Body Language: Nod, Nod; Wink, Wink

JoAnne Artman Gallery
Oct 15, 2019 4:07PM

The wink is as informal as it is ambiguous. The non-verbal communication is unnatural, deliberate, and its interpretation is highly contingent upon additional context, sub-context, and the parties involved. Harder to parse than a smile or a grimace, the confusion of the wink can be traced through art history dating back to the Renaissance period. Perhaps communicating nothing in particular, the determined meaning of the wink is entirely dependent on the implied communication between two people, or, between artwork and viewer.

Master of the Winking Eyes, Madonna col Bambino, ca. 1450. Image courtesy National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Known only as the ‘Master of the Winking Eyes’, the 15th Century Italian artist was named for his jubilant figures whose large smiles yielded the appearance of winking eyes. His rendition of a Madonna col Bambino shows Mary tickling a baby Jesus. Presenting Mary’s humanity through the portrayal of a playful and giddy mother, the Master of the Winking Eyes uses half closed eyes to drive the painting’s narrative and to convey the cheerful demeanors of mother and child.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Detail: Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Detail: Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s works commonly explored themes of foolishness and depravity. In his famous Netherlandish Proverbs, the artist has subtly included a human eye between the blades of a scissor within his chaotic scene. A visual symbol for a ‘snip eye,’ otherwise known as a wink, the artist is winking at his audience as he anticipates the viewer to understand the hidden messages about humanity’s absurdity within his composition.

Huang Yongyu, Owl, 1973. Image courtesy Wikiart

Condemned as blasphemous by the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China in 1974, Huang Yongu’s Owl is commonly interpreted as a both a self portrait and a criticism of socialism. Thought that the winking eye is symbolic of country officials turning a blind eye to incorrect behavior, the owl appears unsettingly human as one-eyed stare suggests a tacit understanding to the viewer.

Engendering a more contemporary approach, Anja Van Herle’s winking figures radiate confidence and flirtation. Manufacturing a direct interaction between viewer and composition, Van Herle dramatic full frontal perspective and alluring gazes helps co-opt the viewer into a knowing participant of whatever secrets her figures maintain.

JoAnne Artman Gallery