Windows are symbols of clarity, structure, and two-way exchange. Yet they have been underutilised as lenses for reviewing artistic – often male – gazes upon women. Reframed redresses this neglect, exploring voyeurism and female visibility in art from ancient civilisations to now.
Beyond Tom Hunter’s Vermeer-like Hackney photographs (1997), there’s almost nothing of the Old Dutch Masters typical of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Instead, what we get is rather more internationally curated, diverse – and challenging.
Japanese shoji screens and jali screens from Mughal India reveal how architecture was often designed to restrict what women might see, and ensure that they themselves would remain unseen by others. (The former, shown on a house-shaped inro, hints at women’s domestic confinement, providing a gendered perspective of Japan House’s recently-closed Windowology exhibition).
Windows expose the repeated tropes in representations of women across geographies and times. In works before the late 19th century, women are near-exclusively represented as fragments of a female type, reduced to the sum of their anatomical parts. It’s a trope that continues to the present. Bodies, heads, and torsos – which can be stitched and re-stitched together – are photographed by Jeff Wall and Bill Brandt, blurring the boundaries between photojournalism and voyeurism.
Reframed also casts an eye over the trapping nature of traditional and religious practices. Window-gazing was often frowned upon by the Christian church, for encouraging the sins of envy and lust. Yet etchings, engravings, and sculptures of those imprisoned for their faith hint at women’s agency, suggesting the window too as a site of subversion.
The window, of course, works both ways, revealing as much about the artist as their subjects. In one work, Pablo Picasso’s then-partner, the artist Françoise Gilot, is seen pressed against a windowpane. Viewed now, it is a startling warning about his abusive behaviour – which continued after their split, as he continued to discourage galleries from acquiring her work.
Reframed is filled with the big names of British art, including Rossetti, Sickert, and Kokoschka. But relatively few women artists feature until the final room. Indeed, Isa Genzken’s stark sculpture-frame, propped up halfway through, is the first work to feature by a woman.
Where we do see women’s own gaze upon themselves, the picture is more complex. Vanessa Bell sits near Louise Bourgeois’ My Blue Sky (1989-2003); painted when the artist was near housebound, it borrows its frame from a window from the artist’s own home. Marina Abramovic reveals both the studio and the brothel as sites of public scrutiny, swapping places with a sex worker from Amsterdam’s Red Light district.
Reframed does well not to limit issues of feminism to women alone. Oskar Kokoschka’s Viennese postcards, comparing the confinement of caged bird and women, starkly contrast with the cartes-de-visite perched alongside. It promises good design, accessible to all, in a manner much like the Arts and Crafts movement. (Still, both souvenirs are still arguably artefacts of commercial objectification).
Perhaps the unintended consequence of this excellent exhibition is that that it sheds light upon issues of diversity and accessibility in the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s permanent collection. Certainly, it is a sparkling framework for rethinking the Masters and classical curation of public art.
With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for this review: Jelena is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.