There is so much that could be said about the use of eyes in art that I don’t know where to begin. In fact I’ve put off writing some pictures I’ve taken of graffiti with eyes because I don’t know where to begin, because there is so much that can be said about eyes in art going back at least as far as ancient Egypt and the Eye of Horus, which was used a ts a protective symbol, both worn and placed on the bow of ships to serve as a lookout. There’s the fact that in most sculptures of people or animals the eyes are left blank, although there are exceptions. The most famous one might be the Colossus of Constantine which has carved out irises and pupils. Constantine is probably meant to be looking heavenward but to me he looks more like he’s rolling his eyes, which might be why his head goes flying around during the opening credits of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, but that’s another story.
In painting there’s the Mona Lisa, and in several of Monet’s paintings people look directly out at the viewer, which was considered controversial at the time. And I can see why. There’s something a little unnerving about a painting, even one that’s not necessarily trompe l’oeil, staring back at you because you know it will never blink. If it does, though, well, that could mean trouble. Or it could mean you’re in a Scooby Doo cartoon and there’s someone behind the painting watching you through the eye holes. And that reminds me that in many cultures there’s the “evil eye”, with various charms against it. If you’ve read Carlos Collodi’s Pinocchio, and not just watched the Disney cartoon version, you know that when Gepetto starts carving Pinocchio the puppet’s eyes immediately glare at him. I’m not sure why he doesn’t stop carving right then and throw the wood in the fire–although it would have made the story a lot shorter.
Anyway most of us take in art by looking at it. Not all art is visual, and even though touching most paintings is verboten—unless you’re looking for an excuse to get thrown out of a museum—I wish we could. A lot of paintings have thick layers of paint and being able to touch those would add a whole new level of understanding. That’s even more true of sculpture. The artist Sylvia Hyman made ceramic works that look so much like paper people are surprised when they touch them, which usually isn’t allowed because they’re so fragile.
I’m getting off the subject of eyes, maybe because there’s so much to say about it, or maybe because it unnerves me. When we look into a painted eye the painted eye looks back into us.