Sunday, August 21, 2011

Windows (the glass kind, not the computer kind), and why we like to look out of them so much

I used to live at the beach, but the way poor people do, not rich people.  If a rich person says that he or she lives at the beach, we picture something fronting the sea, with a wide view over the waves and sand.  When I taught at UC Irvine, off and on for five years I lived at the beach.  Depending on the state of the tide, at any given moment my back door might be within 200 yards of prime breaking surf.  Of course the thing is, my house was on the alley just BEHIND the houses that looked at over the beach itself.  I could see an itty bitty sliver of ocean through my bathroom window if I looked west through the alley and then over the fence of the rich person's house that really was on the beach.  I just lived near the beach, not at the beach.

It is the window and its view that makes the difference.  In the case of Newport Beach, about two million dollars of difference.

I was thinking about this because English teacher Santi Tafarella recently gave me a book.  There's a term in art history, "vernacular photography," which is the sixty cent way of saying "snapshots that us regular folks take."  His book is a celebration of an imaginary 24 hour day all around the world, made up of photographs taken by blog contributors.  Each shot is a view out a window, with the time of day indicated.

Some views are scenic, some are bleak, some are quirky.  It made me think about our relationship to windows, and to the kinds of photographs we take from them.

During a visit to England this summer, a friend of a friend loaned us a beach house in Suffolk.  Here is the view of the house from their front yard.

The view from the ground floor just looked back out into the garden.

From the upstairs, however, if we stood just right and used binoculars, there was an entire seascape that one could watch.  Here's the view (except I took it from outside the house, where I was when this delightful ship passed).  What can I say?  It is nice to have rich friends...or more exactly, at least to have friends who themselves have rich friends.  Clearly, the owners of this house live AT the beach.

Looking out the window and wanting to capture the view is not just something achieved recently.  True, in the past, actual glass was expensive to make (and in Tudor England, heavily taxed), so one might even take one's windows with one if going from the town house to the country house.  Later the invention of plate glass allowed for multistory apartments and factories to be built; you needed a lot of cheap glass to make a modern city, from the mid-19th century onwards.

Artists have wanted to paint the scene from their window perhaps going all the way back to cave art.  A recent survey at the Met in New York focused on that.  Their exhibit catalog (from which the next two images come) is called in a nod to an EM Forster novel Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.

This charming piece is a bit like a Zen poem, in that it takes you outside slowly, and in ever-widening circles.  It was done by the German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich, and it dates from 1822.  The title is minimal: just Woman at the Window.  I first saw it in Berlin, many years ago, though it also has been displayed here in Los Angeles.  What one sees better in person than in a book (or a blog) is the mast of the ship, just right of the midline, as the boat moves into view.  That makes us think about the rest of the ship, the part we cannot see, and also the motion of its slow, stately passage through a canal.  And that in turn lets us thinking about where it has been and where it is going: a dynamic "through axis" for what initially seems to be a quiet, domestic scene.  Scholars believe that the woman is the painter's young wife, so he may have had many thoughts as he looked at her, at their new house, and at the passing maritime commerce.

Another interesting window view that seems just as good as a photograph or maybe even better is this one, also from the same exhibition.

This time we are in Rome, not Northern Europe, and Achille-Etna Michallon, a French scholarship student, reveals what he could see from his studio window.  This is pencil on ivory-colored paper (it has darkened a bit, over the years), and can't you just admire the heck out of his draftsmanship?  This artist died in his twenties (from pneumonia, apparently), so that's why you do not know his name.

I can't pass a sexy window without grabbing my camera.  I wish I could draw as well as the people in the Met's book, but for me, I use Fujichrome and other tools.  Here is a scanned slide from a hotel in a national park in Patagonia.  I never did find out who the horse belonged to.

Another time I was blessed with a view outside of my usual income bracket was on a whale watching survey in the Maldives.  Through the luck of the draw, on this two week trip I got put into the deluxe cabin.  Each day, as the anchor came up and I looked out from the bed to watch for dolphins, here was the kind of view I had:

Not all ships that I have been on have been this nice.  In a recent trip to the Norwegian Arctic, we had more rain than snow.  (Thanks to global warming, I suppose.)  We were further north than the topmost part of Alaska by many hundreds of miles, but instead of snow, here was the view.  This is not from my cabin, which was a dank little cell below decks, but from the common room.

Oh well.  Not every trip is a dream trip, and at least we saw fourteen polar bears.

This college has a study abroad program, sending AVC students and faculty to London and to Salamanca, Spain.  Last fall I was one of the lucky (the VERY lucky) winners to teach in London.  Student housing is arranged through the program with either home-stay family hosts or in shared apartments.  Faculty made their own rental arrangements.  Here was the view from my kitchen.

It certainly made dong the dishes pleasant, except later in winter, when it got dark at 4:30.  London's fireworks holiday is not in the summer as our Independence Day is, but is in fall, on Guy Fawkes Day.  He was the foiled terrorist associated with the Gunpowder Plot, made famous to Americans by the 2006 movie V for Vendetta.  (Those masks, from that movie, appeared in San Francisco recently, as a reaction to BART shutting off cell phone access to protestors.)  The name is also in the Harry Potter books, as the name of a phoenix, a creature that rises from its own ashes.  Here are my neighbors really going at it for Bonfire Night (as Guy Fawkes Days is also called).  I shot this from the same kitchen window.

It is probably a bit less hazardous than it looks since this being England, all the shrubbery is utterly saturated by the daily rain.

In looking through the book of window views that Santi gave me and this art catalog of the windows in paintings, it has made me want to open my own house up.  Right now the curtains are closed against the glare, but I think it's time to let some of that acetylene AV light come flooding in.

Yes, certainly.  There is just one thing I need to do first ... first I should get the Windex and make it so at least I can see out.

Better get going!


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