Jhere is a stunning sight in this exhibition of a woman’s head leaning against the bars of a window, her beautiful face enduring and desperate. It is carved out of a block of medieval limestone. The sculpture appeals irresistibly to your desire to break the bars and free the head, or at the very least reach inside to touch its aching cheek. For refusing to marry, Saint Avia has been imprisoned in solitary confinement with a view of the world she can see but never reach. The empathy of the anonymous French artist is almost beyond comprehension. I have never seen anything like it.
Cropped: The Woman in the Window, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, is full of revelations. Here is Botticelli’s steely Renaissance redhead peering out from a triple aspect bedroom, fingers gripping the window suggestively – and breaking the frame; and Gabriel Metsu’s African Woman Seated Behind a Stone Ledge in Red Velvet and Beads in the 17th Century.
This is Rachel Lowe’s riveting film about her harrowing attempts to capture the beauty of the passing landscape in marker on the car window. And the real Manhattan window of Louise Bourgeois, rusted but cherished for the views it offered her in old age, which are taken up here in painted tributes behind the panes.
The men supervise the women; women refocus. This is one of the exhibition’s many art-historical themes, superbly presented across two millennia. For the oldest work here dates back to 900 BC, when a Phoenician artist carved the face of a temple prostitute on a piece of ivory, gazing out the window with such abrupt and defiant frontality that it makes the viewer recoil. Who is watching who?
As an added shock, this sculpture proves conclusively that Dutch Golden Age artists did not have a monopoly on the concept of the woman and the window, as is often claimed. You look with new eyes at the famous Rembrandt from the gallery of a rosy-cheeked girl leaning on a window sill; and, not coincidentally, to the narrow historical answers that focus on her being a maid or a prostitute, ignoring her playful spirit expressed in the painting.
A window is essentially a frame within a frame that can act as a scene – the woman on the balcony – or as a domestic prison, echoed by all the caged birds here in European paintings. But what he highlights, almost inevitably, is the gaze. A woman watches, or we spy on her; we surprise it, or the artist holds it in his viewfinder.
Picasso’s huge black-and-white aquatint shows his lifelong lover Françoise Gilot, her hands pressed against glass. She sees what we can’t, and sees a kind of urgency in her, like she’s trying to get out. A door handle is needed on the right. Go then, go. It is an extraordinarily pressurized image.
And this is echoed, in the high theater of the show’s connections, in Wolfgang Tillmans’ life-size photograph of DJ Smokin Jo pressing her fingers against a window pane with immense but delicate force. And again, meeting the beloved fingertips on either side of the city’s windows during confinement, so beautifully photographed by Simran Janjua.
The lines of sight are fascinating. You look through a pierced Mughal screen and beyond you see an Indian miniature of two women appearing at a window like performers in a play, arms around each other, their smiles expressive exquisite, the smallest details – the tassel of a blind, a flower protruding through the frame – giving the sense of a world outside the window.
A knee touching a pane of glass, a shadow behind a filigree screen, Rapunzel’s locks cascading from an open window: you almost without thinking guess the female presence. But the show invites us to rethink. The woman shaking her hand against a man watching her through a car window – or is it the camera she’s blocking in Andrew Jackson’s photo Hand #1? Cindy Sherman’s blonde starlet watches from her windowsill – is she about to have a breakthrough or be manipulated by a Hitchcock offstage in untitled movie?
The most ambiguous image here is one of the greatest: the prodigious image of Degas woman at the window (1871), on loan from the Courtaulds. We barely see the woman at first sight, against the light against the window in the tawny glow of the Parisian interior. She is always like a heron in the shadows. The shutters are open and the light hits her face with its glare, so that everything she thinks and feels remains hers. It’s a painting of how we look at a scene, as much as how light gives us both visibility and shadow, pouring through our windows.
It’s a show to make you look harder and think longer about both art and life; on the representation of women, the experience of seeing and being seen. Superbly curated by Jennifer Sliwka, it is exciting, imaginative and constantly surprising. The selection is so clever, the texts so thought-provoking, and the design so creative – transforming every inch of the enfilade’s narrow space, a lesson for great museums around the world – that it amounts to reframing, in and of itself, of what an exhibition can be.