During lockdown, we’ve been encouraged to ‘post’ objects in our windows to offer symbols of solidarity – teddy bears and Anzac poppies – for people walking past, looking in. Rebecca Rice, Curator Historical New Zealand Art reverses the direction and looks at works in our collection where the artist shows us views from the inside out.
The last two months of lockdown have been a time of mixed emotions. In New Zealand, and around the globe, we have all done our bit – staying home to save lives – in the attempt to eliminate coronavirus.
Many of us have been faced with more time than usual staring at our own four walls. Some may have enjoyed quality time within their bubble, others may have found it isolating.
This selection of paintings from Te Papa’s art collection turns inward, to the way artists have pictured interior worlds from the inside out.
Since the golden age of Dutch painting in the 17th century, genre painting has offered the opportunity to gaze into a private interior and identify (or empathise) with the values expressed within.
In the wake of lockdown, this painting by Dutch New Zealand artist Petrus van der Velden resonates with the emotional and financial impact experienced by many during these times.
The whittling fisherman raises his head, looking expectantly towards his wife, who leans wearily onto the table, staring at the smouldering fire. There is boredom here, as well as the drudgery of making do in difficult times.
Faced with endless weeks at home, Elizabeth Kelly’s dining room offers a much more comfortable option. It is bourgeois in a casually, carefully tousled kind of way.
The trinity of portraits reference Kelly’s status as a leading portrait painter, but the room is otherwise empty. The table, luxuriously draped, appears poised, almost anxious, waiting for company.
In contrast, Jacqueline Fahey’s dining table is well stocked, we’re even invited to take a seat, seeing her reflection as our own, and coming under the scrutiny of ‘Fraser’ via that spookily magnified eyeball.
This table is strewn with the ephemera of living – books, magazines, flowers, cigarettes, ashtrays and those lemons – waiting for gin?
But there’s also a glimpse of the outside in Fahey’s painting, the cusp of a window and a green beyond.
Out the window
During lockdown, we’ve been encouraged to ‘post’ objects in our windows to offer symbols of solidarity – teddy bears and ANZAC poppies. These offerings have often felt like the only point of connection between us and the outside world, but this connection has been partial, incomplete, unsatisfying.
As in Fahey’s painting, Rata Lovell Smith’s Still Life offers a tantalising hint of an outside view, partially obscured by a floating butter-cream curtain which, together with the reflective blue table-top, offers the perfect setting for the delightfully sprawling Ikebana-inspired arrangement of long-stemmed daisies. Propped in the background are three books – the orange and cream covers a dead giveaway for a classic Penguin read.
An unreadable book also sits in front of British abstract artist, Victor Pasmore’s, window. Books, like windows, provide access to other worlds – perhaps this is why they so often populate these otherwise contained views.
Pasmore’s is particularly claustrophobic, the desk, curtains and hanging blinds abstracted and flattened, pushing onto the picture plane, the lights in the street beyond flickering red and yellow.
Only in T. A. McCormack’s painting are we granted a total view, a local view for Wellingtonians of the Orongorongo Mountains, rising in stages above the stretch of inky blue harbour. Even so, we know this is a view from inside, framed as it is by gauzy curtains, and a window ledge ornamented with Assisi pottery and a vase of artfully drooping flowers.
Colin Wheeler’s view carries no hint of window, other than the height from which it is painted and the title. From this vantage point, we can see down onto the artist’s backyard, the blossoming trees, corrugated-iron roofed lean-to and patterning of coloured roofs in suburban Oamaru layered into the distance.
On the threshold
Windows provide us both with access to and distance us from the outside world. They are commonly used as a device to signal desire and longing – think Romeo and Juliet and that balcony scene.
In his lush painting, Edward Poynter sets Asterié, who is being wooed by the God Zeus while her husband is away, next to a window. As she looks ambiguously down to her would-be-lover on the street below, we’re left questioning will she or won’t she?
It’s less clear whether there is any a potential romance intimated in W. Paul Davis’ An Autumn Idyll or whether it’s simply a descriptive work rendered in autumnal shades. Regardless, this painting embodies the emotions I feel as we move from lockdown into something resembling ‘normal life’.
The woman and her dog, standing poised on the boundary between in and outside, seem to be anticipating moving beyond the confines of the house. But the backward glance holds a sense of wariness. Having been so long at home, in our bubbles, how will we negotiate moving from the inside out?