Windows in Art

October 8, 2020

Chapter 3: The viewfinder—transparency and voyeurism from Albrecht Dürer to Ai Weiwei

Every representational image ever made is necessarily a finite framing of the outside world, a viewfinder presenting only what the creator wants us to see. This finite point of view is configured inside of the boundary or the limits of the frame, suggesting a specific spectator-object relationship in front and behind the picture place, as well as the possibility of a partially or entirely fictional construct within this restricted gaze. Leon Battista Alberti’s early treatise on painting and perspective, De Pictura (or Della Pittura) of 1435 described how artists of the 15th century were attempting to go beyond their mediaeval forebears to better model and render visible objects as if in three dimensions, rather than employing flat and symbolic stand-ins: “First of all, on the surface which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen” (Alberti, 1435/1972, pp.54-55). These passages describing the means to achieve perspectival accuracy in turn led to various technical instruments to aid in this new era of realistic drawing, one of which was dubbed ‘Alberti’s Frame’.

Consisting of a square wooden frame with a stringed or threaded, crisscross net—rather like a square-paned or leaded window—acting as a viewing grid for the artist, the perspective machine allows the artist to map out the scene before him onto a similarly gridded sheet of paper, aiding the measurement and comparative scale of objects in the distance. Albrecht Dürer draws similar set-ups in his woodcuts, Draughtsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Reclining Woman and Draughtsman Drawing a Lute (The Manual of Measurement), both 1525. These geometric devices gave visual artists of the Renaissance a claim to scientific precision, a precursor to the camera obscura and the photographic lens. Beyond ‘correct’ or convincing perspective, however, the power to section off portions of the visible world through mathematical means onto a picture plane gave rise to the notion of the painted image as illusionistic purveyor of truth.

February 3, 2020

Chapter 2: The frame – the window as optical device or trompe l’oeil from Mantegna to Ryan Gander

Whether facing outwards to the world or inwards to the self, an artist is often restrained by the framing device of the window—unable to break free from a rectilinear box or blank surface that demands to be filled, but which can never contain the sheer volume of possibilities and countless multitudes of our cosmos. Indeed, as an aperture, the window, canvas or blank sheet of paper is but a tiny fraction of the whole, representing only a glimpse of our visible reality. While this narrow view might contend that a window or a work of art is a necessarily compromised and merely partial inlet or outlet, it is equally true that much of our life is now increasingly being mediated by these rectilinear boundaries – whether through a television screen, a page, a photograph or a handheld phone or tablet. Rather than permitting only a restricted field of vision, these windows could be seen as magical portals to other universes or even just uncanny and lifelike portrayals of experience.

Accuracy was one of the first and foremost forms of pictorial magic performed by artists, with two early Greek painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius competing to see whose picture could better fool the eye in an account recorded by Pliny the Elder. Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes so compelling that birds came down to feast on them. Parrhasius congratulated his opponent and beckoned him to see his work behind a curtain, only for Zeuxis to find that the curtain was the painting.

April 26, 2019

Chapter 1: The studio – exploring the mind of the artist from Caspar David Friedrich to Spencer Finch

An artist contemplates a blank canvas or a white piece of paper in the studio or at a table, perhaps waiting for a memory or some inspiration to stimulate that first mark. What follows is an insight into either their viewpoint of the world or the inner workings of the artistʼs mind at that moment. Either way or whatever the impetus behind that initial gesture, the pristine surface and the bounds of the blank support are there to be broken through, in order to begin creating a window to another reality.

The rectilinear frame of a painting mimics that of a window, waiting to be filled in or opened up. The two-dimensional panel can be seen as an aperture to escape from or to burrow into and hide, while the lack of transparent panes of glass means both artist and viewer are required to insert or intuit their own vision of what lies on or behind the picture plane.