Having lived only in urban cities such as Singapore and London, I find myself fascinated by windows. They come in varied sizes and styles and are ubiquitous aspects of every building that makes up our cities and everyday life. They allow us to engage visually with the world from the comforts of our homes while protecting us from the elements. More than just architectural decoration, they determine the way light enters and fills personal sanctuaries such as homes and churches, playing a significant role in determining the atmosphere of a place. The contrast between their everyday, ordinary status and the versatility they possess as artistic subjects and motifs translates to my intrigue with them when they emerge in works of art.
Windows have lent themselves to artistic expression in multiple ways. Artists have used windows as a framing device to direct our gaze to a particular scene or subject, letting us understand the beauty they saw in a particular scene, or as a way to introduce light to an interior. The former can be exemplified by Pierre Bonnard’s House in the Courtyard (1895-96), while the latter can be easily observed in Adolph Menzel’s The Balcony Room (1845).
Other times, the window becomes a motif with symbolic associations of illumination and hope, or, conversely, a symbol of urban decay and destruction, as seen in the works of Chinese contemporary artist Yuan Yuan. In short, this ubiquitous motif of our everyday lives has been used in art to frame the most beautiful sceneries, illuminate otherwise dark interiors, and as a poignant symbol of urban life, as we shall see in the following examples.
Starting from the place closest to us, the interiors of our homes have served as a great source of inspiration for many artists, and windows have functioned as the focal point on many occasions. One of my favorites would have to be Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams (1900).
At first glance, our attention is drawn to the brightest, and perhaps only, source of light in the empty, unfurnished room — the window. Yet, the limited view outside tells us very little about the surroundings of this mysterious room we have entered. The entire view consists of a small portion of a tiled roof and a gray expanse of concrete of a neighboring building. The proximity of the window to the neighboring building makes it appear near impossible for the door on the right, whose knob and keyhole is almost invisible, to open up to another space. The windows, bare without curtains, allow sunlight to filter through in clear rays,which make visible the dust motes dancing in the air. We follow the sunbeams diagonally with our gaze, ending at the silhouette of the window frame on the ground. Otherwise, the floor is unblemished and smooth to the point of abstraction, with no indication of texture. The room as a whole seems like a vacuum, enclosed and inscrutable, rousing our curiosity at what lies beyond. The beauty of this painting, for me, lies in how the window illuminates the muted interior without disturbing its tranquility, while providing us with steady reassurance of the presence of the greater world beyond the room.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Henri Matisse’s vividly colored interiors, which have incorporated windows on numerous occasions. Some of these works were made during his time at Collioure, on the Mediterranean coast of southern France, a place which soothed his depression with its vitality and vivid colors. Here, windows take on a metaphorical symbolism as windows to the soul, reflecting the emotional intensity with which the artist responded to the landscape before him.
Open Window, Collioure (1905)
oil on canvas, 55.3 x 46cm
Click for larger image
Open Window, Collioure is one such example which promises an escape from the banality of our everyday life. With the casements of the balcony thrown wide open, Matisse beckons us towards the window which looks out onto the idyllic scene of a small fishing port. All four sides of the window are present, presenting the window as an entity in the composition. In contrast with the implied rapidity of the textured brushstrokes, the composition is actually highly orchestrated. We may observe several pairs of complementary colors, such as the warm orange and reds of the flowers, pots and walls alongside the cool blues of the wall and harbor, and the swaths of green and fuchsia opposite each other on the wall nearest to us, echoed in the window panes of the casements. These strategically placed colors guide our eyes across the canvas in a zigzag motion from the walls to the window. While the thick brushstrokes and bright colors appear energetic and convey excitement, the repetition of geometric frames within the painting emphasizes their verticality and gives the painting a sense of structure. These contrasting elements – along with the depiction of an unobstructed view and his bold color palette, come together to form a psychological mirror, which reflects the liberation and contentment Matisse felt while staying on the Mediterranean coast, which the window was a portal to.
Moving forward to the present, windows have become a symbol synonymous with our built environment and have been used by artists to comment on urban decay. Fragments (2012) by Chinese contemporary artist Yuan Yuan comprises a triptych of three window panes sealed shut, frosted and broken, with the paintwork of its wooden frame peeling.
Fragments 《碎片》(2012) oil on canvas, 132 x 150c,
The patchwork of different textures and patterns of the window panes suggests human intervention before we, together with the artist, stumbled upon this particular window. Inspired by his time at Guizhou province, the window resembles the stained glass of churches — the result of dwellers filling the panes with scrap material to keep the rain out. As much as these windows protect the dwellers from the elements, they also prevent us from viewing the interior, imbuing the painting with a sense of secrecy. The clumsy attempts to mend the broken window also bring to mind the process of ageing that accompanies the passing of time, further emphasized by the life-sized windows which allows us to observe microscopic details of every element, as if we were peering through an actual window. While the window panes may be a patchwork of varied colors, on looking closer, they reveal mosaic-like patterns which reflect the concept of ‘repetition’ — a frequent occurrence in Yuan’s work.
This concept of repetition is particularly pertinent, as Yuan believes it to be synonymous with the general principle of modern society, “a principle that consumes us and assimilates our living space”. The monotony and bleakness of our urban lives is thus manifest in this simple structure of a window that bears residual traces of human activity and histories despite the painting being devoid of man.
In its repeated appearances in art, this ubiquitous everyday element has come to be a poignant symbol used by artists in a variety of ways. Windows allow for illumination, but can also be sources of mystery by leaving us curious about what lies beyond them. Their transparency supports our attempts to engage with the world beyond our four walls, visually and emotionally, sometimes acting as a mirror to an artist’s emotional state. With the versatility of their appearances in works of art, it would not be an overstatement to say that the windows in art are windows to the world.
Next: for more works that draw on windows as a motif or theme, see the works of
- Robert Delaunay’s Simultaneous Windows (2nd Motif, 1st Part) 1912
- Agnes Martin‘s Window 1957 (also check out this blog post on Agnes Martin by Hannah Kettles, a fellow Student Ambassador)
- Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Loverboy) 1989
- Banksy’s Window on the West Bank (2005)
I’m Constance Koh, a student ambassador for The Art Story. I’m currently an intercollegiate student at UCL and SOAS studying Asian, African and European art history, with an interest in genre paintings and contemporary Asian art (amongst many others, the list goes on!). I believe art has immense potential to move and connect people, and contributing to a collective effort to make art more accessible is why I’m here. I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post.