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 wasn’t 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 today’s 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 it’s 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 today’s 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 we’ve got, what’s in the display case and on the windowsill; who’s 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 Springer’s 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 Amsterdam’s Wallen district and Arnhem’s 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 that’s 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.