A show stopper is at the heart of this winning exhibition: Dulwich Gallery’s Reframed – The Woman in the Window reviewed

Cropped: The woman at the window

Dulwich Photo Gallery, until September 3

Thematic exhibits related to particular images in museum collections tend to be more interesting to museum curators than to the general public. But with Cropped: The woman at the window Dulwich Picture Gallery is about to win, because not only is the particular picture a hit, but the theme opens up a whole box of feminist verse.

Whether it’s her pensive pose, her idle play with her necklace, or the shy look in her dark eyes, Rembrandt’s “Girl at the Window” (1645) is impossible to pass. Academics continue to bicker over its status. servant? Housemaid ? Prostitute? Rembrandt’s lover? Whoever she was, hers was the face that launched a thousand paintings of w-in-ws after Rembrandt’s pupil, Gerrit Dou, took over the motif and Dou’s pupil, Gabriel Metsu, followed suit not. But the theme goes back long before Rembrandt. The first windows to appear in art in a 15th century BC fresco from Mycenae have women, and the first window in this exhibit is a 9th century BC ivory panel of Nimrud with the head of a woman. woman – perhaps one of the “sacred prostitutes” spoken of by Herodotus – framed in it.

Windows’ connection with the sale of sexual services is as old as the oldest profession. On a 4th century BC bell-krater from Paestum, a hetaira sticks her head out of an upstairs window to be bundled with apples by an old priapic man on a ladder. Prior to the development of the storefront, much of the day-to-day business was done through the windows and, to avoid confusion, women whose bodies were not for sale had to keep them out of sight. But when the window offered him the only form of pre-screen visual entertainment inside, the temptation to lean into it was strong. Islam solved the problem with the perforated screen; Christianity encouraged restraint, with less success. The 15th century Franciscan preacher, Saint Bernardine, denounced the woman who “when she hears a horse, immediately runs to the window”, but who could blame her?

An exception has been made in art for the Virgin Mary, who appears at a window as a ‘fenestra coeli’ in a charming painting by Dirk Bouts. And during the carnival, apparently, everything went. The frontispiece to a collection of carnival songs by Lorenzo de’ Medici shows a host of Florentine beauties hanging from windows being serenaded by male window shoppers below. Florentine rules for women were unusually strict, but that didn’t stop Botticelli from posing the “Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli” (vs.1470-80) at her window in a diaphanous dress strangely resembling a negligee. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who acquired the painting in 1869, painted Jane Morris as “La Donna della Finestra” two years later.

Protestants were less concerned with looking out the window than with looking at images of Catholic devotion like Bouts’. Luther advised praying with one’s eyes fixed on the sky—presumably through windows—while expressing disapproval of female “window peepers”; a woman, he believed, should be “like a nail driven into the wall” where she could better “take care of the affairs of the house”. Women posed in windows were presumed to be no better than they should be until the 19th century. ‘The Woman at the Window’ (1871-2) in a Degas painting belonging to Sickert was modeled by ‘a sort of cocotte’ who was so hungry during the siege of Paris that, the artist told Sickert, he paid for it in meat ‘which she fell upon and ate raw’. Sickert reused his backlight effect in his own “Woman Seated at the Window” (vs.1908-9), while making her profession obvious by stripping her down to her plumpness.

The implication of availability has persisted into the modern era. Admittedly, Picasso’s ‘Woman at the Window’ (1952) is not really inviting, pressed against the window like a trapped bird; it was the ninth year of his abusive relationship with Françoise Gilot, who was about to rob the cooperative. But it is only when women artists seize the theme that the meaning changes. The woman in Isabel Codrington’s ‘The Kitchen’ (1927) gazes out of a wintry window with a loaf of bread, an unplucked chicken and a bottle of kirsch two-thirds empty on the table behind her: she might as well be a nail stuck in the wall for all the pleasure she has in looking out the window; the prospect prompted her to raid the liquor cabinet. In Catherine Engelhart’s professional self-portrait, “The Artist in His Studio” (1894), the sole purpose of the window is to illuminate her work. She turns her back on him.

Male artists, however, still need to be re-educated. Of the two women in Jeff Wall’s staged photograph, “A View from an Apartment” (2004-5), one leafs through a glossy magazine while the other irons towels. Towel ironing! Even Gerrit Dou had a freer view of women. Screw on the ironing board; bring back the clavichord.

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