Lena Sawyer

Lucian Freud, Reflection, 1985. Oil on canvas.  University of California, San Diego.

Figure 1. Lucian Freud, Reflection, 1985. Oil on canvas. University of California, San Diego.

Mimesis is a visual representation which relies on the direct imitation of an object or person from reality. Mimesis’ relationship with reality is complex since its relative adherence to direct imitation may question what is considered “real.”  Its meaning has proven to be historically flexible, as notions of reality and the ability of art to represent it have shifted.

In The Republic (380 BCE), Plato complicated the idea of mimesis as a direct imitation of reality by asserting that there is a gap between what is real, what is sensed of the real (the phenomenological or simulacrum), and what is reproduced in imitation of it.1 According to this model, the artistic recreation of something is highly suspicious due to its being thrice removed from what he considered to be the real.2 Aristotle later conceived of mimesis as a characteristic of art itself, positing that art is meant to be an imitation and study of reality that can help bring the artist closer to what is truly real.3

Since then, what has been considered realistic in art has at times been equated with ideological truth. For example, works by the nineteenth-century French Realist, Gustave Courbet, or mid-twentieth century films by Italian neo-realist directors (Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica) sought to bring the everyday lives of the labor class to light, seeing their experiences as an integral part of the honest reality that had been overlooked by predominantly idealized or glamorized narratives.4 Their works appear to be honest, gritty, unmoralizing depictions of everyday trials of peasant and working class life as opposed to highly climactic and embellished scenes of wealth and grandeur. Nonetheless, even these realistic depictions can be considered highly constructed by their distinctly populist angle and their function as a tool for social justice.

While mimesis is often associated with the imitation of physical appearances, there are other layers of reality, beyond the visible world, which artists attempt to represent. In Lucian Freud’s Reflection (Self-Portrait) (1985), we see the gaps between what is perceived as reality, what is indeed real, and what is wholly constructed in the mind, as he fluctuates between an illusion of naturalism and an unnerving abstraction of his own face [Figure 1]. Traditionally, a portrait is meant to convey the naturalistic likeness of its sitter, and mimesis is often used to achieve it. The mimetic quality of Freud’s work is clear: we see a man’s face with all of its features in place and a human expression. His hair recedes and every wrinkle on his face is meticulously mapped by brushstrokes, in a topographic study of flesh. Age and skin are used as indications of a human model. This is the perceived reality.

However, Freud, in depicting his exterior, is also representing a formation of himself that is entirely psychological. Upon closer inspection strict realism gives way to expressive embellishments. Note that Freud’s body is isolated in a flat plane of olive and gray. Despite there being no clue as to what his actual surroundings are, his skin reflects a greenish hue. The brushstrokes that outline his shoulders are vibrantly green and other parts of his face are rust orange, mustard, or gray. These brushstrokes are not at all concealed and we can trace his movement around his face and sense different textures, results of dabs and strokes. A bright light source from above makes his skin take on the appearance of intestines or a craggy rock face more than of an aged face. Somewhere, direct mimesis has derailed and the portrait has taken on an expressive quality through the use of fabricated colors, lines, and atmosphere that may indicate isolation and discomfort at the sight of human aging and even decomposition.

The true reality that Plato describes may be somewhere between what Freud truly looks like and how he feels himself to be. It may even involve how viewers experience the picture. Nonetheless, the portrait’s mimetic factor — where it adheres to reality –and where it moves away from it, contains a multitude of meanings according to the specific realities of who is looking and how.


  1. Plato, The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Digireads.com, 2008).
  2. Michelle Puetz. “Mimesis.” University of Chicago: Theories of Media Keywords Glossary. January 1, 2002. http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/mimesis.htm#_ftnref8.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ross Finocchio, “Nineteenth–Century French Realism,” Text, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rlsm/hd_rlsm.htm.