both the painter and the poet try to capture the elusive present. To do so, both must ignore the details around them which multiply into infinity. Instead of trying to describe everything he sees, the painter focuses on something in particular—in this case, his own reflection. A painting such as Parmigianino’s has a central figure, the subject of the painting, but also at least a minimal background of incidental details. Instead of describing his own face, however, the poet describes the painting. Because it takes more time to read Ashbery’s self-portrait than it does to look at Parmigianino’s, the present in the poem seems more fluid than it does in the painting.

Even when the poet’s mind seems to wander, the subject of the poem is still Parmigianino’s painting; the poet, however, has more difficulty knowing what to exclude than the painter did. In the sense that the poet could go on responding to the painting, Parmigianino’s painted self-portrait is closed and Ashbery’s verbal one is open. In Ashbery’s self-portrait, the central subject is the poet’s mind, or what fills his mind as he thinks about Parmigianino’s painting. The incidental details—the poet’s speculations about the painting—are the central figure. Nevertheless, Ashbery’s returning again and again to the painting gives “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” an anchor that some of his other poems seem to lack.

The poem is an interior rather than an exterior self-portrait. The poet can see with perfect clarity in Parmigianino’s picture what the painter looked like on a certain day. Yet the poet has no explanation of the painter’s inner being, his thoughts, except what the poet can “read” in the painting. Where the painting is circumscribed and fixed, the poem is loose and fluid.

Ashbery’s self-portrait has several vagaries. The poem assumes familiarity with Parmigianino’s painting, so it includes no concrete description of the face in the convex mirror. It also never describes Ashbery’s own face. Nor does it make clear whether Ashbery has a copy of Parmigianino’s painting before him as he writes. He quotes two art critics without explaining whether he is quoting from memory or open books. Words referring to time appear throughout the poem, but the poet never states explicitly the time of the poem’s composition. These vagaries suggest the flow of memory and the uncertainty of identity.

The limitations of Parmigianino’s invented convention both create and frustrate the inclusive identity Ashbery tries to portray in the poem, which is itself an attempt to see both Parmigianino’s and Ashbery’s identities in Parmigianino’s faked mirror. Art is illusion, giving apparent permanence to something that does not exist except in the work of art. In another sense, the picture exists only when one looks at it, “its room, our moments of attention.” “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” moves into “the distance between us,” between Ashbery and Parmigianino, between perception and interpretation, between art and audience, and therefore between Ashbery and the reader.

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