Rooms with a view: from inside out

Rooms with a view: from inside out

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.

Domestic interiors

Pictures a cottage interior with man and woman seated at a table
Interior of a Marken fisherman’s cottage, about 1871, Dordrecht, by Petrus van der Velden. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1936. Te Papa (1936-0012-119)

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.

Painting of a domestic interior, an empty table covered with an oversized white cloth, and four empty chairs. The walls have three portraits on them.
My dining room, about 1936, by Elizabeth Kelly. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1943. Te Papa (1943-0001-2)

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.

Looking down on a table covered with books, lemons, cigarettes and ash trays, a woman's reflection in a mirror and a man staring at us from across the table, looking through a magnifying glass.
Fraser sees me, I see myself, 1975, by Jacqueline Fahey, oil on hardboard. Purchased 1990 with Harold Beauchamp Collection funds (1990-0031-1)

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.

Vase of white daisies on a blue table top in front of a window, the cream curtain mostly drawn.
Still life, about 1936, Rata Lovell-Smith, oil on canvas. Purchased 1943 (1943-0002-1)

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.

Abstracted view of a window, framed by curtains and roller blinds.
The window, 1938/47, London, by Victor Pasmore. Purchased 1957 with Harold Beauchamp Collection funds.  CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (1957-0013-2)

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.

View through a window across the sea to a range of mountains. A vase of flowers and pottery sits on the windowsill.
Orongorongo Mountains, 1950s, Wellington, by Thomas McCormack. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1958.  CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (1958-0001-1)

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.

Painting of a view from a window across coloured roofs and houses in a suburban setting. Mountains and cloudy sky in the background.
From the artist’s window, 1961, by Colin Wheeler. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Art, 1962. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (1962-0002-2)

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.

Painting of a woman leaning on a windowsill that has a vase of flowers on it. Behind her is a dark curtain and the dark interior of a room.
Asterié, 1904, England, by Sir Edward Poynter Bt. (Baronet). Gift of Sir Alexander Roberts, 1960. Te Papa (1960-0001-1)

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?

Painting of a wooden wall cabinet next to an open door, with woman and dog on the doorstep. in the foreground is a red carpet and there's a red curtain at the doorway. The woman turned to look back at the artist.
An autumn idyll, 1891, United Kingdom, by W Paul Davis. Gift of Mr and Mrs G.G. Gibbes Watson, 1974. Te Papa (1974-0003-2)

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?

Leave a comment