The history of eyeglasses goes back almost a thousand years.
In his Book of Optics, dated 1021, the Arab scientist Alhazen had already mentioned the use of a convex lens to enlarge images. The translation of this treatise into Latin led to the invention of magnifying glasses held together by a frame in thirteenth century Italy. The earliest depiction of someone wearing glasses, Tommaso da Modena’s portrait of a Dominican cardinal, dates from 1352. Since then corrective eyewear has been scarce in painting. When glasses are represented on canvas, they rarely sit on women’s noses and the men wearing them are always scholars and scientists, intellectuals with little macho sex appeal. With the advent of photography, more apt at capturing the real world unexpectedly, imagery of bespectacled men and women has expanded, but the symbolic aura of glasses has largely remained the same. Unless you’re Clark Kent, glasses spell “nerd” rather than “stud.”
Luc Tuymans became acutely aware of the underrepresentation of glasses in painting when going through his portraits since the early seventies and finding that three quarters of them depicted people wearing glasses. His break with art history is directly linked to his sourcing of images from newspapers and magazines. These often represent people caught unexpectedly in the flashlight, not posing or otherwise consciously presenting a public image. This element of surprise underlines the distinct impact glasses can have on a person’s physiognomy. They might even be considered part of someone’s identity. He was fascinated by how self-evident the ocular aid has become in modern society, but how disregarded it is at the same time. Tuymans thus decided to create a show around these portraits with glasses, a history of perception as it were. Tuymans being Tuymans, it inevitably also became its opposite: a reflection on history.
(left) Luc Tuymans, Pink Glasses, 2001. Collection SFMOMA.
Purchase through a gift of The Buddy Taub Foundation, Jill and Dennis Roach, Directors. © Luc Tuymans
It was Andy Warhol, famous wearer of dark-rimmed spectacles and iconic shades, who stated that glasses are equalizers, transforming the world from different levels of blurriness into a uniform 20/20. Glasses restore the world to a state of normality, at least when perfect vision is considered the benchmark. If not, glasses are instruments of distortion. It’s hardly impossible not to see Tuymans’ Pink Glasses, the work gracing the catalogue cover, as the ironic icon of the exhibition. The oval shaped pair, flimsy as a cheap toy, acts like an invitation to immerse the world in soothing colors. But there’s little comforting about that world, as Tuymans shows us again and again.
Besides filters, glasses can be seen as shields. They form a barrier for the eye, the proverbial “window to the soul.” The lens distorts the eye, making you doubt what you see. The glass may catch the sunlight changing its surface into a flash. But even when you do see the eyes, the frame often dominates the image and distracts our view. It’s definitely true for Tuymans’ Portrait and Portrait of an Old Man which are based on mourning cards the artist found in the street. The faces are literally framed—without the glasses they would probably become even more anonymous.
Luc Tuymans, The Heritage VI, 1996, Private Collection. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York London
The opposite can be true as well: glasses can lend a portrait an everyday banality that is not on par with the wearer’s identity. The Heritage VI shows the face of a middle-aged man with a slightly old-fashioned haircut but a boyish smile. His eyes are slightly enlarged behind horn-rimmed spectacles. A benign looking guy, possibly even loveable. But this happens to be Joseph Milteer, neo-Nazi with links to the Ku Klux Klan and the extremist States Rights Party, who has been implicated in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The same deceptive innocence radiates from Issei Sagawa. The painting looks like a grossly overexposed photograph, with only the glasses lending the weak profile some relief. This is the Japanese cannibal who in 1981 killed and ate a Sorbonne student.
Because of a limited number of models, glasses can make people look alike. The attribute takes over the face and people, even famous ones, become types. Tuymans’ portrait of Patrice Lumumba, the first president of Congo before he was killed in 1961, illustrates the point. With his piercing eyes behind his thick, black-brimmed glasses he’s a dead ringer for Malcolm X, who was murdered only four years later. The lesser-known Ernest Claes, nationalist and the subject of Tuymans’ A Flemish Intellectual, looks like Sigmund Freud.
Luc Tuymans, Lumumba, 2000, Collection: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Studio Tuymans
In Iphone Tuymans himself, also a wearer of glasses, becomes a blur. With this self-portrait the artist explicitly touches upon the show’s underlying theme: the fundamental treacherousness of perception. Another painting, this one not depicting a person with eyewear, drives the point home. Rear View Mirror shows a murky landscape with a road running through it and non-descript vegetation on the side. It’s the painterly representation of a reflection of something which “may be closer than it appears.” It’s a double translation. In a sense, the same is true for glasses: they can be looked with and looked at. But no matter frame or strength, focus and perspective will always remain a matter of the individual.
Luc Tuymans: Glasses will travel to the National Portrait Gallery in London in autumn.
(Image at top: Luc Tuymans, Campagne Image Glasses, 2007, Penny Pritzker and Bryan Traubert Collection. All images: Courtesy of MAS | Museum aan de Stroom, Antwerp)