An exhibition with too many barriers?

Our Museum Curator, Neil Handley, talks to Dutch lecturer in optics, Piet Meininger, about Luc Tuymans' latest exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

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Author: Neil Handley, Museum Curator
Date: 20 October 2016

Belgian artist Luc Tuymans has an exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery at the moment entitled Glasses. It is part of a larger show that took place in Antwerp earlier this year and which was the first time that the artist had made a thematic selection from his life's work! I went along with Dutch lecturer in optics Piet Meininger (of the DHTA technical school in Utrecht) to see if it has anything fresh to tell us about the objects we dispense daily.

PM: Is this it? There are only six pictures in this room, one of which doesn't appear to feature any glasses.

NH: Tuymans originally selected twenty pictures, and he calculated that some three quarters of his paintings include spectacles, which is remarkable given that for long periods of his career he hasn't done portraiture.

PM: There are no labels next to the pictures, but I quite like these handheld interpretation boards you can carry round with you.

NH: You missed the text panel outside the room that introduced the exhibits. They are all based on characters, some anonymous, others unsavoury. The spectacles are the only theme that binds them. It says in the catalogue that Tuymans sees himself as an artist-investigator - relevant because there are at least two criminals in this show, possibly three - and he aims to teach us how to look at people differently.

PM: It's definitely true that these glasses are not just an aid to their wearer. They are also an aid to us, in that they help us to 'read' the wearer's identity.

NH: So in one sense even distance vision spectacles can be reading glasses!

PM: I'm OK with the idea that we can look at other people through their glasses, but I'm not sure I am seeing anything through spectacles in these paintings. The glasses are not defined well enough. As an optician I find that a distraction.

NH: Tuymans is interested in masks and barriers. He feels that we are bombarded daily with both,and that they conceal what is behind. We often don't meet the real person directly; our visual encounters with them are filtered. Even if their lenses are clear it takes only a slight movement of the head for reflections to obscure our view.  Extra thick prescriptions may also hinder our impression of the wearer.

PM: That is much less so now. A consequence is that we tend to notice the frames people wear much more. It's not just that the available styles are more colourful and flattering but that the lenses are no longer a distraction...

NH: I'm not necessarily noticing the frames in these pictures. Tuymans says they are a ubiquitous everyday object and so maybe one shouldn't. His art reveals how we are confronted with spectacle wearers all the time but scarcely perceive it. That said, the painting Issei Sagawa (2012) scarcely shows its subject wearing spectacles...or anything at all.

PM: I think the artist is relying on the notoriety of the subject.  Issei was a Japanese cannibal who actually ate a Dutch student in 1981. That was a big story in the Netherlands and I don't like the fact that he is featured because he has subsequently profited from his crimes. As it says, he became 'quite popular'. Everyone back home would have his image in their mind, so much so that the portrait need only give a basic impression for it to be interpreted as him.

NH: Glasses (2007) may also show a wrongdoer but in this case it is more the suggestion of the artist than established fact. It appears to be based on a black and white photograph of a Jesuit priest and was produced at a time when the Catholic church was being rocked by an abuse scandal. In this case, the glasses serve as a mask of anonymity.

PM: The spectacle frames are partly concealing his eyes and they cast a lot of shadow.

NH: Two pictures, Portrait and Portrait of Old Man (both 2000) are based on 'In Memoriam' cards. We will never know who these two people were, but their anonymous lives are perpetuated on canvas now.

PM: Portrait is the main iconic image on all the publicity for this exhibition. The woman is fading into the background making her spectacles all the more prominent. It's as if they are all that is left of the person.

NH: It reminds me of when comedian Ronnie Barker died and one newspaper placed a picture of just a pair of spectacles on its front page. This woman isn't famous though. Her glasses may have ended up in a charity collecting box. It seems odd to grant her the privilege of hanging in a portrait gallery.

PM: Tuymans doesn't seem to pay much attention to the design and construction of the spectacles. Their portrayal is very impressionistic and whilst I'm sure that is deliberate, it is not particularly accurate. I understand he only buys cheap spectacles himself (+3.00D readers, though at least he goes to a proper optician to obtain them). If he doesn't value his own glasses he'll only treat them as a motif and won't consider them a subject worthy of artistic representation.

NH: One commentator has written that the sitter in Portrait of Old Man appears weighed down by the heaviness of his own spectacles.

PM: But that's rubbish. No optician would consider that possible. [Turning to The Heritage VI (1996)...] I like this one better. Oh, no I don't, it says he is a Ku Klux Klan member!

NH: For the first time the spectacles are painted more recognisably as a frame that might actually be dispensed. I wonder if the artist knows that the upper rims of this 1950s style were often referred to in English as 'hoods'?  See how the horizontal impact of the frame is brought out by contrasting it against the vertical background stripes.

PM: It says that the man in Der Diagnostische Blick II (1992) is directing his gaze away from you. The right eye, maybe, but his left eye is surely staring straight at us. If you stand over here he is looking at you but if you stand over here [she moves] he still is. He is supposed to be a cancer victim but he is not giving anything away about his condition.
NH: There are small reflections on the lenses implying that this may be based on a photograph taken with flash, but they don't add any mystery for me. I think many of the themes of this exhibition are valid but they could have been illustrated better with historic paintings from the gallery's own collection.  If you want a character study of someone with an ailment see the portrait of Sir John Fielding with his blind man's eyeshade or if you want powerful reflections off the lenses that seem to mask the sitter's deep inner vision then Howard Coster's photographic portrait of Aldous Huxley accomplishes that admirably.

PM: I like the portrait of Ramsay MacDonald by Sir John Lavery. The glasses are the simplest round shape but his eyes stare straight out at you. There's no masking effect. Indeed, it's almost as if his eyes appear sharper than anything else in the painting. I feel I have not only seen Mr MacDonald, but he has seen me back!

NH: High prescriptions needn't prevent an artist getting to the character of his subject. Hein Hackroth's portrait of Liddell Hart shows him wearing particularly thick rimless pince-nez, but somehow the eyes show through. I prefer to see people this way. I believe in museums without barriers and the glasses are no obstruction if painted well.

PM: Blanche's portrait of James Joyce has made a concession to the sitter. His head is turned slightly so as not to emphasise that his left lens is particularly thick and bulging. I've read that Joyce was very self-conscious about it and told the artist so. Despite the composition, the glasses are still depicted accurately and you can see the difference between the two eyes even if your attention is not immediately drawn to it.

NH: I think we agree that glasses in paintings can be windows to see further into the personality of the sitter, not a mask preventing us from accessing the true character.

PM: Look at this. The portrait of your Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies has three pairs of glasses, each with a pair of eyes showing through it. Paintings can show multiple sides to a person's character if you want to. That's much more interesting.

Luc Tuymans - Glasses
4 October 2016-26 March 2017

Room 16
National Portrait Gallery
Exhibition website
Admission free

Pictures reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Picture credits:
by Luc Tuymans, 2000; Private Collection; Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London;
Portrait Old Man by Luc Tuymans, 2000; Private collection, Antwerp

Neil Handley MA AMA FRSA
Museum Curator, The College of Optometrists

Neil Handley is recognised as one the UK’s principal historians of spectacles, vision aids and opticians. He has been curator of the British Optical Association Museum at The College of Optometrists in London since 1998 and is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers.

The Curator is available for lectures and informal talks off-site as well as guided tours of the museum gallery and College Meeting Rooms. Considered to be an authority on ophthalmic history he can also advise on items on optical and optometric heritage including their identification and dating. He has been awarded the medal of the Ocular Heritage Society of America on several occasions.

Neil was awarded the Associateship of the Museums Association in 2002 and was one of the first 17 museum professionals in the country to gain the AMA+ qualification in May 2007. He now serves as a Museums Association Mentor for younger curators.

Neil was elected Chairman of the prestigious London Museums of Health and Medicine (2011-14), widely considered within the profession to be one of the most dynamic and go-ahead museum specialist networks. During this time he oversaw that organisation's first strategic review for fifteen years. He is also a past Vice Chairman of the Scientific Instrument Society and became a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA) in 2012.

Front cover of the book Cult Eyewear 2011

Neil  has published articles on spectacle frame design, the history of opticians, artificial eyes and facial prosthetics. He has contributed to a number of books on the history of the subject, including a chapter on artificial eyes for the book Devices and Designs (2006) and the major German publication Treasury of Optics (2012). He spent much of 2009 and 2010 writing a book on Cult Eyewear, the first serious analytical study of the historical development of branded fashion spectacle frames, published by Merrell on 27 September 2011. He also co-authored, with David Cartwright, the second volume of the College History, The College of Optometrists: A History 1998-2015, published in October 2015. He has also written articles for journals as diverse as Optometry in Practice, Contact Lens and Anterior Eye, Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, From the Master and Wardens (newsletter of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers), Ophthalmic Antiques, Gewina (Dutch Journal for the History of Science), Antiquarian Horology and Pharmaceutical Historian.

Contact the Curator by email

Or follow him on Twitter @neilhandleyuk

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