The art of cleaning windows
Text for exhibition Interieur, Groningen,
October 2000 by Rutger Pontzen
The popular emphasis on the interior is a typically
post-war phenomenon. With the end of the Second World War, memories of
its horrors had to be quickly banished. Reconstruction would serve to
expunge the memories of destruction. It was a time for optimism and progress
for looking to the future. America provided not only our liberators,
but also nylon-stockings and T-shirts. Then came the dream kitchens, the
domestic appliances and of course, the TV. The change that it brought
about was, in retrospect, unprecedented. It radically altered our worldview,
and with it, our interiors. Is there a better piece of furniture to symbolize
the 1950s than the TV- cabinet? The TV-set wasnt just stuck in a
corner -- it was seamlessly incorporated into a kind of tabernacle. An
altar. Watching TV was a religious experience for which the whole interior
had to be adapted. Whereas people had previously sat before the stage
or around the hearth, now everything was oriented to the box of pictures
that brought the world into our living rooms. There was no going back.
It must have been about this time that interior design became an independent
activity, leading to todays furniture-tourism which sees thousands
of shoppers storming their local IKEAs and furniture-malls. Never before
has so much attention been paid to home comforts. The way we live has
long since ceased to be a private matter. Now its a subject of public
display and extensive comment. Interior design magazines are booming,
as are the television programmes on D-I-Y, interior decorating and upholstery.
Everywhere, Dutch celebrities are busy doing up the living rooms of their
countrymen. And the camera is always on hand. Jan de Bouvrie has become
todays C.B.J. Hilterman: putting the world to rights has been swapped
for simply putting your own house in order. Life behind closed doors no
longer holds any secrets. What goes on behind the net curtains, blinds
and drapes of the average terraced house is no longer a mystery. The window
has replaced the door as the entry to the typical Dutch home.
The private sphere no longer exists. Not only do we watch and spy on one
another, we also want to be watched and spied on by the others.
In order to show off what weve got, whats in the display case
and on the windowsill; whos doing it with whom. This is the golden
age of a spiritual and physical exhibitionism that runs the gamut from
soul-bearing chat show through medical programmes in which the human body
is dissected to the success of Big Brother, the media attention for the
Monica Lewinsky-affair and Jerry Springers talk shows. Their appeal
however vulgar they may be is extremely seductive. They
generate an unbridled curiosity. We can never get enough. We always want
more. We live in the era of the window display.
The history of the relationship between the public and the private is
centuries old. (It would be interesting to study the significance of the
curtain in Dutch society down the ages. Why is it that half the Dutch
population spend the winter months sitting behind undrawn curtains looking
outside? What is the origin of the window-prostitution in Amsterdams
Wallen district and Arnhems Spijkerkwartier?). Painting provides
a particularly informative illustration of this history. Moreover a painting
is like the monitor today a kind of window, a metaphorical
glass wall. Even in the Seventeenth century, painters such as Jan Steen,
Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch and Gerard Dou showed how the Dutch lived.
Their work concentrated on every-day matters: nothing heroic or romantic,
but the ordinary home life of conversation, music-making, pipe smoking
and bread-baking. Here and there couples are depicted openly making love.
Even then, it seems, there was no question of a degree of privacy. And
considering the relaxed attitudes of the subjects portrayed they were
clearly quite happy with the situation. Everything is put on display,
from strict parents to naughty children, from drinking session to sex.
Of course such paintings were intended to point a moral and functioned
as a kind of public information advertisement showing what was deemed
acceptable or unacceptable. But at the same time there was no question
of reticence. Civil disobedience was clearly not such a taboo that it
could not be depicted.
The history books tell us that the bourgeoisie was a characteristically
nineteenth-century creation. The drum roll of the various revolutions
(both successful and unsuccessful) in France and Germany was living proof
of that. The bourgeoisie had the final say. But while this was almost
certainly true in the realm of politics, in visual and moral terms the
watershed had already occurred two centuries earlier. The paintings of
Dou, de Hooch and Steen make that plain. And thats also the reason
why their work still makes such a big impression; for they are in the
vanguard of the democratization and opening up of culture we so revere
today. For today, too, artists show us how the bourgeoisie lives, what
the dress codes are and how the contours of the interior have changed.
Living rooms, showers, bedrooms and halls never before has visual
art shown so much interest in interiors and what happens in them. As if
through a window we are presented with the images of what can be seen
in the various rooms. The images may well prove familiar for depicted
here are the same rooms as we live in or have grown up in.