“Set wide the window. Let me drink the day” – Edith Wharton.
As some of us around the world begin to emerge from lockdown due to the Covid-19 virus, perhaps we shall always recall the time we spent indoors captive in our homes, as a defining characteristic of the pandemic.
Viewed through this prism, the trusted window of our home has never been more symbolic. As a liminal object – the threshold between one form and another – the window offers a glimpse into the outside world, providing a new scale to a visual field we have no longer owned for a while due to our enforced isolation.
Those photographs of Italian residents singing and playing music from their windows to boost morale and solidarity have evidenced the window as an essential vehicle for sociality. As a recent article in the New York Times observed on the subject of balconies, “The genius of the balcony is to assemble people who live within proximity, but who are otherwise strangers, around a common world of events, experiences and issues”.
Similarly, the window in today’s pandemic is a reconstituted space in which sociality is mediated and yet, we remain isolated and enclosed behind the window. In this space, therefore, we are both the individual and the collective.
Amidst our Sisyphean struggles within our new context, our identity is being newly constituted by our relations with others. The clapping for the National Health Service in the United Kingdom or saluting medical workers in India through banging pots and pans, combined with our retreat into our own inner lives, find us on the brink of two worlds and the window is both the cusp and gateway to an uncertain future.
When allowing light to enter the depths of an interior room, the window in the current climate forges a connection between the interior and exterior, the domestic and public, safety and danger and the present and the future. Akin to the vanishing point in paintings – the position at which all receding parallel lines meet – such as the celebrated painting Marriage of the Virgin (1504) by Raphael or the immediacy of landscapes in Vincent Van Gogh’s Trees and Undergrowth (1887), the window can offer depth and perspective even in cramped spaces.
This year during the pandemic, many of us have observed the rapid changing of the seasons from winter to spring to summer from the fixed vantage points of our windows. The parameters of our visual field have become restricted to the interstices of our buildings and such routinised ways of seeing have borne new ways of being. As John Berger (1972) comments, “... perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything converges on to the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God.”
Indeed, our very lived worlds have adapted and changed according to the boundaries and fixtures of inner and outer spaces. No wonder then, that the window as scopic field has been the source of inspiration for artists since the Renaissance. As an outward expression of atavistic qualities such as anxiety and solitude, the role of art in mobilising visual language during this current pandemic, seems invaluable.
Henri Matisse’s The Open Window (1905), for instance, depicts the view from his window in his apartment in Collioure, France. Employing different brushstrokes for the different areas of the image, such as the window and the balcony, Matisse offers rich texture and playfulness and brings unconventional depth and perspective.
The psychic and physical complexity of subjects looking out from the window has been further depicted by Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman at a Window (1822), Edvard Munch’s The Girl by the Window (1893) and Salvador Dalí’s Young Woman at a Window (1925). These paintings elevate the meaning of the closed worlds inhabited by the subjects, but also the expanse of the new world that awaits.
Friedrich provides a glimpse into the female subject’s experience, hinting at the passing of time via her gaze at a ship in the distance, in contrast to her own static presence. Munch’s sombre colours evoke an unsettling sense of entrapment as we observe the subject gazing out at the night sky from a darkened room. The window is our focal point, but it is the pose of the faceless girl, her palms close to her face, that embodies anxiety and loneliness. Finally, Dalí’s subject gazes out at the sea in Cadaques, fenced off from the landscape and unexplored world by teal window shutters.
In the current context, window-gazing has taken on a form that symbolises the contrast between the sealed, private worlds of inhabitants and the vulnerable spaces of frontline medical workers battling an invisible disease. Our position at the window is sundered from the reality of hospital spaces. Indeed, this fracturing of the visual field exposes our need for succour and adaptation as we attempt to orient ourselves to a new climate.
In Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Morning (1950) and Morning Sun (1952), figures at the window demonstrate bifurcated space and the threshold between our world and the world beyond. In the former, the expectant gaze and pose of the woman at the window evoke a sense of the troubled reality she is yet to experience – a context not dissimilar from our own. Similarly, in the latter, the almost recumbent figure of the woman on the bed gazing out at the dystopian cityscape, could be compared to the desolate streets of industrial cities in lockdown.
It is almost as if Hopper’s paintings in their depictions of loneliness and realist urban scenes presaged the very context now playing out before our eyes. In a similarly modern and industrial context, Sudhir Partwardhan’s Inside/Window (2009) speaks to the visual dimension of urban Indian social life as it depicts the claustrophobia of the city buildings surrounding the subject’s enclosed world. The poignancy of the trapped subject gazing out at storied buildings from a dark, shadowy room, resonates with our current sense of confinement.
Indeed, the figure at the window that has been depicted since time immemorial now represents an emerging reality and yet, seems starkly contrasted to the chaotic and panic-ridden images of hospital wards circulating on news channels. When we – the window-gazers – observe such images on social media networks, we experience an irruption of our current visual field. As the threshold of the visible and invisible worlds continues to blur, we require these visual reminders of those inhabiting invisible spaces, such as key workers, care home givers, transport workers, delivery workers, police officers and countless others, in order to render this totality visible.
Indeed, to bridge the gap between the visible and the invisible, we should encourage a new visuality that speaks to the disconnect inherent to our current pandemic. We cannot simply continue to emphasise the seen world, but must acknowledge the unseen. As the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty says, “Images are the inside of the outside and the outside of the inside”.
Amidst the shifting ground of the present, as we gaze from the window, there is hope that the reality reflected back will spell a future that will resolve, heal and comfort.
Sarica Robyn Balsari-Palsule is a London-based visual anthropologist specialising in photography, art and material culture.
Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.