The eyes have it, in the history of art and in teenager art

The human eye has always had a prominent role in the history of art. A statement of the obvious you might say. The tradition of the portrait has been such a prominent feature in art for so long and can indeed be traced back to ancient Egypt. The eyes of a subject are more often than not the focus. The eyes are, as they say, the windows on the soul. The arrival of photography brought new challenges for artists, but even within the modern chapter of art history it has remained relevant and extensively explored.

But here I am less interested in the tradition of portraiture, and more in the eyes, or maybe even ‘an eye’ when it is taken in isolation. The singling out of the eyes, or a single eye, reached something of a peak in the art of the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century and the work of the Surrealists in particular.

Odilon Redon was more than happy to remove the eye from the human face, to isolate it or combine it with other objects or contexts. Rene Magritte and Man Ray also produced work that see a one-eyed stare coming out of their canvases. And then there is the unforgettable eye sequence in Un Chien Andalou, the film made by Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dalì, a reference that is certainly not for the squeamish.

The eye, as a sensory organ, is of course a crucial to the artist both in terms of perceiving the world around them and realising their own creative work. Without vision, the artistic practice becomes massively restricted. Added to this, we experience our eyes as both tremendously fragile and vulnerable in comparison to much of the rest of our body. These sorts of reasons contribute perhaps to the eyes place in the history of art.

Having made these observations I’m not altogether convinced that these are the motivations why the eye in the drawings of teenagers is at times so extraordinarily prevalent. I have just finished an extensive session of marking of final school exams, where candidates (18-year olds) have documented their working process and drawings that have moved them towards final pieces of work. What has undoubtedly caught my eye is just how many eye paintings, drawings and doodles I have seen.

Maybe it’s not that surprising that YouTube has rather more films about drawing eyes than they have for drawing ears. But what is especially noticeable in the exam candidates’ works is how often the eyes are isolated from the face, so not as a form portraiture, indeed very often they are just a single eye.

Have I got some great theory forming here? Well no, not really. More likely just more questions relating to the subject. Is this more prevalent amongst girls than boys? Is it connected to a fascination in Manga and Anime illustrations with their enlarged eyes? Or is it simply because it is relatively easy to do in comparison to a complete portrait? Do these eye drawings carry some form of symbolic meaning for the young artists involved?

One thing is for sure, they don’t seem to be being made with any great knowledge or insight into the artists’ work that I mentioned earlier, which is a shame, because a little more development of an idea around such a motif, can make it a great deal more interesting, certainly when it is the 137th exam candidate that you are marking!

2 thoughts on “The eyes have it, in the history of art and in teenager art

  1. Hello! I am an art therapist and have been working with teenage girls. When asked to do a free drawing of their choice, most teenage females inevitably draw one eye. I have wondered about this as well. From a feminist perspective, I wondered if it was related to the male gaze, but are their other implications as well? Or is it just that eyes are interesting and fun to draw. I do not know. Nonetheless, thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Hi Annie, it’s nice to hear a response from a different angle. The male gaze perspective puts quite a charge on these images. You are certainly right to say that it does seem to be a motif that fascinates teenage girls, although also boys, but to a much lesser degree.
      From my art teachers perspective I think teenagers in general are drawn to the image of the face, perhaps more than ever in the world we now live in. Of the facial features the eyes are perhaps both the least challenging to draw (having very clearly identifiable elements, the pupil, iris, lids, lashes and brows) and at the same time offer scope for creating individual identity and gender identification.
      It is also probably fair to say that even if it doesn’t actually come to be realized in most cases, there is at least the longing to draw more of the face to create something that might eventually become a portrait.
      I might be able to expand further on these thoughts in a couple of weeks as I am about to begin a portrait drawing assignment with the 15 year olds that I teach!

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