This gelatin silver print is modernist in its clear focus, bold contrasts of black and white, and embrace of everyday life. In title and subject, however, it hints at something beyond the usual. A humble young woman, seated on the floor and leaning against a wall, looks into a small mirror while brushing her hair. Álvarez Bravo orchestrates the scene so that strong light illuminates only half of her face and her long falling tresses. This emphasis of the camera, with the subject’s eyes veiled in darkness, lends mystery to the scene. In western art, a beautiful woman gazing at herself in a mirror is traditionally a symbol of life’s brevity. Álvarez Bravo’s evocative title—an allegorical tribute to timeless beauty in the face of death—makes the ordinary wondrous, a critical aspect of surrealist art and literature. In actuality, the model was Isabel Villaseñor, an icon of the revolutionary period. A poet, artist, and composer, she epitomized the beauty and intellect of Mexican women.
Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Retrato de lo eterno, 1977, Gelatin silver print, 9 3/8 x 7 7/16 inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Gift of Sam Faber. © Colette Urbajtel/ Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo, SC.
Autorretrato, 1982. Photograph by Manuel Álvarez Bravo.© Colette Urbajtel/ Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo, SC.