Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Look into my eyes

I saw a post from Juxtapoz on Facebook the other day about Spanish photographer Ángela Burón and the following photograph caught my breast, er, I mean eye:

Mírame a los ojos cuando te hablo, 2014
A striking bit of photoshoppery; take a fine female form in what would otherwise be sexy as hell and Blam!  You wanted to look at what is being revealed, taking a delicious pleasure in admiring such a form....but you find it's staring right back at you.  Busted, fella.
Qu’est-ce que le Surréalisme? (What is Surrealism

Generally, a regular guy scoping out a woman is gonna try to steal a sideways glance or ogle from afar; unseen, you can get away with it.  But what happens when you're caught in the act?  Uncomfortable, to say the least.  A bit embarrassed, maybe even ashamed.  A sort of visual violation has been thwarted.  And what if rape is, as is said, a crime not of sex, but of power?

But why this talk of violation and rape?  Juxtapoz refers to Buron's work as "sneaky surrealism" and that's the trigger.  LoS has dealt with the conflation of the breast and the eye in a number of posts; the Gid's introduction to the subject featured Magritte's Le Viol from 1934, in which the replacement of the nipples with eyes is reversed.  Le Viol means "The Rape."

In the painting, a woman's face has become transformed into a nude female body.  Her mouth is a vagina, her eyes have become breasts.  The organs of sight and speech have been rendered into the principal objects of male lust.  Blind and mute, Magritte's feminine form is rendered powerless.  Thus, the rape.  His interest in the concept was such that he painted other versions in 1945 in 1948, both also entitled Le Viol.  He also drew it for André Breton's Qu’est-ce que le Surréalisme? in 1934 and a second drawing from 1945 was discovered relatively recently.  Though the head is "facing" slightly left as opposed to right, the drawings most closely resemble the 1934 version.  This page includes a more thorough interpretation of the image.
Qu’est-ce que le Surréalisme? (What is Surrealism
Le Viol, 1934
Contrast Magritte's painting with Burón's photo, which reverses the metamorphosis; Burón imbues the female form with power by turning the breasts into the watchful guardians of her image; interesting too that the lower part of the torso is revealed to such a point that her sex must lie but a millimeter south of where the frame ends.  The gateway is out of sight.  After all, it's self-evident:  the photographer controls what we see....and what we don't.

In at least two posts (The Eyes Have It and There and Back Again), we've looked at the iconography of two Sicilian saints:  Agatha carries her breasts on a plate and Lucia carries her eyes.  In this Medieval Catholic context, the women are victims, martyred for refusing the advances of an unwanted pagan suitor.  In a time when women were the pawns of men, who used marriage to create alliances and in all cases to consolidate their power, the breasts and eyes are inert, disembodied.  Sex between a royal couple might have little to do with love or desire but everything to do with providing an heir or to consummate a marriage -- a deal brokered by others.  In either case, for reasons of power.  Is it such that we can call this rape?

Gid's initial post also features an 18th-century engraving of a woman with an eye in glory representing Reason in the place where her breast should be.  Perhaps there's a pun involved, the areola being the circle of flesh around the nipple proper and the aureola a radiant cloud of light around a sacred personage.  Not so odd when you consider Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830), in which Marianne rallies the troops, leading with a prominent exposed breast.  Then there's Honoré Daumier's 1848 sketch entitled The Republic, in which Marianne nurses two children.  This is the state and it's values, foremost among them Reason, which nurtures and elevates the people.  The breast leads, the breast nurses, the breast is generous.  A controversial re-boot of Marianne in a local Mairie as recent as 2011 had to be replaced because her prominent set was causing a bit of a ruckus in the village.  "I made the breasts prominent to symbolize the generosity of the Republic" said the artist.  In this case, the breast symbolizes a form of power.

In our previous posts, we talk a little about why the eyes and breasts are conflated, but we suggest reading our source, N. Hilton's Before the Milk of the Word:  Nipple-Eyes, for a more thorough treatment of the topic.  He deals with Magritte and our Revolution-era engraving.  The association is not really as outlandish as it seems.  Imagine a kid's drawing with a circle and a dot in the middle; basically the same simple pictograph one would use to represent an eye or a breast.  But it is much more than a visual metaphor.  A nursing baby gets a windshield full of tit....before gazing up into its mother's eyes and letting out a satisfied belch, fed and secure.  Primordial images, an association all breast-fed kidlets make from day one.  Also makes me think of the time I was talking to a colleague and must have been staring chestward, because she said, "Hey, my eyes are up here!"  And lo and behold, during my second run through this text I discovered that Burón's photos is called Mírame a los ojos cuando te hablo:  "Look me in the eyes when I talk to you."  When I talk to you.  Not you talk to meWhen I (eye?) talk to you....

But I'm just being lazy; read the Hilton article; he or she gives a good overview of the subject.

Then there's Ken Russell's Gothic.  Required viewing for the budding bohemian/AP English film geek.  One of the more disturbing hallucinations brought to the screen include the following; Percy Shelley is licking lips lustily over Claire Claremont's breasts and Blam!  They're staring back, bub:

I seem to recall Claire is acting out Shelley's fantasy, "baring her breast and entreating him to look into her eyes", but when her nipples blink he turns away in terror.  Those haggard peepers would set anyone off a bit of nipple play for a while I'd wager, but it's worth stating the obvious:  the transformation of the nipples into eyes re-calibrates the balance of power.

Then there's this image I scanned from an article in a French magazine about sexual predators on the Internet.  I uploaded this before in an article about Little Red Riding Hood but didn't include it in the original article.  The eyes are rather wolf-like, which could indicate that women need to become like hunters themselves, in order to root out and destroy those who might otherwise prey on them.  That this is all represented by the eyes is perhaps tied to the natural fact that the hunter always tries to see everything while remaining unseen to its prey.  It's much more likely that the hunter will be successful if its prey isn't aware that it's being stalked.  In this image the usually oblivious mammary becomes something vigilant, determined, if not a tad menacing.

Anyway, I don't have anything more to say on these images with regard to eye-nipple iconography than I've already said.  Burón's photo struck a chord with me and since she was gracious enough to let me use it, I wanted to share it in terms of this question of power, that hadn't really occurred to me before.

I'm not much of an art critic, but I find her work to be at turns playful, sultry and erotic.  She often reassembles the female form in a way that brings to mind the dolls of another Surrealist, Hans Bellmer, but without the undercurrent of violence and sadism his work emanates.  On the contrary, her work is serene and not self-exploitative, she always remains in control of her image.  She often looks the viewer right in the eye; in some, her camera is turned towards you.  This is especially effective in a shot where she lies naked, her back to the viewer.  But while she is out of focus, the camera in the foreground, trained upon the viewer, is not.  Her camera, her eye, thus serves, in a manner we've already evoked, as a kind of protection.  She is vulnerably naked, she can't even see you.  But her camera can.  You might ogle, but will probably turn your head when you realize you've been caught in the act.  The viewed voyeur vanishes.

You can check out more of Burón's photography on her flickr photostream at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/040710/

On a final note, a post script if you will, this makes me think of an organization based NYC called Hollaback!, whose goal is to end street harassment by, among other means, filming or photographing people who catcall, leer or make unwelcome advances, then putting it on the net.  (Full disclosure, I'm an old friend of their Deputy Director's partner).  In Burón's photos, she reminds us that she decides how and when she can be approached; she is in control of her image and thus, her physical body.  A scene often used in cinema is that of the underling squirming uncomfortably under the silent gaze of another character; it's a perfect representation of both character's perception of the power relationship between the two.  The women in Hollaback! want to be the ones doing the looking.  Looking someone in the eye can be discomfiting and that, in the end, is powerful.


  1. Nice addition to our nipple/eye posts, Daurade. Interesting how a stare/glare can feel like an act of aggression. That's a bit of the animal in us, I reckon, like how dogs can go ballistic if you stare them in the eye but be all call if you just avoid their gaze.

    Similar to Hollaback!: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jtes/this-woman-has-been-confronting-her-catcallers-and-secretly

    1. Thanks for the link. I think you're right. Looking animals in the eye is a sign of aggression. People can take it that way as well. Making eye-contact can often lead to unwelcome encounters; not making it can be a form of avoiding trouble.

      Also, I guess ogling a lady is also pretty much a sign of sexual interest, so it's discomfiting. Male animals have to look at their prospective mate, who often isn't always down with mating. Female animals often seem to me like they're being raped by the male. I don't know for sure if this is true or not, but it often looks that way.

      Hence a woman's unease, I suppose, that lingering unwanted visual attention can escalate into a sexual assault.

  2. Ha, ha, look at the last entry here: http://the-toast.net/2014/10/20/women-trying-sleep-unsuccessfully-western-art-history/

    ("staring counts as touching...")

    1. Interesting. I disagree, but interesting how staring can be so distressful to a woman. Also, Western Civ has a lot of "rapey" art going on, no? We did a good number on the hand/eye connection in this one I think: http://lawsofsilence.blogspot.fr/2011/01/hand-is-whole.html

      I'm pretty sure we did another which more explicitly linked the eye and the hand as stand-ins for each other? Hand of God/Eye of God? Not sure....an LoS concordance would be useful!


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