Greer Valaquenta explores how important eye contact has been in art and real-life in recent times and in history
Image(s): Rene Magritte, “The False Mirror”, 1929
‘Eyes are the windows to the soul’… an age-old adage I often heard as a child. There have been many times when I have peered into a person’s eyes to find an emptiness that did not match their smile, a sense of malevolence that made me question their intent or a softness that belied their outer melancholy. I was reminded of this phrase recently, as I stood in line at the local Tesco checkout, listening to the hustle and bustle around me. I overheard a conversation between an employee and a customer, in which the employee explained that due to the facemask rule, she often has to ID people purchasing alcohol by looking at their eyes. I thought about this as I walked down Market Street, musing to myself about how vital eye contact has become over the past year. We cover over half of our face in order to shop or speak with others and have subsequently been blinded to the smiling or frowning mouth, the wrinkling or flaring nose, and the many other minuscule muscle movements that we have evolved to read intuitively. We have also at times been forced to raise our voices so we can be heard through the layers of fabric covering our mouths, and because our brains associate a raised voice with anger and fear, we must then use our eyes to convey good intentions. I have personally found myself becoming more theatrical with my eye movements over the past year, raising or lowering my brows in order to communicate the emotions being hidden beneath my regulation mask. Our ability to connect with each other through our eyes is something that we often take for granted, including in our art.
In artwork, eyes have long held an important position in portraiture. Speaking from experience, they are one of the toughest facial features to paint correctly. Because most humans are so finely attuned to emotional expression, we notice much more quickly when a painted eye lacks depth or soul. We cannot use our other senses when observing a portrait, for we lack the ability to touch or hear the subject, so we are reliant on sight to feel the emotionality of the work. When viewing a portrait or a sketch of another human being, we are immediately drawn to the eyes, in order to establish a connection with the artwork we are viewing. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a classic example of this connection. The work is a beautiful example of Renaissance portraiture and has attracted legendary fame and prestige due to the subject’s pensive smile, but I will argue that the smile of Lisa Gherardini is only half the story, for is it not her enigmatic, mysterious gaze which also causes the viewer to stop and wonder what she was thinking about as she sat for her portrait all those years ago? Who or what was she looking at with those gentle eyes?
I mention the Mona Lisa as an example not just because of its fame, but also its creator. Leonardo da Vinci may have painted and drawn some of the most detailed works of Renaissance art, but not many people are aware that he was also visually impaired. He suffered from intermittent exotropia, causing him to periodically view the world in 2D, just like the canvases he painted. He is far from the only artist to live and work with a visual impairment. These include Degas, Renoir, Monet, Picasso, and O’Keeffe, all of whom struggled with their vision in some manner. Degas’ style became rougher as he aged and his eyesight failed, so his self-titled ‘orgies of colour’ with their dreamlike compositions and swirling pigments may have looked quite different to him. My point in mentioning this is that not only is a portrait reliant on the accuracy and soulfulness with which the eyes are drawn, but it is also reliant on the eyes of the artist who created it. Through art, we are allowed a glimpse into the perspective of the artist and their own way of viewing the world.
Throughout history, our relationship with the human gaze has been examined again and again, as we can see from historical artifacts such as Roman mummy portraits, whose painted eyes suggest gentleness and quiet beauty that enthrals the modern viewer. There is a sense of kinship and peacefulness conveyed through these ancient faces that calms you as you look at them. For a brief moment, we forget that these people lived and died thousands of years ago and feel the connection of spirit as strongly as we do with another living being.
Whether we are emotionally connecting with our fellow humans through personal interaction or art, or an artifact from millennia ago, we as a species are forever interlinked through our emotional interactions with each other. In a time when we are not permitted to see our friends and extended families, or to meet new people in a social setting, whatever contact we are allowed becomes more special, and our awareness of this is heightened. This pandemic should not last forever, but until it is over, we should cherish every moment we have with each other, every instance of random eye contact with a stranger or friend, and every social and emotional interaction, for if this past year has taught us anything, it is that we are all connected and we are all human. Seeing the world through another’s eyes has perhaps never been so important as it is today.