The Eye in Contemporary Jewellery. Spotlight Artworks by Klimt02

Article  /  CriticalThinking   History
Published: 02.07.2024
The Eye in Contemporary Jewellery. Spotlight Artworks by Klimt02.
Cécile Maes, Klimt02
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We often say that the eye is the window to the soul. The intriguing organ of sight is far more than a mere biological mechanism. This vitreous sphere, with its iris and pupil, carries complex and multifunctional symbolism. Sometimes a symbol of foresight, protection, love, and providence, the eye embodies not only vision but also the depth of each individual. It serves as a bridge between the physical and spiritual realms, a mirror separating oneself from others and enabling access to spiritual enlightenment.

From prehistory to the present day, the eye has been symbolised and highlighted to captivate the viewer across all artistic domains. It symbolises observation, understanding, and the capacity to question and create.

In this article, we will adopt the collector's eye to present a selection of artworks and artists who utilise the eye as a symbolic figure devoted to all kinds of allegories.
When I started researching the eye theme, I assumed finding pieces featuring eyes and writing about them would be simple. Mental images came quickly: I pictured the Eye of Horus, the Nazar Boncuk serving as a powerful talisman against the evil eye, even the Illuminati and Freemasons.

I imagined using expressions like trompe-l'oeil, having The compass in the eye, eye-popping, or being entre quatre yeux. I also thought of the Big Eye, dear Big Brother, the omnipresent symbol of Orwell's totalitarian regime.

Mais que nenni easy!

The deeper I delved into my research, the more I discovered different interpretations and symbolisms of the eye. What I thought would be a straightforward article has turned into a potential thesis topic that has likely been extensively studied already.
This article won’t be a thesis but rather a synthesis of the gleanings from my research to find that famous eye—who knows, the third eye—the artist's eye made by artists or the ones reproduced by them.

Let's start with a story that has always intrigued me: the one of Santa Lucia of Syracuse, woman, virgin, and another martyr.
Refusing her suitor to dedicate her life to God, Lucia provoked his rage, leading to her imprisonment. When she asked him why he cherished her so, he replied: 'It is your eyes.'
No more words needed; Lucia gouged out her eyes and presented them to him on a dish. In gratitude for her devotion, the Virgin Mary magically restored Lucia's sight with even more beautiful eyes!

Eyes of divine intervention, a window to the beyond. It is a tale of eyes that elevated Lucia to become the light, the revered patron saint of people who are blind.

Francesco del Cossa: Saint Lucy, 1473/1474. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Washington

The eyes symbolise enlightenment and the ability to perceive the world, with or without appearance. Perhaps this is why Bruno Martinazzi also incorporated the eye into his jewellery, an eye whose gaze remains enigmatic. It's an eye that facilitates learning and understanding, as he asserts: what we call art is the original connection of soul, eye, and hand.

This eye could be seen as the embodiment of the Latin expression 'Oculi mentis', referring to the capacity to perceive or understand something mentally beyond physical vision. This expression relates to inner or spiritual perception rather than physical sight.

The leaf depicted in the photo may also allude to the tree, the infamous one that led to our downfall. The one where the serpent said to the woman: You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

It's the eye of all truths, perhaps the eye possessing all the world's knowledge.

Bruno Martinazzi. Brooch: Untitled, 1968. Silver. Photo by: Adolf Vrhel

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Otto Künzli often incorporates the eye figure and the mirror in his work. The mirror has a magical function of reflecting a reality that is another, while the eye, the one that sees, can never look at itself without the aid of a reflection.

Since 1988, with the Catoptric Ring made of gold and a mirror, which, once worn, reflects back to its own identity, Otto Künzli frequently explores reflection and self-perception.

In his brooches from 2016-2017, he presents a single, motionless, harmless eye incorporated into a simple, geometric form. This observing eye evokes the third eye, the one of self-awareness. He thus seems to address themes of inner reflection and the existential question: 'But who are you, really?'

Otto Künzli Brooch: Auge III, 2016. Corian.

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Because the eye bears witness to the sensitivity of beings, it is a defining feature of our face, the most distinctive part of the human being. Since the Paleolithic era, representations of animals have placed great importance on the eye. Even today, who doesn't feel deeply shameful when campaigns against intensive farming focus on the eyes of such a cute cow?

The mirror of the soul and the eye express the essence of the portrait, the act of gazing upon oneself and its ability to captivate.

Moulages of the frieze from Angles-sur-l'Anglin, Vienne, Musée des Antiquitées Nationales Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

In late 18th-century England, miniatures depicting eyes, also known as Lover's eyes, were portraits of a gaze painted within a locket given to a beloved. This type of jewel, crucial in the forbidden romance between Maria Anne Fitzherbert and Prince George of Wales, was offered by the prince to the young widow as proof of his devotion.

Depicting only one eye, the person's identity could remain secret, becoming the mysterious gaze known only to its possessor. Precious and intimate, these miniatures served as cherished treasures to kiss, hold close to the heart, and contemplate when separated from the beloved, immortalising the gaze even after death.

Eye Miniature, early 19th century. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Derrick Guild explores the relationship between the human eye and portraiture through his installations composed of framed medallions, where he recreates details from famous European portraits. By intertwining components characterised by their properties, a new portrait's imagination and mental creation are activated while paying homage to the original work.

In Clara with Van Dyck's Eye, he suspends an oval medallion containing a human eye taken from a portrait by Van Dyck in front of the eye of the animal depicted on the mural, a rhinoceros inspired by the work of Jean Baptiste Oudry.

The addition of this historically charged human eye enhances the anthropomorphism of the animal portrait, working on how the artwork is perceived and interpreted.

Derrick Guild. Installation: Clara with Van Dyke Eye, 2019.

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On the other hand, the artist Daniel Kruger transforms the traditional function of jewellery, which typically amplifies individual identity and captures the attention of others. His necklace Eyes place the wearer in the role of a voyeur while the viewer is scrutinised and observed from various angles by charming female eyes reminiscent of collective images from ads or magazines.

Daniel Kruger. Necklace: Eyes, 2018. Silver, mirrored glass, photographs.

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Helen Clara Hemsley explores the theme of the protective eye with the necklace All Eyes on You, which reminds a protective talisman. It features a profusion of different eyes gathered within a large eye, connected to the neck by beads made of tiger's eyes. The wearer, wearing the necklace, becomes the centre of attention, where all eyes are on you, simultaneously observing and being observed by others.  The piece creates a narrative that engages a dialogue between words, beliefs, and stories.

Helen Clara Hemsley. Necklace: All Eyes on You, 2015. Embroidery fabric, knitting yarn, silk embroidery thread, cotton embroidery thread, onyx, black marker, turquoise, tiger eyes and silk thread. Photo by James Bates Photography.

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In her series Knock Off, Mallory Weston also explores the form of the eye as a cultural object imbued with various symbolic meanings. Her pendant, sculpted from a stone with fluorescent properties, continues to watch us even in darkness, reminiscent of neon signs. This radiant eye not only lights the night but also evokes a mystical and vigilant presence, symbolising both protection and surveillance in a modern, almost otherworldly manner.

Mallory Weston. Necklace: Eye, 2017. Carved fluorescent Diopside/Wollastonite leather.

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An eye becoming a large eye is the only almost surreal clue in a contemporary cameo created by Alexander Blank. One of Jimmy's portraits is difficult to interpret, with the eye being the only recognisable and identifiable part. It offers an insistent, even accusatory gaze that can potentially cause harm. The brooch is not classified as either a cameo or an amulet but perhaps as a mix of both.

Alexander Blank. Brooch: immy. High-density foam, graphite, silver, lacquer.

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This exploration of the eye's transformative power resonates deeply with the theme of the evil eye, which artist Jieyi Sun has made the heart of her artistic research. Through her exploration of our deepening reliance on digital technology, Jieyi creates contemporary amulets using 3D printing techniques.

Focusing on the liminal space between the tangible and intangible, on what The eye can detect and what it cannot, the artist, with Awakening. No.0-No. 30, has chosen the eye to symbolise a gradual opening followed by an apparent shift to the negative. This narrative forms a loop where the beginning merges with the end, inviting reflection on themes of birth (physically and spiritually), death, and the cyclical nature of existence.

Jieyi Sun. Set: System - Awakening. No.0-No. 30 (30 brooches), 2019.
Black TPU 94A, black TPU 98 A, 18k rose gold, 18k yellow gold, 14k yellow gold, stainless steel, silver, hair.

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In George Orwell's work, the eye is Big Brother, the oppressive and totalitarian leader who intrudes into individuals' private lives to erode personal liberties.

Teresa Milheiro extends this Orwellian imagery in her artistic exploration. Offering a strong political commentary through her works, the artist often uses the image of the eye to critique contemporary obsessions with self, control, alienation, and obedience. The necklace The eyes are useless when the mind is blind, reflects the idea that when the mind is predisposed to perceive reality in a specific manner, the eyes become ineffective, as there is a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the true reality.

To conclude this brief exploration into the realm of various eyes found throughout art history, especially in contemporary jewellery, I invite you to explore the thought-provoking 1984 exhibition at the ZDB gallery in Lisbon, on display until July 20, 2024, where Milheiro offers insightful reflections on the challenges of our times.

Teresa Milheiro. Necklace: The Eyes are Useless When the Mind is Blind, 2024. Blown glass and oxidised silver. From series: Alienation. Photo by: Luis Cunha Pais.

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About the author

Cécile Maes graduated from ENSA Limoges in design, specialising in Contemporary Jewellery. Her interest in jewellery grows from the human relationships games it involves. Social object, jewellery creates narratives and becomes a sign. Investigating classical typologies, her work is a re-interpretation where historical references and everyday exploration connect ideas to speak about jewellery, the reasons why we wear it and the meanings we give to it.

Instagram: cilce_maes