Within Paravent Walls | A Fractured Relationship: Women and their Mirrored Selves

Art and the landscape of films are ripe with the depiction of women staring into mirrors. What happens between a woman and her mirror-image? Is there a dialogue, an exchange of thoughts and energy? Mobile energy in exchange for a stagnant one? Women spend a long time observing themselves in the looking-glass. I always wonder whether they do it with a certain curiosity, to find or lie to themselves, to lash out at themselves, finding reasons for endless self-criticism, acknowledging their own presence in the world, or to be vulnerable projecting their deepest desires and contemplations onto the cold and mute surface.

The relationship between women and this object fascinates me. What happens if the light goes out? If a portrait of a woman is mirrored and stands in opposition to itself? Or if a woman is positioned in-between two mirrors and is endlessly multiplied, she can see all of her selves but if she reaches out, she can only get as far as the first reflection and it is not even her flesh, her skin, her warmth, no, it is glass, an impenetrable sphere, a spectacle of lights that can be shattered but never ceases to exist in her mind and imagination.

Do we truly see who is looking back at us? Do we stare through ourselves? Guided by a torturous voice that distorts our images into reality-deprived macrocosms of negativity. Do we brand our faces with the toxic words this alienating voice screams onto the glass? And do we see what the voice manifests or do we see what is? What happens between our minds and the reflecting surface? Does the mirror-image absorb our input and hands it back to us in a new form? What we do in front of mirrors is the truth about how we treat ourselves, what we think of ourselves and how we feel about ourselves. Our mirror-images know who we are, inside-out. We project everything within us onto it. Tears, heartache, sorrow, desire, sex, attractiveness, self-love, self-destruction, perfectionism, lack of mercy, our inner selves and outer selves, our best selves and worst selves, fears, narcissism, the search for our inner child, all our surpassed lingering identities, the future ones that might make us uncomfortable because we don’t know them yet, but they are all in creation on the other side, waiting, lurking, the curious abyss that seeks its mountaintop. When we look into the mirror we lose our intuitive clear-sightedness in a heartbeat and become a monster that is ready to slaughter.

It is a dance of contrasts, everything good carries its bad reflection and vice versa. Somehow we cannot make them harmonise. We reinforce their antagonism. One must vanish, be destroyed, punished, disappear, the more we try to eradicate something the more visible it becomes in one way or another. The other we accentuate to such a degree that it almost seems like a burial of vulnerability, of imperfection, of truth, of peace, of freedom. This other we accept wholeheartedly, brought forth by materials and outer objects, the protective mask, the facial hide-and-seek, the humane made artificial, and there is nothing wrong with that per se but oftentimes this action goes hand in hand with the repression of our nature.

Sometimes our mirror-image seems more like a battlefield, a war zone, than a soft canvas that is about to flourish, be transformed, adored, change over time, bathed in colour, adorned, and become a portrait of who we truly are. Our reflections should be the last place where we risk losing ourselves.

This instrument of exposure and digression found its way into my novel, “Within Paravent Walls”, and plays a monumental role in the protagonist Estefania’s downfall. She is a woman that absorbs her mother’s terror, double identities, objectification of her, her eviscerating craft and her inner turmoil turned outward and directed against her as a young girl. Faced with the overpowering projections of her mother, she is left with the blindness of her father who is oblivious to the inter-relational substances of women. Her father, without knowing it, fails her.

As a young woman she is painted by innumerable male artists, trying to shed her own skin, rather than discovering every centimetre of it, and leave no trace of her true self on canvas, escape her inner child in order to find the independent woman that leaves her past behind, but they remain blind to her true self, painting what they see in her, who they think she is, what she projects, controlled and unaware that she is lying to herself. She wants to be reborn in the imagination of the painters and the recreation of her through their brushstrokes. She wants to come to life through a different medium. Untouchable, immortal and free of human tragedies and sentimentalities. She wants to become an object, the craft of her parents. The artists fail her because they stick to their egocentric vision, to the surface of things, to who she thinks she is and wants to be. She lets herself be rid of life.

She is certain that only a woman who has been hollowed-out to the core, everything within her transported onto canvas, humane made inhumane, can be loved forever, and she commits to her artificialisation and fictionalisation by making herself as uncomfortable as possible. When Severin enters her life, it seems as if he is trying to revive a woman who has declared herself dead and an everlasting monument outside of her body and within the portraits of her. He falls in love with everything that she has discarded, that everybody else was blind to, that she deemed unlovable, everything that made her who she really is. And he fills her emptiness with his devotion, with his own life, with his true image of her that finds no resilient echo anymore, just a confirmation thereof, that it once was, that she is its merciless murderess, and she feels suffocated by his love for a girl in a woman’s body that is incompatible with the persona she has forcefully constructed. Later, in their marriage, Severin will be the only one who paints Estefania’s true inner state, the role she has lost herself in, the shattered shell that contains a vast violent nothingness, the woman she has become, one that deteriorates and escalates, one impossible to reassemble and embellish. An untainted mirror-image.

Their three children will be the mirror-images that she is confronted with every day, the ones that lived within her body, have seen and felt it all, the ones that she cannot escape, the ones of human flesh, of vulnerability, in her hands. The reflections that do not bow to her will, self-metamorphosis and self-portrayal. Through them she realises and fights against the ugliness within her that she evoked, a presentation of her that contradicts everything that she conjured up so carefully. The woman in all of those paintings gave birth in her real life and who is she now and what does she have to give? Aborted from the inner life that she sacrificed?

Years before Estefania’s death, the threatening and traumatising nothingness within her will be drawn out of her and captured in her brutally covered mirror-image of one of the paravent’s eight mirrors that her daughter, Gabriela, placed in their home, aware of its power and her mother’s fears. This buried truth of herself will haunt her until the day of her death as it hangs right above her bed on the ceiling and like her reflection, she cannot utter a single word anymore.

In the last portrait of Estefania, the painter cannot stand to look in her eyes, the mirrors of madness, he paints her without making eye-contact and as the complete opposite of what she is and looks like, beautified and healthy, not dying and insane, as her desired mirror-image, not the decomposing woman who is barely alive.


“Vanitas” by Charles Frederic Ulrich (1858-1908)

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