The Little Girl in the Window
I'M accustomed to working alone so, recently in my studio when I became aware of another sort of presence, it took me a while to acknowledge the fact. Set against the light of a large window, Elizabeth observed me. What is she thinking? Her face is no artist's invention but a life portrait, common to memorial windows. It's both bland and intense. It's a child's face - but? For nearly a century she has been staring out of her window. Gradually, perhaps out of courtesy, I found myself falling into conversation with her. Age and neglect have brought her near to physical collapse and she spent some years in a dark basement where I rescued her. Our conversation began with trivia. I said that her high button shoes reminded me of yellowing photos in my grandmother's album. She observed that the works in progress in my studio - I am a designer of stained glass - have no pictures.
I acknowledged that this was so. I explained that as a young art student I had once been inside St. Chapelle in Paris on a stormy day. Strong sun touched the windows, kindling them into a blaze of reds and whites; these were projected onto the floor and colored all the interior of the intimate chapel. Moment by moment, swiftly passing clouds quenched the sun and the windows were transformed into smoldering blues. The air around me pulsed with this rising and falling of color, like music. Since then I have tried to recapture that presence in my own work.
Elizabeth's eyes and lips are painted vitreous enamel in subtle colors fused to the surface of the glass. She has a lifelike appearance, thanks to skillfully executed techniques. To assure her of my knowledge of craftsmanship, I pointed out to Elizabeth how the intricate lead pattern in the field of lilies surrounding her supported her figure.
I suddenly became aware of her cold silence. I paused. She quickly let me know that I was doing all the talking. She didn't like small talk, compliments, or technical observations that depersonalized her. She also resented being talked down to, as if she were a child. If we were to have a dialogue, I must be quiet sometimes and listen to her.
Then she said something that surprised me: ``You're hiding something from me!''
What had I to hide from her? Then I remembered a single slide in my lecture on stained glass. It's of a window in her style. I include it because it's so ugly. It illustrates how opalescent picture windows clamor for attention. They often have no unifying color and give muddy interior light. I've never liked them. I agreed to restore Elizabeth only on a whim. Guiltily I moved away from her penetrating gaze.
Around the beginning of our present century, Tiffany and the Art Nouveau style of the opalescent window took America and Europe by storm. They were exuberant displays of technique suitable not only to churches, but to office buildings, restaurants, and fine houses of the day.
Such windows still grace stairwells of large Victorian houses. They imitate the pictorial effect of paintings through the use of a milky-colored glass. Painted enamel colors, tones, and linear perspective contribute to the window's impression of space. Though some examples like Elizabeth are very fine, their style is more often characterized by novelty and aesthetic decadence.
The opalescent glass artist preferred large pieces of glass to paint upon. Lead structure was regarded as a nuisance. Though necessary to hold the window together, it was minimized. Elizabeth's figure is a perfect example of this: Her face, hair, and shoulders are one piece of painted and etched glass; the rest of her, her midsection and the bottom of her skirt, are two other pieces of glass. Her boots are separate pieces.
These types of windows push the technical limitations of the medium to the breaking point. Many have fallen apart. Those that survive require frequent renovation. Shocks like the sudden pressure of wind against the brittle glass are absorbed by the soft lead. Large pieces of glass, as in Elizabeth's case, stress and weaken the leads supporting them. Many lead joints around her had broken. I resoldered them and strengthened the lead surrounding her. With proper care she should be witness another century.
There I go again, talking too much, dwelling on technical and aesthetic problems to evade my uncertain feelings about her. I attribute the coldness in the studio to a lack of fuel. I stoop down to feed my wood stove. I continue, keeping my back turned against her relentless gaze, for I know she would interrupt me.
European cathedral windows of the 12th and 13th century represent the high point of stained glass. Some examples of unsurpassed beauty have survived more than a thousand years. Their pictures are composed of small pieces of colored glass set into a structural matrix of lead and steel. Painting is subordinate as the leads are designed to be the linear outline. Essential elements of structure provide a rich black contrast to the light-animated glass.
Windows of this style don't shout for attention. They harmonize with the interior cathedral setting to produce a heavenly light. It is this abstraction of light and color that people talk of when they mention Chartres Cathedral.
Elizabeth airily dismisses my passion for aesthetics. She pooh-poohs my concern with structure. She manages, as aristocrats do, without seeming to display insult or bad manners, to say that I am prejudiced. She doesn't care for dark old church windows, techniques, or the limitations of my knowledge. She won't be ignored - she demands that I like her as she is.
Art comes to us as a surprise, and it provokes us. It strikes a relationship between the object and the viewer, as that between Elizabeth and me. Art tests what we confidently know, as a child tests an inflated balloon with a pin.
Art is as much in the warm emotional pictures and stories that Elizabeth tells as it is in the perfection of structure and color of past centuries that I understand and emulate.
Elizabeth as a picture portrays art's timeless eloquence. That wins the argument. When our conversations are over, I'll miss her.