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Taking a harder look

A man and his shadow -- both appearing slightly perplexed. Does one really recognize the other? How didm such a disparity develop between them, and which one is real? Does it matter? Of course it does. Plato said in "Alcibiades:" "And if the soul is to know itself, it must look into a soul" -- to which the contemporary Greek poet George Seferis added, yes, "the stranger and enemy, we've seen him in the mirror." Who is that strangr; does he or she have to be an enemy?

In the gamut of human relationships -- the interpersonal, with all the shifting forms those can take, or the individual to a group, and even the complicated self to its own inner selves -- there's a fascinating twist. Is the image one thinks he or she is projecting, or truly believes is the real self, actually the one being perceived by others? Has the perceived image been altered, even warped, by some internal inconsistency in oneself; through misperception by others, or a combination of circumstances beyond anyone's control?

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A person can be jolted unexpectedly by a reflection unrecognizable from a self-perceived image. One recalls the poignant innocence of the old Irish farmwoman who had not looked into a mirror in years; seeing her reflection by chance, she fainted on the spot. She'd probably been living with the vigor of someone much younger; one hopes she suffered no ill effects from that insubstantial shadow.

The man in this print looks as if he's trying to remember what he thought he looked like, a moment before seeing this distorted reflection. Perhaps he is a public figure, perpetually on the firing line, quoted and misquoted, his actions judged and misjudged. He may have acted with all integrity in response to the demands of complex circumstances; whatever degree of success he achieved, there would still be dissenters and detractors. Those with access to mass media and other public forums could magnify their opinions of the man against a national screen; and who is to say whether their commentary is fair or even accurate, but it has already entered the minds of countless others. Small wonder that the man behind the image looks an amazed, or in battle-weary resignation.

Something in this deceptively simple figure, with his well-tailored anonymity and his quiet air of bemused composure, suggests a private turning point. Perhaps it is his first encounter with a reflection he cannot recognize. If so, he hides the shock under a layer of impassivity. To this viewer, it suggests someone used to the extremes of public vituperation andm mass acclaim or flattery and he might be wondering what it has all been worth; has he been changed by it after all, at his deepest core? Has the man become his shadow?

Somehow one doubts it; there is weariness in the set of his shoulders, but a wry twist to them, too. He stands straight and solid, implying a deep sense of his own inner axis -- despite the odd shapes his shadow might take, warped by the broken surfaces over which it moves. This composure is not achieved or carried lightly, and not without private moments of pain. He knows that too often the shadow is all that is widely perceived, and it has his name on it.

The artist Markus Raetz has accomplished a quiet triumph here, creating an air of emotional and intellectual intensity with a bare minimum of shapes and planes. The outer borders, running from light to dark shades, create a subtle sense of pressure: external viewers are watching, events are closing in. The flat, blank planes of wall and floor are cold and unforgiving; there is nowhere to hide, even i this man felt that impulse. The radical tilt of the bench-like surface over which his shadow falls at off angles, and of thewall and the very ground where he stands, adds urgency and motion, with a feeling that things are off-balance around that motionless figure.

It is all the more remarkable that he stands so firmly, facing that crooked shadow -- which he can only look down on -- with outer detachment. Yet it is something that he cannot dismiss entirely. It is, after all, his own reflection; it has something of himself in it. The artist has raised more questions here than either he or the subject can answer. This is the portrait's power.

Plato, and the poet Seferis, touched on some deep nerve with those thoughts. Yet there is much to be gained acknowledging that "stranger" and confronting that "enemy." It is never a confortable process. It includes listening carefully to responsible and thoughtful external commentary and even judgment, lest one descent into egomania and total darkness, as too many tyrants have done. But there is a profound peace to be gained, having sifted through that commentary and balanced it against one's own beliefs, deep in the private self. Then the petty opinions of the world, however loud and vociferous, are themselves only broken shadows.


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