Socks, squats and sex workers: The Woman in the Window review | Art

Who is the woman in the window? A housebound mother leaning out to gossip? A lover waiting for a letter? A sex worker summoning clients? An artist installing work in a gallery?

As this tightly structured show reveals, the convention of showing women positioned at a window dates back millennia. The oldest artefact here – almost 3,000 years old – is an ivory carving from the Assyrian city of Nimrud, in which a woman gazes over a carved balustrade. She may have represented a cult goddess, or a sacred sex worker watching from a temple.

From its earliest representations, the window was presented as a space of display: a pictorial device framing an object of desire. A Greek krater (serving bowl for wine) is decorated with a scene from a comic play. Two grotesque old men complete with padded stomachs and flapping phalluses make an amorous call on a courtesan, whose head and shoulders appear framed in a window.

Rembrandt van Rijn’s Girl at a Window (1645), from the Picture Gallery’s collection, seems to have been this show’s starting point. A young woman fiddles with her necklace, her arms framing the exposed skin of her chest as she leans across a ledge and levels an intent gaze at the painter. It’s a curious painting: she emerges from darkness, but there’s no radiant daylight illuminating her as she does so. It feels like a private scene taking place in the gloom of a back street.

The original inspiration … Girl at a Window, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1645. Photograph: By Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery

There’s a big Vermeer-shaped hole here. Rembrandt’s younger compatriot was a master of intimate domestic scenes, many illuminated by a window to the left, the cool northern light from which lit up the faces of women as they read letters, fastened necklaces or played musical instruments. The absence is clearly felt. A reproduction of his Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657–59) is displayed next to Tom Hunter’s photo portrait of a mother in a Hackney squat, Woman Reading a Possession Order (1997), to illustrate the homage this recent political work pays to Vermeer.

A high point among some intriguing oddities is a lifesize medieval carving of a martyr’s head viewed through a barricade archway – Saint Avia (The Jailed Woman) (circa 1450-1500). It would have been installed flush with a stone wall, as though Saint Avia were gazing out to receive the bread kneaded by angels that sustained her.

For women, the home can be both a sanctuary and a prison. Thus the window, as a threshold between interior and exterior worlds, might present either the possibility of threat or of escape. In many societies it was considered indecent for women to be seen at a public window (and, oh, how artists loved to portray women doing forbidden things, permitting audiences both to ogle and chastise!). Botticelli’s lovely Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli (1470-80) – a racy proposition only insofar as its subject is pictured at a window, and treating us to a direct gaze – is imagined to have been commissioned for the private enjoyment of her husband.

Botticelli kicks off centuries of compositional play, here using the window frame to construct illusory space through which we look at the woman and into the room beyond. There are frames within frames here, all driving attention towards her face, which, thanks to sun pouring from an open balcony to the left, is modelled by the light and shade of a directional light source. There are compositional reasons that artists enjoy picturing figures near windows: it’s not all about voyeurism.

While all that compositional business is not really discussed, the most direct reference comes with one of the show’s most surprising and successful inclusions: Isa Genzken’s Fenster (1990). This blunt concrete frame on a spindly metal plinth is displayed in the mausoleum. Bathed in amber light, positioned before a pair of portrait sculptures, it demonstrates the way a frame trains the eye.

The frame trains the eye … Tom Hunter, Woman Reading a Possession Order, 1997.
The frame trains the eye … Tom Hunter, Woman Reading a Possession Order, 1997. Photograph: Courtesy the artist Tom Hunter

The final section explores how female artists have approached this territory. Louise Bourgeois used an old window from her home to frame a view across a landscape of curving pinky-white breast forms. From 1978, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still finds the artist gazing down at the street, dressed as a dancer in ankle socks and tight sweater: a reminder that this convention has long since migrated to cinema.

The overarching framing device in this show is identity. The window is explored largely as a narrative device, rather than a pictorial one. Whatever the theme, Marina Abramović can be relied on to go the extra distance. In Role Exchange (1975) she switches identities with a professional sex worker for the opening of her show in Amsterdam. For four hours, each adopts a position in the other’s window. According to Abramović’s suggestive explanatory note, both women “take full responsibility” for their temporary roles.