Echo and Narcissus at John Rylands Library: Mirror, mirror

Polly Checkland Harding
Photo of a mirror inscribed with words, with a woman's reflection in it

Echo and Narcissus at John Rylands Library uses beautiful, handheld mirrors to look again at women in literature.

It’s amazing how often we look back at old stories to say something new. To say something twice, in a way: both echoing the tale as it was, and finding fresh life in it for now. In a new exhibition at Manchester’s John Rylands Library, artist Carol Sommer has used the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus to think about literature’s heroines – to reflect on how, and by whom, they’ve been represented.

Lined up in flat glass cases are characterful, handheld mirrors, each beautifully inscribed with a quotation from a novel. The pools of silvered glass gesture towards Narcissus, eternally fixed on his own reflection, while Echo can be heard in the repeated lines from books. Each mirror is dedicated to the person it describes – a portrait, if you will, but not one that’s at all straightforward.

“A woman who is nothing but the look that sees him”

For instance: “The most attractive of all his parent’s friends” is “To Mrs Robinson” from The Graduate. It’s a wry, backhanded line with which to characterise her; as you lean over and peer at the mirror, and yourself, you realise that this is not, perhaps, how most people would choose to be described. Others, like Madame Bovary’s mirror, are similarly loaded (Flaubert’s heroine has the line “All surface but no feeling” dedicated to her) – few, in fact, feel uncomplicated in their gaze.

There’s irony at work, like the line “all surface and no feeling” on Madame Bovary’s mirror. To Inez from No Exit by Jean-Paul Satre is the line “a woman who is nothing but the look that sees him.” Many question how their characters are seen by men – and, in a broader way, point to a historic approach to both female authors and characters. The beauty of this exhibition is how much it yields: it’s incredibly layered for a rather unassuming installation.

It’s also quite lovely to look at. The mirrors, some crisp, others becoming blinded with fissures through age, all reflect the Historic Reading room’s lights and its high, intricate windows. Echo and Narcissus is a quiet, contemplative piece of free, public art; you might not spend more than half an hour of reflection there, but you’re likely to come out seeing books, and yourself, differently.

Culture Guides

Cinema

Valentine’s ideas, hard-to-see queer cinema and the best in new releases — we’ve got it covered.

Kimsooja, To Breathe. Photo © Jaeho Chong

Exhibitions

Inspired by the meditative qualities of space and eastern notions of the Void, Kimsooja’s mesmerising installation at YSP’s historic chapel heads our top pick of exhibitions this month.

Big Up! Courtesy Theatre Rites / Helen Murray

Families

See Mer-folk in a Human Aquarium, experience Trouble at t’Mill and the world of nocturnal animals after dark. Then break all the rules in new show Big Up!

Literature

Those darling buds are coming back to life in live literature land as 2019 gets properly underway, and we’ve plenty to look forward to – from performance poetry and soundscapes to readings from magazines, memoirs and award-winning short stories.

Music

We have some hotly anticipated gigs coming up in Manchester and the north over the next few months! Read about them here!

Theatre in Manchester and the North

Theatre

A Salford leisure centre, a city centre library and a Manchester museum – theatre can happen anywhere. Here’s our guide to the best performances popping up across Manchester and the North.

Tours and Activities

In this month’s roundup of best Tours and Activities in Manchester and the North, we highlight the pottery and craft workshops giving you some cathartic and creative opportunities to get making.

Things to do right now

Powered by culturehosts
Cinema 1–21 February 2019, from £5.50

Burning at HOME

Cinema 8–22 February 2019, from £5.50

If Beale Street Could Talk at HOME

Theatre in Manchester and the North
Theatre 13–23 February 2019, from £12.50

SparkPlug at HOME

Chiharu Shiota –Uncertain Journey, 2016, Blainsouthern Berlin, Germany. Installation metal frames red wool. Photo Christian Gglaaser. Copyright Vgbildkunstbonn 2017 and the artist. Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Exhibitions 1 January 2018–24 February 2019, FREE

Yorkshire Sculpture Park 2018 Guide

Poppy, Esme, Oleanna, Gracie and Kate, 2014. Personal Feeling is the main thing - Chantal Joffe at The Lowry, Salford
Exhibitions 19 May 2018–24 February 2019, FREE

Salford Royal Academy Takeover

William Roberts RA, Combat, 1966. Image courtesy of Art UK
Exhibitions 30 June 2018–24 February 2019, FREE

The Royal Academy Takeover: The Exhibition

PERSPECTIVES – Venture Arts
Exhibitions 1 October 2018–24 February 2019, FREE

PERSPECTIVES – around Manchester

Lowry & The Pre-Raphaelites at The Lowry
Exhibitions 10 November 2018–24 February 2019, FREE

Lowry & The Pre-Raphaelites at The Lowry