CHANGING SYMBOLISM OF SPECTACLES IN ART

Spectacles are the only accessory to adorn the “golden triangle” of the face, the space from eye to eye to lips. They are the first accessory to catch our attention, a key part of first impressions and consequently an important tool for the individual to express identity. Nowadays they are worn not only to counter visual impairment, but also purely as a fashion accessory. Just as people use spectacles to relate various impressions, artists use spectacles for a range of purposes in their work. In art as in life, the symbolism of eyewear has changed greatly over the centuries.

The first known artistic representation of spectacles is in a painting by Tommaso da Modena in 1352. Repeated use of spectacles in paintings of the learned led them to be identified with wisdom and respect. In later paintings, especially of the 17th and 18th centuries, spectacles often held deeply negative connotations. Paintings of misers and moneylenders associated them with meanness, self-deceit, exacting natures and being blinded by money. See The Miser, attributed to the style of David Ryckaert III, 17th century. Later, it again became common for nobility and academia to be depicted wearing spectacles. The symbolism of spectacles had shifted away from moral decline back to a higher status.

In art this century, visual aids are still very much used to illustrate personal characteristics. In 1950, the photographer Willy Rizzo took Salvador Dali’s portrait with his face altered by magnifying glasses. The surreal distortion of the picture reflects not only Dali’s kooky and unusual mind, but also echoes his works of melting, warped objects. The photograph cleverly reminds the viewer that Dali’s paintings are very much part of his identity.

The artist who has perhaps played most with notions of identity in relation to eyes, perception and eyewear is the Russian photographer and digital artist Skiwi. In 2009, he created a series of portraits named 'Eyeglases' with each subject wearing paper glasses coming complete with paper ‘lenses’. Somewhere between 3D glasses and the joke spectacles with painted eyes, the final result is somewhat disturbing. Skiwi manages to disguise age and gender, and the people look not altogether normal. They lose an element of their identity and become subhuman, even looking a little deranged. It’s impossible to make judgements about the people they truly are behind the eyewear.

Salvador Dali's portrait by photographer Willy Rizzo (image source: art info.com)
'Eyeglases' by photographer and digital artist Skiwi (image source: trendhunter.com)