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Modern Lab: The Window Museum
March 26 – September 13, 2010
East Building Upper Level

This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery.

Overview: window [from "vindr" wind + "auga" eye]: an opening especially in the wall of a building for admission of light and air

"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," wrote Leone Battista Alberti in 1435. Ninety years later, in a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, an artist studies a reclining female nude through a framework and draws her on an identically gridded page. Thus did Renaissance artists seize the window—open, transparent, and rectangular—as both metaphor and mechanism for picture-making.

In this cabinet of modern curiosities, windows often obscure or complicate vision. Some are too dark to allow visual entry; others, too light. There are black panes and blinding screens. What sometimes seem to be views out are actually reflections back. Shrinking from transparency, artists zoom in on the opaque features of windows: mullions, frames, blinds.

A single image may both stimulate and frustrate curiosity: a pure white doorknob invites turning; black portals turn us away. A self-portrait is doubled, miniaturized, or distorted. Everyday objects defy us: a window in a valise carries runic characters and a sexual title; a window cut from a wall has been papered over and scorched with steam irons. We can see that artists are as taken with the window metaphor as they were 500 years ago. But the view is different.

What has changed? Our world has become compartmentalized and homogenized, and our visual devices—from cameras to computers—frame, fragment, and above all flatten space. With so much of our experience pre-screened, the Renaissance miracle of translating three dimensions onto two has become mundane. Artists tend to play with their kaleidoscopes, collapsing surface and depth, confusing relations of scale, and merging outward with inward—the panorama with the peephole.

Organization: Organized by the National Gallery of Art.

Image: Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait in Window, 1947, gelatin silver print, Gift of Ilse Bing Wolff, 2001.147.70

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