Tag Archives: voyeur

Bonnard: Rooftops and Nostalgia for the Life of Others

8 Nov

“Nostalgia for the life of others. This is because, seen from the outside, another’s life forms a unit. Whereas ours, seen from the inside, seems broken up. We are still chasing after an illusion of unity.”

(Camus, Notebook IV (August/September, 1942)

Pierre Bonnard, Rooftops, 1897

The voyeur in me delights in these two paintings by a French Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard. Gazing at the building, or a house, on the other side of the road, counting all the windows and balconies, wondering what secrets do the fancy facade and flimsy curtains hide, is there anything that awakens more curiosity and longing both at once? Painting “Rooftops” isn’t that exciting on its own; it just shows a roof of some Parisian building, roof windows and a little bit of blue sky. The scene would be much more exciting if it showed a woman undressing at the window, a couple kissing, or a murder taking place, but with the aid of our imagination we can fantasise about anything taking place in one of those flats. When I see a painting like this, I couldn’t care less about the architecture! My mind instantly starts fantasising about the people living there. Who are they and are their lives more exciting than mine? What secrets do the windows of their flats hide? What are they thinking about when they gaze at the other side of street? Gazing at other people’s windows, at the houses on the other side of the street reminds me of something that a character played by Daniel Auteuil tells a sad young girl Adele, played by Vanessa Paradis, in the film “La fille sur le pont”: “I’m going to tell you a story. Long ago, I lived on the even side of the street, at number 22. I gazed at the houses across the street thinking that people were happier, their rooms sunnier, their parties more fun. But in fact their rooms were darker and smaller. And they too gazed across the street. Because we always think that luck is what we don’t have.” Naturally, I have no curiosity or envy for the lives of people I know well because I know that their lives are as banal and boring as mine, but the mysterious faces whose names I know not, oh they are the ones about whom I can weave fantasies and project all my yearning and envy on.

Pierre Bonnard, Rue Tholozé (Montmartre in the Rain), 1897

Another Bonnard’s painting “Montmartre in the Rain”, painted in the same year as the “Rooftops”, also shows the buildings on the other side of the street with their glowing yellow windows. Each window holds a secret and even though the windows with the lights on are captivating and vibrant, the windows left in the darkness are even more mysterious; who is there in the darkness, a sad poet sitting on his bed, or secret lovers whispering secret words into each other’s ear? Bonnard must have been on a very high floor, third or fourth perhaps, to capture the scene in that perspective. I love the way Bonnard captured the magical atmosphere of glowing yellow lights and the wet pavements after rain. The strollers in the street bellow look like black blots. In “Rooftops” and “Montmartre at Night” Bonnard painted a view on the buildings on the other side of the street, but what about the inside of the flat and the people who live in it? Another Bonnard’s painting “Woman at the Window (Among the Seamstresses)”, painted in 1895, and a lovely pastel by Pissarro “At the Window, rue des Trois Frères”, painted in 1878, offer a view on what goes inside the flats, what secrets are hidden behind the curtains and windows. I bet the little girl in Pissarro’s painting would rather be exploring the parks and streets outside her house than be sitting there above the book, I bet she is eager to feel the sun and wind on her face and to taste life and not just read about it. And those drab, gloomy probably underpaid seamstresses in Bonnard’s paintings, I bet they would rather be strolling around free, roaming the streets and not sewing the dresses for evening parties that they will never attend, touching the silk fabric that they will never get to wear. They must be gazing longingly at those free passers by and wondering where they are going? And thus the circle continues, there is always the illusion, as the title of Milan Kundera’s novel says, that life is elsewhere….

Camille Pissarro, At the Window, rue des Trois Frères, 1878, Pastel on cream wove pastel paper

Pierre Bonnard, Woman at the Window (Among the Seamstresses), c. 1895

Voyeurism in Edward Hopper’s Night Windows and Hitchcock’s Rear Window

22 Jul

American painter Edward Hopper was born on this day in 1882 in the Hudson river town of Nyack, New York, and what better opportunity to publish this post than on the man’s birthday!

Edward Hopper, Night Windows, 1928

Although Edward Hopper is mostly remembered as the painter who captured the alienating mood of the modern city in his scenes of solitary people, lonesome bars and empty streets, but it’s not the portrayal of the alienation in the city which fascinates me the most in his art but the voyeurism which shines through in his painting “Night Windows”. While we gaze at the painting, we too are the voyeurs of this quiet night scene tinged with eroticism and mystery. Three windows reveal to us a sight of an illuminated room where a figure of a woman dressed in a salmon toned slip is half-hidden from us, and yet the little glimpse of her that we do have makes us crave her presence. The figure of a woman in a slip is sensual yet subtle. The darkness on the outside of the murky old building is contrasted strongly with the interior full of lightness and intrigue. The woman is like an actress on an illuminated stage, aware that all eyes of the auditorium are on her, yet feigning ignorance of the fact. The painting looks like a still from the film, and indeed Hopper’s other passion, besides painting, was the cinema. Two windows are closed, but the third one is open and allowing the fresh night air into the room. A billowing white curtain is dancing in the midnight breeze.

Even though the painting seems like a film scene, the inspiration came from literature and not from cinema: “Night Windows recalls the experience of the voyeur pastor in “The Strength of God,” one of Sherwood Anderson’s short stories in Winesburg, Ohio. From the clergyman’s study in the church bell tower, he accidentally discovers that he can see into the bedroom of a young woman in the house next door. He becomes a virtual Peeping Tom, unable to resist being drawn to spy upon the woman in various states of undress. “When the shade of the window to Kate Swift’s room was raised he could see, through the hole, directly into her bed.” (…) Night Windows communicates a mood like that, too, of Anderson’s 1923 Many Marriages, which was the first of his novels to focus on modern sexual experience. (…) Anderson’s preoccupation in Many Marriages is with the symbolic value of nudity, sexual frankness, and the inner emotional life of its characters. In a number of his subsequent oil paintings. Hopper addressed similar issues of voyeurism, temptation, repression, and sexual ennui, continuing the imaginative exploration of the etchings.” (Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, 1995)

The same voyeurism appears in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Rear Window” (1954) where the broken-legged photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (played by James Stewart) spends the long, lazy and hot summer days resting and spying at his neighbours in his Chelsea apartment whose rear window is looking out into the courtyard. At first he is doing it to pass the time and then later their seemingly ordinary lives begin to intrigue him more and more. Each neighbour is like an animal in the zoos; not behind bars but behind their large windows and balconies, ordinary yet strange in their unique way. He observes a flamboyant dancer he nicknames “Miss Torso”; a single woman he calls “Miss Lonelyhearts”; a talented yet lonely pianist, a newlywed couple, and a middle-aged couple who sleep on their balcony in hot summer nights, a female amateur sculptor; and Lars Thorwald who is a traveling salesman with an ill wife. The beautiful and sophisticated Grace Kelly plays his girlfriend who joins him in his peeping Tom activities which ultimately lead them both to a discovery of a murder. I really liked something that Jeff’s friend Tom, who is a detective, said about spying on neighbours: “That’s a secret, private world you are looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private which they couldn’t possibly explain in public.” And Edward Hopper captured that world on his canvases.