The following ‘imagined space’ is inspired by, Dadi’s Love, a photo of two women from Reframed: The Woman in the Window[i] currently exhibiting at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.
...the women gaze at each other through the glass and, perhaps, if they were to re-focus this gaze, their gazes, each would see themselves reflected back in them, like a mirror. Two generations of women – grandmother and granddaughter– separated and yet connected. Their worlds re-aligned in a new way. Each with their worry, concern for the other expressed in a grimace, a smile masking a myriad of emotions. Each with a deep longing to be with the other; instead the spaces they inhabit, the syntax of their visual worlds, are re-fused in this strangest of ways.
Where are your stories
I miss your stories
I miss hearing your voice
the soft unfurling of ideas…
You are silence in this space
I see you
yet your language is lost to me
It is 2020 and the older woman is being held in protective
isolation from the detriment of coronavirus. Her family can only view her from behind glass.Watch the clenching and de-clenching of her jaw. The silent parsing of her lips. This protective fortress is like a prison. One you would be loath to live in.
The glass, a partition through which the external world is made visible and only visible. None of the other senses can penetrate its hard transparency;
sniff the air,
the lethal air,
on its other side.
Eyes are locked in a kindness of symmetry, hands raised and touching, almost but not quite. The pads of their fingers in seeking the warm vibration of the other sense nothing in return. A non-touch.
Their narrative is captured by the photographer’s camera eye in a golden moment of internal and external existences colliding. From here, from this outward
perspective, I can see both women in their worlds divided by their bodies’ different abilities to fight infection brought together in moments of looking and mirroring. In a later time, when for some the memories of these times have gone, faded, the visual narrative might have to be refreshed with a line or two of text. How it was, how it is to be Dadi framed in this way. Right now, these memories are still raw in us, live in us, and no such words are needed.
And it is very Dutch! The thing that really strikes me is the
younger woman is wearing camouflage, which reflects onto the older woman – the young woman’s image is superimposed onto the old woman like a version of her
younger self. Or maybe the young woman is fighting by her side … this merging of images, of mutabilities, is very interesting.
…I hadn’t noticed this camouflage. Another layer of ‘imposed’ protection. A covering. A smothering. A second skin. But, in what way are they ‘Dutch’? Is it subject matter? Technique? Their ability to invite questions,
promote discussion? How this reflection offers an additional layer of armour...amore...
The older woman especially looks like a Dutch portrait. It’s the way the figure is positioned.
You can see in The Little Street[ii] a kind of similarity
or kinship with observing women in their world, going about what they’re doing without any agenda...in a kind of unsensational observation of women doing work. Each of the women in their space, their frame attending to laundry in the back alley of the kitchen linking the outside with inside; or, in the front doorway of the house with eyes and fingers sewing cloth for which a stronger light, a melding light is needed. It’s a dry day in there, in the space shown
to us, yet a hint of darkness dragging the underbelly of cumulus suggests there could be rain; a sudden éclat putting an end to this waiting. The street is quiet apart from the undersongs of women doing work, a threnody moving through the air, emerging from the pigment, from the brushstrokes, as attenuated sounds for our ears. Quietly. Quietly. Miniscule and precise in its composition.
Of water, one woman sighing as she bends in to seize the heft of wet washing for a last squeeze, the final big twist, before releasing it, wishing it were the last, but there are still the children’s clothes to attend to, dinner to prepare, their hunger to satisfy. She laughs as she conjures up pictures of them all, the elders and the little ones, seated closely round the table, supping on her pea broth, spreading butter on her rye bread. All these precious things together.
Of a glancing needle like a funnelling spider through a web of skirts, torn sleeves, collapsing embroideries of a lace collar. The mistress always chiding her about frayed cuffs, knees through stockings, but they are children and their play is rough, buttons are lost from shirts, pearls missing from silks bleached in the sun but least said, soonest mended as there’s nothing to be gained by arguing with the mistress, only a loss of privileges. There’s plague in the Port.
No other signs of life in the upper stories of this house are
made visible; not yet anyway. No shadowy presences created by a lightness in the black; no occupants waiting as faces onto this empty street.
And, of men in a similar set of circumstances. How they would behave… go about their business, their daily activities of this way and that? Would they be communicating or not communicating like these women in Vermeer’s painting; the women in Simran Janjua’s Dadi’s
Love? How did men behave; how did they look at their ageing mothers and fathers through the glass partitioning them while the pandemic raged?
Men on both sides of the glass. Men as nurses, doctors,
healthcare assistants, cleaners, porters, technicians, physios participating in the care of those persons who needed intensive care. Men as partners who observed, spoke with their loved ones through the e-portal of a tablet capturing the quotidian of real-life. The only portal.
If I could take your last breath and in doing so have you
without ever letting go.
Never again exhaling for fear
of losing this part of you –
is knowing I must a greater agony than ever having held it?
Atoms of you distilled in droplets of humid air.
This last breath, beholding mine, is a mere intangible; pixels on a screen forming
no part of me.
Your last breath signalling as an online
a dissipation from broken circuitry into dead space.
Still I think about the Dutch women; the exceptional, almost anthropological nature of the images capturing women doing what they do. No obvious narrative or staging or intent to titillate. Never this.
If I could sum up what’s good here is women being shown rather than presented –seen as they are without any agenda.
I like the title of Woman Holding a Balance[iii] with its
darker tones even if there is nothing of the exchange of looks in Janjua’s photograph. There is something so still about them – like you just walked past a room and you’ve noticed them going about their day but they’re not aware of you...yet.
We are so involved with thoughts of looking in but what is it to look out? Our situation… perceived from inside this perspective, this box.
Vermeer shows, in this intersection of what is real and
imagined, the balance of zero. The scales cannot weigh the importance of time, or indeed any other of the human virtues, as if they are gold and pearls – the mercantile objects on display. We wait with this figure of a pregnant woman as she considers the meaning of her life...
...waiting to remove what is borrowed – the mistress’ fur-trimmed robe and the gravid cushion – waiting for the family to stir from sleep and measure time against requests for this and that over and above the usual coffee, milk and bread, waiting to satisy their insatiable need for more. Already there are those familiar first sounds of the baby gurgling, the rustle of bed sheets, the rush to soothe it with a rattle before its cries tear everyone from their beds – even the laggardly Theo. How sounds travel through the house at night and in the early morning. Soon this wait for the master will be over and the day’s work can begin. Soon the laundry, soon the market...
There is a stillness in Janjua’s image only the focus is another human, another woman and not the fascination with an object or an activity. Vermeer is perhaps more about the objectification of women; in Janjua’s it is
the observed interaction with another woman with perhaps more of the subject’s thoughts and emotions on display?
Yes, I agree. But I think it may be included for a sort of visual similarity. Of course there is a lot of heightened emotion, deriving from the pandemic circumstances.
I was looking in it for representations of The Visitation[iv] – when the newly pregnant Virgin Mary visits the older St Anne. In Van Leyden’s version of 1516, there are similar expressions of joy tinged with concern between an older and younger woman. It is mindful of this kind of thing only without the glass separating them, impugning them:
Nalini[v] is a visual essay by photographer, Arpita Shah, which focuses your attention on how three generations
of Indian women connect through a series of images and curios depicting the ‘dailiness’, the quotidian, of their lives. Her mother and grandmother are the essay’s subjects. With the inclusion of a quote by Virginia Woolf from her
lecture, A Room of One’s Own[vi], ‘we think back through our mothers’, the dialectic as it is expressed in these words, shifts and changes, forming new meaning. New cultural referents in Shah’s luminous depictions of
daughterly love. Permeating this thinking is a sense of women waiting, just as the women in Janjua’s photograph are waiting for the air to clear, for the dialectic to resume.
Through her lens, fragments of their lives are shown in a
cloisonné of mothers, daughters, homemakers, gardeners, avid communicators and travellers: pink breast-feathers of dove reflecting the purpling hue of peony; coiled plait of steel-grey hair, pink-pinned with wild roses; fingers, brown
and gnarled like gingery roots, unadorned save for a plain metal ring; flowering bougainvillea framed to a state of near-iridescence by a white chemise.
Audacious and ostentatious, the language they speak spills out from their portraits into the white space of the gallery...
[i] Simran Janjua’s Dadi's Love, 2020, from Reframed: The
Woman in the Window at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Photograph: Simran Janjua; the image was included in the National Portrait Gallery’s 2020 Hold Still exhibition.
[ii] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:The_Little_Street_by_Johannes_Vermeer < accessed 10 June 2022>
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woman_Holding_a_Balance < accessed 10 June 2022>
[iv] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lucas_van_Leyden,_The_Visitation,_1520,_NGA_74818.jpg < accessed 10 June 2022>
[v] Arpita Shah, Nalini: Memory of Things, 2019. Street
Level Photoworks, Glasgow; http://www.arpitashah.com/Nalini < accessed 10 June 2022>
[vi] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Penguin
Modern Classics, 2002), p.34.