Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Eyes that follow you around the room
One of the strangest art clichés that still circulates endlessly—and I heard it again yesterday uttered by somebody who really ought to know better— is the one about the eyes in a portrait “following you around the room.” This non-illusion arises from somewhat muddled expectations about how a two-dimensional image might behave when seen from different angles in three-dimensional space. Provided the image is not a hologram, we can hardly expect it to take account of our position in the room. If the eyes engage us when we stand directly in front of the picture, they will also engage us from any other viewpoint, despite the distorting effects of foreshortening. I doubt if eyes “following you around the room” have anything at all to do with gothic fiction or those old movies in which real eyes spy through peep-holes cut into the face of a portrait. Of course, they actually do follow you around. I suspect by its slightly supernatural, spiritualist note that we can safely blame the concept of eyes that seem mobile and, worse, intently watching you, on nineteenth-century French art critics, who got a kick out of that sort of thing.