…is the title of a current exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery which looks at the ‘window portraits’ of women through the ages. I went along yesterday and found it informative and interesting. It’s a small exhibition which considers an enduring subject, the presentation of a female likeness looking out of a window, sometimes directly at the viewer, sometimes not. Women have often been represented like this, usually by men, for various purposes, the sacred, the profane, the decorative or the titillating. I was hard pressed to think of more than one or two examples where men were represented in this way.
The exhibition begins in ancient Greece with a tiny, ancient sculpture of a female head (no sign of a body) in what we are told is a temple window. Beside it a Greek wine krator shows a rather inebriated-looking man climbing a ladder to present apples to a woman in a window, probably a hetaira or courtesan. The fun times in the ancient world give way during the medieval period to the discouraging of looking at women, in the window or elsewhere, for fear of arousal and sin. In this period the ‘woman’ is the Madonna (see by Dirk Bouts left) in her role as the ‘window to heaven’, a symbolic window at her back. Or the saint suffering for her faith (a striking and slightly unsettling stone bas relief/sculpture of an incarcerated woman pressing her face against the bars of her cell). Moving on to the Renaissance and non-divine women are the subjects again – I was particularly struck by the Botticelli (his ‘line’ is always mesmerising). Through the Dutch interiors, showing women if not through windows then beside them, playing instruments, reading letters; then to the wonderful Rembrandt of an un-named young woman who leans out of the canvas in all her human glory (see above right).
There was an English interior ‘The Kitchen’ by Isabel Codrington (right) and a square-jawed Rossetti woman, a Degas and a Sickert, but the exhibition didn’t follow a linear timeline, interspersing modern works with the old. Some of these were more successful than others. Some were interesting – the ‘swap’ of poses and locations, between a female photographer and a female prostitute (I cannot remember the name of the photographer, which is annoying). Both women looked very much at home in their new personas.
There was David Hockney’s Rapunzel – the only element visible at the window being the hair, a Whiteread window cast and a real Bourgeois window frame, looking out onto an abstract view (the viewer looking out, being the substitute for the ‘woman’ in this one). I liked ‘Hand’ by Andrew Jackson (2017) a very paintily photograph with soft, muted, pastel tones in the background, showing a woman, sharply focused, being beckoned forward by a faceless man in a car and rejecting his summons by holding up her palm. This, like the Codrington, with its dead hen and half drunk bottle of what looks like vodka, was a story in a picture, or many possible stories. There were some beautifully staged photographs, the woman reading a letter (an eviction notice, it is mounted in a frame next to the photograph) which echoed those Dutch interiors and a super Australian piece ‘The Apartment’ showing two women in a domestic scene overlooking an industrial harbour – its perspective was remarkable.
Definitely worth a visit, the exhibition runs until 4th September, so get in quick! It costs £15 (£8 concessions).