History of a Metaphor

to be published in:

The Patek Philippe Magazine
Millenium Issue
(printed in 8 languages)

H. J. Krysmanski

Windows in Painting

When I began thinking about writing a book on the history of the window and its metaphorical fallout, I wasn't fully aware that one would literally have to start with cave man and end with the software that is at the centre of the most successful business venture of all time.

Cave dwellers went without windows at all, but cave painting might have been their imaginative attempt to penetrate the rocky confines, in anticipation of the first 'windeyes' (i.e. windows). Philosophy begins with Plato's Allegory of the Cave, in which he likens our experience of reality to a cavernous existence: all that we can observe and describe are shadows on the wall, with our heads permanently turned away from the light. Even worse: being in the dark, we never really see each other.

Windows, when they became commonplace, entailed a revolution in our perception: by providing a translucent boundary between the inside and the outside; by allowing us, in the safety of our home, to ogle each other and to observe approaching strangers; by drawing the shades and projecting our dreams on them; by creating the light magic of cathedrals; by inventing optical lenses and the Enlightenment; by using screens for cinema, radar, video, TV and as interfaces between computer and man.

Windows in painting comment on these revolutions. The history of art reveals an upsurge of the windows-motif during the 15th century. Be they of madonnas or patricians: many portraits, especially in Italy and in the Netherlands, begin to display arches and windows - frequently without window panes, with shutters to be closed at night and only to be opened weather permitting.

The 'view through the open window', as a paradigm for scrutinising reality, eventually leads to a pivotal achievement of the Renaissance: the theory of linear perspective, first conceived by Leon Battista Alberti and illustrated in books like Albrecht Dürer's 'Instruction on Measurement'. A famous print by Dürer depicts a draftsman drawing a nude through a screen of perspectival threads, with the intention of freezing the female form on a form sheet.

The competence to translate 3-dimensional reality into flat, but convincingly 'real' images has spread since then, right up to the 'petrified world of the photographic image' (Lev Manovich).

Because art and the artists were still conversant with mathematics and the sciences in general, the strife for geometrical exactitude or 'monofocality' also implied a revolution in nature observation and experiment. And 'windows in painting' became a field for sophisticated 'visual theorising' by the artists themselves, culminating in works like Diego Velasquez's 'Las Meninas' or the interiors of Pieter de Hooch and Jan Vermeer.

One striking result then, in this history of perspectival reflection from Raphael to Dali, from Velasquez to Picasso, is the fact that painting's windows had bridged the distance between the Renaissance and cyberspace long before Bill Gates (and Steven Jobs of Apple, for that matter) had a chance to even dream of software that would open window after window on computer screens.


Somewhere in the Roman section of the British Museum there hangs a lonely wooden frame thought to have belonged to one of the few hangable (and thus movable) paintings of antiquity. Max Ernst's 'Deux enfants sont menacés par un rossignol' (1924) reminds me of that lonely frame. In a way, this work sums up the 'monofocality' of modern painting which evolved when the Renaissance determined that an 'open window' is a point of view. Ernst's painting is a window: by evoking the idea of shutters, by reflecting on the 'linear' perspective of a receding wall, by devising a sur-reality. At the same time, the wall in the background is a memento that mankind has always lustily splashed colours not only on a canvass but also on other surfaces, on rocks, on cloth, on sculpture, open for new perspectives or no perspective at all.

The 4th-century saint Jerome in his study was, at the dawn of the scientific age, a favourite subject. Reflections on the window were always included - as a central architectural element and as a metaphor for human curiosity and serious research. This particular painting, probably done by Antonello da Messina during a visit to Venice in 1475, is a veritable orgy of window metaphors. Strangely, the holy scholar separates himself from this space of fenestrae by labouring in a box-like construction. Doesn't this remind us of some members of today's intellectual elite, who would not come near a computer screen, in spite of being immersed in a brave new world of 'windows'?

It has been said that Jan Vermeer and his contemporaries transformed the mysticism of light of the Gothic cathedral into the myth of civil privacy. But there is more to this very conscious and worldly breed of craftsmen. Many of the paintings of Vermeer, while exploring the niches and moods of comfortable burgher interiors, play with symbols of distance in connection with intimate window lighting: be it that letters are read or written or, that maps of the world are prominently displayed. 'The Geographer' (1669) is particularly telling, because, for one, the whole mood of the setting reminds us of the captain's room on a merchant vessel, and certainly this man is somehow linked to the grand schemes that were turning his country into a central colonial power of Europe.

William Hogarth is one of the greatest and most original painters in British 18th century art. His way of visual storytelling through series of paintings and engravings has influenced many artists since then. But Hogarth was not only quite aware of the narrative powers of the 'painting as a window', his work also contains striking explorations of the polyfocality of painting. He was fascinated by the possibility of integrating 'several views' in one work, his quest was to bring out 'the inside of surfaces', he wanted to represent on a single canvass 'the complete knowledge' about his subjects, i.e. their 'multidimensionality'. He and those who followed him, by eschewing the traditional ideal of 'monofocality', already were anticipating the multifaceted computer interface. Many of these aspects come together in Hogarth's 'Marriage a la Mode I' (1745): there is, of course, the tragic story of a liaison to tell, but there also is the elaborate 'pictures in pictures'-motif reminiscent of the collectors' tableaux rampant in the 17th-century. And then the 'window': fitted unobtrusively into the picture wall, it on closer inspection suggests a topography of perspectival ambivalences if not absurdities.

Georg Friedrich Kersting's 'Caspar David Friedrich in his Atelier III' (1819) brings together Prussian Enlightenment and one of the most complex romantic painters, Friedrich, who in his landscapes went after the multiplicity of meanings and inner perspectives. The subject of Kersting's painting clearly is 'windows'. Friedrich had partly shuttered his atelier's window in order not to be distracted by the reality outside. Nevertheless, the shape of the screen roughly echoes the shape of the remaining window opening, and there is a certain play with linear perspective. The mood of the room is far removed from the privacy and intimacy of the de Hoochs and Vermeers. It is the cool scientific air one would have found at Humboldt's university in Berlin or even, for that matter, at the study of Goethe in Weimar - with just a touch of controlled romanticism.

By 1900 the window, which had been the guardian of privacy for such a long time, was turning into the screen, from which a stream of imaginary visions began to emanate, overpowering the individual. The victorious career of the cinema screen had commenced, eventually followed by the monitors of TV and Internet. At the same time glass walls conquered architecture. Clients of Frank Lloyd Wright complained about the unlivability of his houses for lack of privacy. In Henri Matisse's 'Interieur in Etretat' (1920) no new visual technologies or modern architecture have to be cited in order to create an awesome image of the intrusion of outside reality (or is it imagined reality) upon the helpless individual.

Edward Hopper, too, is a painter who constantly reflected the relation between the inside and the outside under the conditions of an impending breakdown of the boundaries between the two. In his 'Room in New York' (1932) innocent private activities acquire an eerie quality because it is not clear how this peep from the outside was facilitated. This observation can hardly take place at street level. Can two neighbouring buildings be really that close? Or has someone gained a vantage point that is not entirely 'legal'? The 'window in painting' once was a means for representing the outside on the inside. With virtual reality looming, it is increasingly difficult to keep the two apart.

David Hockney carries the torch of Hopper, as far as reflection upon the window is concerned. Modern glass architecture plays an important role in many of his works. In 'Contre-jour in the French Style - Against the Day dans le style francais' (1974), though, the baroque garden, the sun shade, the ambivalence of whether the viewer looks out from a palace, a middle class apartment or a department store and other subtle irritations create a mix that, in a way, returns to the nitty-gritty of windows and walls. Hockney reduces the traditional discourse on the captivity of 3-dimensional space in the world of canvasses to the bare essential that a window is a rectangular hole in the wall. But then: walls, too, are not what they used to be. [It is an ironic footnote that in its own art collection Microsoft, who gave new meaning to the word 'windows', features as one of the most extraordinary works a graffiti-covered 3.5-ton section of the Berlin Wall.] The work of masons always posed different challenges to the artist than the 'classical screen'. But, with walls falling down, art might be ready - on both counts: windows and walls - for the limitless spaces of virtual reality. After 'windows in painting' created the metaphorical grounds for the modern interface, and after 'wall painting', as in the case of the Berlin Wall, succeeded in softening the concrete confines of a whole political system: wouldn't it be timely not to ask the idle question 'what is art' but rather: what can art do?


(23 July 1999, All Rights Reserved)


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