There is a staggering vision in this exhibition of a woman’s head pressed against the bars of a window, her beautiful face enduring and forlorn. She is carved from a block of medieval limestone. The sculpture irresistibly calls upon your desire to break the bars and free the head, or at the very least reach inside to touch her sorrowful cheek. For refusing to marry, Saint Avia was imprisoned in a solitary cell with a view of the world she can see but never reach. The empathy of the anonymous French artist almost beggars belief. I have never seen anything like it.
Reframed: The Woman in the Window, at Dulwich Picture Gallery, is filled with revelations. Here is Botticelli’s steely Renaissance redhead looking out from a triple-aspect chamber, fingers suggestively clasping the window – and breaking the frame; and Gabriel Metsu’s African woman seated behind a stone sill in red velvet and pearls in the 17th century.
Here is Rachel Lowe’s mesmerising film of her poignant attempts to capture the beauty of the passing landscape in marker pen on the car window. And Louise Bourgeois’s actual Manhattan window, rusty but treasured for the views it gave her in old age, which are reprised here in painted homages behind the panes.
Men frame women; women reframe themselves. That is one of the show’s many art historical themes, superbly presented across two millennia. For the oldest work here dates right back to 900BC, when a Phoenician artist carved the face of a temple prostitute on a piece of ivory, staring out of a window with such abrupt and defiant frontality as to make the viewer reel back. Who is looking at whom?
As an added shock, this carving conclusively proves that Dutch golden age artists had no monopoly on the woman and window concept, as often claimed. You look with new eyes at the gallery’s own celebrated Rembrandt of a rosy-cheeked girl leaning on a window ledge; and, not incidentally, at the narrow historical responses that focus on whether she was a housemaid or a prostitute, ignoring her blithe spirit expressed in paint.
A window is essentially a frame within a frame that might act as a stage – the woman on the balcony – or as a domestic prison, echoed by all the caged birds here in European paintings. But what it emphasises, almost inevitably, is looking. A woman is looking out, or we are spying on her; we catch her unawares, or the artist holds her in his sights.
Picasso’s huge black and white aquatint shows his sometime lover Françoise Gilot with her hands pressed against a window. She sees what we cannot, and he sees a kind of urgency, as if she were trying to get out. A doorknob intrudes on the right. Go on then, leave. It is an extraordinarily pressurised image.
And it is taken up, in the show’s high theatre of connections, in Wolfgang Tillmans’s lifesize photograph of the DJ Smokin Jo pressing her fingers at a windowpane with immense yet delicate force. And again, in the meeting of beloved fingertips on either side of city windows during lockdown, so beautifully photographed by Simran Janjua.
The sightlines are riveting. You look through a pierced Mughal screen and beyond it glimpse an Indian miniature of two women appearing at a window like performers in a play, arms around each other, their smiles exquisitely expressive, the smallest details – the tassel of a blind, a flower projecting across the frame – giving the sense of a world outside the window.
A knee touching a pane, a shadow behind a filigree screen, a tumble of Rapunzel locks cascading from an open window: we infer the female presence almost without thinking. But the show precisely invites to reconsider. The woman palming her hand against a man viewing her through a car window – or is it the camera she is blocking in Andrew Jackson’s photograph Hand #1? Cindy Sherman’s blonde starlet looking down from her window ledge – is she on the verge of a breakthrough or being manipulated by some offstage Hitchcock in Untitled Film Still?
The most ambiguous image here is one of the greatest: Degas’s stupendous Woman at a Window (1871), on loan from the Courtauld. You barely see the woman at first, backlit against the window in the tawny brown glow of the Paris interior. She is still as a heron in the shadows. The shutters are open and the light strikes out her face with its dazzle, so that whatever she thinks and feels remains her own. It is a painting about how we glance at a scene, as much as how light gives us both visibility and shadow, pouring in through our windows.
This a show to make you look harder and think longer about both art and life; about the depiction of women, the experience of seeing and being seen. Superbly curated by Jennifer Sliwka, it is enthralling, imaginative and constantly surprising. The selection is so intelligent, the texts so stimulating and the design so creative – transforming every inch of the narrow enfilade space, a lesson to larger museums everywhere – as to amount to a reframing, in itself, of what an exhibition can be.