The history of art is a staring contest. A painting or sculpture can be said to win if, after centuries of looking, we still can’t take our eyes off it. Occasionally, a portrait’s own gaze (the illusion that the work stares back at us) overwhelms the object’s impact, rippling out centrifugally across its surface like a pair of pebbles dropped into a still pond. Anyone who has ever peered deep into the eyes of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring or any of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits will have experienced the woozying effect of such disturbance. In these works, rather than merely facial features, the eyes become pivots that suggest a deeper plane of perception altogether – a spirit level of vision.
A photo circulating in the media this week of an alligator lurking in the shallow waters of Florida’s Myakka River State Park invites us to reflect on the hypnotic power of eyes in art. Taken in the quarter-light of darkest dusk, just as the semi-aquatic reptile is either lifting its head above or lowering its nostrils below the water’s surface, the photo is poised precariously between physical and psychological states of existence: air and water, waking and dream.
What fixes our attention isn’t exactly the burning brilliance of the otherworldly creature’s hot amberous glare, or even the way the retinal radiance melts into a liquid shimmer in the reflective river, but the rawness of consciousness that seems to ignite sight from somewhere deep inside its being. Popularly known as ‘eyeshine’, the eerily luminous ophthalmological phenomenon is created by a layer of optical tissue in some animals known as tapetum lucidum, which facilitates nocturnal seeing – a trait that is key to their survival.
Those fascinated with the depiction of eyes in art, how they serve as compass points around which seeing swivels from the looked-upon to the looker, from inspection to introspection, may be reminded of a comparable stare vibrating from behind the forensically observed foliage of French post-impressionist Henri Rousseau’s enchanting painting The Dream – the last painting the primitive artist completed before his death in September 1910. An important antecedent of Surrealism, The Dream is a visual poem that collapses memory and fantasy onto a shared plane of mindfulness. The naked woman who lounges preposterously on a plush settee is surrounded by painstakingly transcribed vegetation that the self-taught artist studied in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes.
Though observers of Rousseau’s painting may suspect that everything they see before them is, in fact, unfolding in the overheated mind of the absurdly situated woman, there is no distancing themselves from the penetrating gaze of the lion who stares out saucer-eyed from the centre of the canvas, breaking the otherwise closed system of psychological narrative. Shift the lion’s line of vision even slightly from its inflexible trajectory outwards into the eyes of the audience and the painting would suddenly lose its urgency and outrageous charm. Our knowledge that the painting was created by an artist on the threshold between life and death invests it with another layer of liminal allure. Only the lion’s blisteringly resplendent and piercing eyes, like those in this week’s photo from Florida, can keep us implicated on every level of the image’s meaning, can keep us blinking between states of awareness – between reality and reverie, this world and another.
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