Featured in the paintings by Ernst Wilhelm Nays from the years 1963 and 1964, the motif of the "eye" had established itself as an iconographic symbol in the Western cultural tradition since the time of early Greeks. Anthropologists also discovered this motif in prehistoric and early non-European cultures, for example in North America and Africa, where the symbol of the eye formed part of cultic rituals such as exorcising demons.
However, during the European Middle Ages its meaning shifted completely, with the eyes in the depictions of saints now evoking the presence of the saint him/herself, the numinous and the ineffable. Even today the viewer is drawn ineluctably into the spell of the all-seeing eye, which appears to follow us. This hypnotic gaze became very prevalent in medieval art across the entire Western culture, and is familiar to many from the piercing eyes of the Golden Madonna housed in Essen Cathedral.
Throughout the increasingly secularised history of art, the motif of the all-seeing eye was transformed from a symbol of the divine to a manifestation of humanity. And the confrontational gaze came to signify self-confidence and self-awareness, and accordingly, was deployed as an expressive device in the self-portrait genre.
As the history of ideas has progressed, our concept of the image in Modernity has undergone a dramatic transformation. The art work itself is now an autonomous interlocutor. Highlighting this phenomenon in the art of Paul Klee, Werner Haftmann explained that it is "not the motif, but the painting itself […] looks at the artist - and us." (Werner Haftmann, E.W. Nay, Cologne, exp. new edition 1991, 249)
This present watercolour features variously-designed, vertically-aligned forms of eyes, which convey the unmistakable impression that they are staring out at us from the canvas. Confronting us is a self-confident image, which interrogates our very raison d'être.
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