Unnerving Eye Contact

A new semester is upon us, and, with it, even more opportunities to refine our knowledge of iconetics.

It pleases me to acknowledge that every student of the previous class has continued in this course of study…even those who failed. My salutations are also extended to those students whose majors were forcibly reassigned to iconetics due to the new quotas being imposed on the school. Let me assure you that I shall be as accommodating as I dare in a 200-level class. It seems all of us will have to make sacrifices to fulfill the new mandates, as the material value of iconetics becomes ever more apparent to the people with a say in how the world turns.

This is Iconetics 235: Unnerving Eye Contact.

Lesson 1: The Role of Eye Contact in Society

At first glance, eye contact might be seen as a universal positive and benefit to society. It forces two people into a situation where each party is forced to study the face of the other, to allow for memorization of facial features and interpretation of subtle emotional cues supposedly transmitted by the eye. This purported benefit of eye contact is of such civilizational importance that people who fail to follow it are often thought of as having a mental disorder.

But even a modest broadening of horizons reveals that the impulse toward eye contract is neither universal nor innate. Even in Western cultures, prolonged and uninvited eye contact is seen as hostile, arrogant, or otherwise unnerving. And when you look to the cultures of the East, you discover social orders where eye contact is actively avoided.

In some cultures, all except the briefest of eye contact is considered rude or insolent. And it’s not hard to see why: eye contact is intimidating. When you impose eye contact on a person (and it is an imposition) you cut off that person’s peripheral vision, taking away their ability to detect threats that may be hiding just outside the corner of their vision. Eye contact can be, and has been, used by professional killers to frighten their prey into freezing, or lulling them into a false sense of security. People with an in-born aversion to eye contact may simply be obeying a survival reflex.

Lesson 2: Giving Offense

It is easy for eye contact to make people uneasy. And even societies that require it as a social obligation are often disturbed by, and unprepared for, strong eye contact.

It makes them so uneasy that, in fact, they find themselves unable to forget moments of extreme eye contact. Have you ever been staring into space as you daydream, only to be approached by a bystander who insists you were making a rude face at them? Giving them “the stink eye”?

If it hasn’t happened to you, then I’d bet it’s happened to someone you know. Because when a person is unaware of his surroundings, he often loses control of his facial expressions, forcing his eyes to assume a neutral position and fixate on the horizon. This can lead to a prolonged yet accidental eye contact that the daydreamer doesn’t realize is occurring. And, on occasion, it freaks everyone out!

Now you may be tempted to think of eye contact as a universal negative, since it causes so many misunderstandings. But this is the part where iconeticists stand up and shout “Hallelujah!” Because any artistic device that prevents people from being able to forget about your art is a kind of magic. It’s literally the stuff that icons are made of.

This is actually one of the few ways in which my definition of an icon (“An artwork that surpasses masterpiece”) and the classical definition of an icon (“Illuminated religious portraiture”) coincide. Both examples use eye contact as a way to unnerve and discomfort the viewer. And it is of such importance that some artworks attain iconhood based on their use of eye contact alone.

But there’s a catch: the eye contact being used cannot be the idealized Western concept of eye contact, where the subject rests their eyes easily upon the viewer, merely as a way of showing attention.

No, the eye contact needed to create an icon must be disturbing. It needs to offend and upset. If looks could kill, then, as a creator of icons, you would hold it as your highest duty to assassinate your audience. Your exemplar in this work is not fair Helen but Medusa.

The harder it is to look at, the better for you as the artist. Yet even a slight misgiving will add value to the eye contact. The subject doesn’t have to transparently sneer at the viewer. As long as their is any level of discomfort or aggression in the gaze, it can be at least partially useful.

Lesson 3: Examples from German Expressionism

Once again we find German expressionism to be the most indispensable art movement to an iconeticist. It is home to a host of unmeetable eyes, broadcasting their unease to anyone unlucky enough to glance at them. The result is a parade of iconic glares.

It may simply be a byproduct of German expressionism’s trend toward unnerving art in general. When deciding which parts of their artworks to make dark and spooky, the Germans took a “everything and the kitchen sink” approach.

Still, some of the best examples of unnerving eye contact can be found here. And this style of depicting eyes, even when transposed to art from a less stark school of artistic thought, still produces a desirable effect.

Lesson 4: More than One Way to Skin a Cat

I realize that “unnerving” is a broad category. That was intentional. And, in giving examples of unnerving eye contact, I have drawn upon a lot of horror-themed pieces, as those give a blunt and direct approach to understanding the appeal of uneasiness.

But terror is not the only way that eye contact can be unnerving. Take, for example, The Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet.

This painting (as well as Manet’s later work, Olympia) caused a scandal when it was first released. Not because of the female nude exhibited in the work—female nudes have been common artistic subjects for most of history—but because of what that female is doing.

She’s making eye contact with the audience.

That was outrageous for its time. Shattering the fourth wall, bringing the audience into the scene when that scene featured a naked woman was more than some art critics could take. And the lady’s stare is hardly horror-themed. If anything, it’s a bit smarmy, or even judgmental. And when paired with the less-direct-yet-still-present eye contact of the man next to her, it becomes a double whammy.

It’s the only part of the painting that people care about. Nobody talks about the brilliant still life of the picnic lunch in the lower left corner or the excellent forest landscape. And while this painting is hardly an icon, its history demonstrates the power of eye contact that does not convey terror, but merely discomfort.

If you remember the first image in this post—Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring—you’ll notice a similar level of subtle uneasiness in the eye contact. Here is a woman who is not sure she is happy to see us. Perhaps the viewer has caught her by surprise, or perhaps he merely bores or irritates her.

And whatever Margaret Keane’s Big Eyes paintings are supposed to convey is surely nothing to put anyone’s mind at ease.

There are a wealth of emotions that make people uncomfortable: anger, embarrassment, pain, pleading, fear, greed, grief, lust, vanity, disgust, despair, inebriation, or just plain awkwardness. And any of these, when conveyed through the eyes, makes for unnerving eye contact.

Even if it’s not something the viewer can put their finger on. Just a general sense that the subjects eyes are conveying something out of the ordinary can be enough to elevate an artwork. One of the most complex executions of awkward eye contact comes from Rembrandt.

The subject is by no means ugly or aggressive, but his gaze is lopsided. He might be inebriated, or he may simply be tired. And as the painting’s title is Night Watch, I’m inclined to believe the latter. In any case, he’s not in a position to have a friendly, or even coherent, conversation. And when the viewer realizes he has intruded on this man’s stupor, there is a sense of awkwardness that makes the painting deliciously memorable.

Lesson 5: Examples from Modern Media

And these techniques are not confined to the world of fine art. Unnerving eye contact abounds in modern commercial works, and is usually received with great financial success. Take, for example, one of my favorite movie posters for one of my favorite movies—Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus.

The viewer is met with an intense glare from a cloaked figure, though the exact emotion conveyed by that stare is unreadable. The image also conveys a monstrous sense of scale, as the entire city of Vienna is surrounded by the man’s cloak, and it looks like he’s ready to seize the entire landscape with his hands.

It’s big, it’s mysterious, it…gives no clear indication for what the movie is about, but the image alone is enough to set the imagination ablaze.

Icons using unnerving eye contact have appeared in every visual medium, from pastel paintings to comic book covers.

And this technique works regardless of almost all other considerations. You can have unnerving eye contact in any genre, featuring people of any culture or age group, doing almost any activity. As such, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to add some kind of unsettling eye contact to almost any work in progress. It immediately improves the art’s chance of becoming iconic.

Finals Week!

Despite the…unusual circumstances of this semester, I am convinced that the progress of all you students has been phenomenal.

The school informs me that the results of your final exam will receive greater scrutiny now than they have in the past, as it seeks to reward those who excel in the field of iconetics and is anxious to get these students placed in positions that are hungry for your talents. The school has also asked me to make clear that many important and influential people are invested in the success of this program. As your professor, I urge you to take seriously your role in shaping the future of this subject, and, consequently, your performance on this exam.

Regardless of…external considerations, I believe you will find your pursuit of iconetics to be an extremely fulfilling career path. Have a fun finals week and I’ll see you…when I see you.

Never miss a secret. Subscribe to the blog.