“Close the shutters!” Is what 19th-century French caricaturist, Charles Amédée de Noé, proclaimed upon viewing Edouard Manet’s The Balcony (1868–9). Sitting at Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the painting is a reminder of the transgression against conventional norms. Manet’s characters, all acquaintances of the artist, are consumed in their own longing, seemingly removed from any sense of a collective story. Although today one of the artist’s most famous works, this style of representation was highly contested at the time, given paintings were expected to be bound by a strong narrative. Just like Noé, critics claimed Manet showed disrespect towards his characters, given figures in the background — like the flower pot or the dog — were depicted with sharper detail while the faces seemed left as an afterthought.
With the balcony as the nucleus, a symbol of the convergence between the private and the public, was Manet prioritizing the introspection of the individual? On the balcony, facing the outer world while letting in a glimpse of our inner life, wouldn’t we be rightly caught up in contemplation? And when that happens, don’t our surroundings blur a little — or from the perspective of spectators, don’t we disappear in the distance, while the details housing us — the wooden railings, the glass panels, or our oversized outdoor plants — take centre stage?
It’s 7:30 PM and I hear bells in the distance followed by loud cheers. At this time of the evening, it is now customary for residents of Toronto to pay tribute to the hard work of all our front-line and essential workers, who are working tirelessly to keep our public spaces functioning. Two balconies down, my neighbours are whistling in solidarity. Across the street, I see a family clapping from the sixth floor, while the daughter is snapping pictures from the edge of the glass corner.
During the last few months, in many cities around the world, balconies became tiny patches of freedom, a permissible exile from our private lives, while the outside is out of bounds. At the same time, what was typically reserved for the enjoyment of that unit’s dwellers has now expanded into a public opportunity for connection and community.
In Europe, lockdown stories abound of individuals reconnecting with neighbours living across narrow streets, forging new romantic interests through the steel railings, raising the spirits of the neighbourhood via suspended recitals, or joining in from their balconies to sing the national anthem. In Canada, we’ve been cheering every evening from the comfort of our glassed existence to thank those that serve us. Whatever the action, it was possible through our modest flirtation with the outside world.
In ancient Egypt, balconies were first designed to serve public addresses. Progressively throughout ancient civilizations, balconies were built to give a privileged vantage point for the ruling class when enjoying public festivities. The Roman forum, for example, had such upper balconies installed for better viewing of gladiator performances. In times of war, the fortified balconies (called hoards) provided additional defence and improved the range of fire. The Venice Biennale rightly described the balcony as a structure that “balances safety and engagement with the world below.”
During the Renaissance, balconies took a rather romantic quality. Perhaps the most famous visual representation is marked by Rome and Juliet’s ‘balcony’ scene, where the two protagonists profess their love for one another. While historians claim the balcony itself is not mentioned in Shakespeare’s play, given they were not part of architectural norms in England until later, balconies as a site of raring romantic rebellion during the Renaissance were still as much of an ideal then, as they are in film and television culture today.
Through the window, one could escape confined norms and shed themselves from imposed ideals and expectations. As much as it was an enticing liberation, the invitation to freedom was also limiting — a balcony, or window in this case, could only get you so far. As Juliet remarks when lamenting Rome’s departure, “Then window, let day in and let life out.”
In the 20th century, balconies became the infrastructure of influence. They were used as a platform for those in power addressing over the masses, just as much as they were a tool for the masses to overthrow power.
In the 1968 French protests, students used the balcony as a site to bypass state censorship, by connecting radio equipment to residential telephone lines. This allowed them to continue broadcasting the activities live from the streets.
When President Regan visited West Berlin in 1987 to advocate for the demolishment of the Berlin Wall, residents wrote anti-American slogans on bedding and displayed it off balconies.
And on June 5th, 1989, the balcony was the reason Jeff Widener, a photographer with the Associated Press, was able to capture his iconic ‘Tank Man’ photo from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Most recently, Brazilians took to their windows with pots, pans and chants, protesting against President Bolsonaro after he made remarks denying the coronavirus crisis.
In a connected and broadcasted world, balconies are at the heart of expressing political dissent. A safe place where you can see and be seen — albeit discreetly — while still participating in communal struggle and celebration.
I look out to the building across the street. I see a Mexican flag wrapped around the concrete panels. In the adjacent tower, the wind is swiftly waggling a rainbow-coloured umbrella. During Pride celebrations, many other colourful flags envelop the neighbourhood. One balcony below, a young resident is watering the plants. The bells keep ringing, but the cheers are slowly dissipating.
I think back at Manet’s Balcony and his aloof characters caught in a daydream. On the balcony, we are observers as much as we’re observed. We display introspection and manifestation simultaneously, unveiling just as much as we’re sheltering. While stepping out in the public extension of our private lives, we engage with ourselves, each other, and the world — while partaking in the discourse of our time.
During periods of crises, in cities around the world, the balcony — or window — sat at the centre of how we connected with the outside world. Balconies became a symbol of solidarity, an individual expression in a collective pursuit of public reform.
So to the critics of Manet, I say, let’s open our blinds widely and tell the world, from our balconies, that we’re in this together, and we shall prevail.