Friday, August 18, 2006

The window theme

Windows constitute an essential feature of dwellings and public buildings. Or at least they should. It is to be hoped that the depressing practice of erecting school buildings without windows, common some years ago, has been abandoned. By contrast some modern buildings are sheathed completely in glass, and thus “all windows.” In these structures the glass is usually transparent on the inside and opaque to the outside. Few of us would like to live in a building in which our windows were always open to the prying eyes of others. That, interestingly enough, is the premise of Evgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We (1919), where the dictator requires that the activities of all the residents of his ideal city be seen at windows at all times (except for brief periods when sexual activity is permitted).

In our culture the idea of the window has taken on significant metaphorical functions. Thus we may speak of the eyes as “windows of the soul” and a “window into the mind of Shakespeare.” The window represents liminality, a passage from one realm to another. We may think of this window as either transparent or opaque.

In actual buildings the stained-glass windows of medieval cathedrals are spectacular examples. They host a variety of fascinating colored lights, while barring any detailed access to the outside. They are translucent not transparent, so that only the light tells us that there is something beyond the glassy surface. Instead of views, we get images of Christ, the Virgin, the Apocalypse and the saints. The stained-glass windows thus present immediate renderings of things that spiritually they “open out to.”

This medieval concept of the window has appealed to a number of modern artists. Odilon Redon produced a number of pastels exploiting the rich colorism of the windows, while veiling the subject matter. Together with other followers of William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones produced an important series of designs for actual stained-glass windows. The abstract artist František Kupka derived some interesting paintings from his inspection of the stained-glass windows of the Cathedral of Chartres.

Some background will be useful. The illusionistic frescoes of Pompeii, whether large architectural vistas or simulated easel paintings, presuppose a notion of the transparency of the wall, which becomes a membrane through which one views figures and landscapes. Unaware of this precedent but knowledgeable about similar practices in his own time, Leon Battista Alberti formulated the equation of the picture with the window in his De pictura of 1435. During the baroque period this idea was expanded to devote whole ceilings to heavenly vistas (as in the church of Il Gesu in Rome).

Some artists of the nineteenth century challenged this concept of the smooth, “invisible” membrane by deliberately enlivening the picture plane with visible brushwork and rough surfaces. In this way they blocked the illusionistic effect. An interesting device, common in the late nineteenth century and continued in the early abstract work of Kandinsky, is to paint the frame. In this way the dichotomy between frame and the illusion it surrounds is elided.

Windows were important in the work of the proto-Symbolist Caspar David Friedrich, who depicted views from the window of his river-bank studio in Dresden.

An early poem by Mallarmé is “The Windows” of 1863. This Symbolist writer occasionally evokes them in other works.

During the early ‘teens of the twentieth century one of the major themes of the Orphist Robert Delaunay was the view from his window in Paris. Some show the Eiffel Tower, to which he devoted a number of independent works.

Particularly striking are two examples of windows by Henri Matisse done during his summer vacations at Collioure in the South of France. In the first, from 1905, the large French windows open to reveal a pleasant jangle of Fauve colors. In 1914 he returned to the theme. Now, however, the view from the window is a great block of black pigment. Perhaps significantly, this work was created at the very end of the Belle Epoque, the year of the outbreak of World War I.

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