This is one of my favorite paintings. Its English title is “By the mirror” (1996), by Yang Feiyun, a Chinese figure painter, and it’s a portrait of his wife. I’ve never seen the painting in person, only images of it, which, I suppose, says something about my relation to it. But I like to think of my first encounter with the image as akin to the first time one sees an original work in person—footsteps slowing to a halt, gaze transfixed, lips parted, the mind with its buzzing incapacity to describe what the eyes are seeing.
This painting reminds me of Manet’s Emile Zola portrait, except less formal, less intent on providing the viewer with evidential information. I love the plant, the dying branch that bows under the weight of its leaves, curved perfectly under her hand. The mirror, reflecting not the plant nor the woman, but the wall, casts an eerie atmosphere across the greyed background. The woman’s pose—obviously posed, but also natural in its intended effect—makes her seem as though she’s lost in thought at the very instance of the painting’s reveal to the viewer.
What I love most, oddly, is the sweater. The texture, pattern, and colors remind me of an old blanket that I used to sleep with, now full of holes and frayed edges. It is as if its memory has been repurposed into the newness of this painting and this woman’s clothing, unknowingly nudging the past into present.