From Picasso to Whiteread in Dulwich, courtesy of the RMT

Woman in a window: this image of a poignant moment, by Steph James, does much to capture the isolation of the pandemic years

Last month, KEN TOWL visited Museum of the Year, the Horniman.
This week, in his quest for the treasures of south London, he has trekked across the borough boundary again to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, with some help from a rail worker, for one of the best exhibitions he’s seen…

Woman in a window: Picasso’s treatment of fellow artist Francoise Gilot was less than artistic

The woman in the window of the ticket office at West Dulwich railway station was very helpful. She told me that the best way to get to the “Reframed: The Woman in the Window” exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery was to turn right out of the station and then left up Gallery Road.

The exhibition is one of the best I have seen.

It explores the recurring motif of the title and its implications from ancient to modern times.

Inevitably, the portrayal of the subject reflects attitudes to women and their status in society, and the collection emphasises the way these have changed over time.

The oldest woman in the collection is from 900 to 700 BC. She stares at us out of a Phoenician carved ivory window and she is a practiser of “sacred prostitution”. We learn that the Catholic church came to frown on pictures of women in windows, unhappy with their less than Madonna-like depictions of women. The women were on the edge, in a liminal space and, worst of all, looking out when they should be looking in.

Woman in a window: ‘Posing With My Parrot’, by Ajarb Bernard Ategwa

One of the most striking images is Ajarb Bernard Ategwa’s “Posing With My Parrot”, a large contemporary acrylic.

It appears to allude to a more assertive womanhood, a challenge to the traditional role of model under the (usually) male gaze of the artist.

The brightly coloured caged bird, though, suggests something darker. The symbolic role of the parrot is interpreted in the text offered at the side of the artwork as one of communication. It is difficult, however, not to interpret it as an allusion to imprisonment, especially after we notice that the caged bird crops up in more than one image.

Woman in a window: possibly 3,000 years old, this was the kind of image the church didn’t like

There is no need for a parrot to get the message across in the 15th century limestone carving “St Avia (The Jailed Woman)”, which depicts a saint who was imprisoned for her beliefs. We read, as we pass through the exhibition, of the changing role of artists’ models, from their beginnings in desperation – the description of a poor woman ravenously bolting down raw meat is affecting – through to their role as muse, then collaborator, and finally artist in their own right.

Being an artist’s muse was not without its pitfalls, as Francoise Gilot discovered. She was the muse for Pablo Picasso’s 1952 work, “Woman at the Window”. An artist herself, she was abused by her lover Picasso and when they split up, just months after the portrait was painted, Picasso used all his influence to dissuade galleries from buying her work.

Rachel Whiteread, she of the 1993 Turner Prize-winning “House”, offers the ultimate full stop to the exhibition. Her window is a concrete compound negative window (“Untitled”, 2015). It is not see-through and the woman is not the subject but the artist herself.

Whiteread is the woman outside the inside-out window.

Woman in a window: ‘The Mother of Sisera’ by Albert Joseph Moore, from 1861

Another interesting subversion is provided by Marina Abramovic with her 1975 diptych, “Role Exchange”, a pair of photos in which the artist has changed places with Suze, a sex worker from Amsterdam. Thus, while Suze is depicted smoking a cigarette in the window of a gallery, Abramovic poses, smoking, in the window of a brothel. Thus the (usually) male gaze of the observer is brought to the foreground.

A final touch of poignancy is to be found in Steph James’ 2000 photograph “Glass Kisses”, a depiction of a very modern iteration of the woman in the window motif, here an 88-year-old separated from her great-grandson by coronavirus and a glass window.

“Reframed: The Woman in the Window” is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, but only until next Sunday, September 4. Admission costs £16.50 (or £8 for concessions) and it is very popular, so book ahead through the website

And hopefully, despite the efforts of transport minister Grant Shapps to do away with station staff, the woman in the window at West Dulwich will be helping passengers for a while yet, as long as Mick Lynch’s RMT have anything to do with it.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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