What’s in a frame?

By | August 30, 2016

Having just returned from FRAME Symposium organised by AICCM (Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material) and the National Gallery of Victoria, I feel like I have stumbled upon a hidden treasure. Admittedly, not terribly aware of frames before hearing about the Symposium, I was excited and curious to explore this aspect of artwork further. My most recent research on Edgar Degas proved useful, as he revolutionised the concept of frame as an artist’s statement by designing his own surrounds for pastels and oils. But what I saw at the Symposium was a keen interest in this seemingly disposable feature, and a drive to preserve the artist’s vision, as well as the rich and complex skills of traditional frame makers.

How often do you go through a gallery bypassing the frame and concentrating on the picture? Well, if you are like most people – then pretty much always. It can be argued, too, that if the frame does its job well, it is unseen, yet enhancing of the art it surrounds. So we might look at a painting and feel that it’s perfect, just the way it is – a little package of brilliance, where the work and everything about (and around!) it is in balance. Contemporary artists have that balance in mind when choosing a frame for their finished work – or maybe even incorporating frame into the work as it is being made! A frame can become a signature of the artist’s style. Nick Olsen’s urban landscapes are a perfect example of a signature finish that harmonises with the work. His oil on board paintings feature panels of oil fitted as a mosaic layer through the actual work, placing the idea of the frame inside the painting. It’s a bit like the red soles of Christian Louboutin – instantly recognisable!

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If we look back a little further, though, there are plenty of examples of works that utilise frame as an inseparable part of the artwork. Gustav Klimt sketched his Judith and Holofernes (1901) several times with the frame, which he envisaged in unity with the painting. George Seurat’s dots in Evening, Honfleur (1886) spread into his frames, acting as both the extension of the painting itself and the frame that surrounded it. And Edgar Degas’s Danseuse au Repos (c.1879) may look unconventional in a plain white frame to someone used to seeing ‘old art’ in traditional gilded frames. However, framing conventions changed with history, evolving in accordance with the fashion, religious inclinations, political statements and artist’s personal beliefs – always influenced by the world around them. The 19th century in particular saw an explosion in frame varieties, with artists wanting to present their work as distinct from traditions that their viewers were accustomed to.

Hopefully, seeing these paintings in their original frames will make my readers, too, appreciative of these artists’ visions. Of course, the frames are not necessarily a focus for artists. Contemporary art sees plenty of unframed canvases, and frames that are put on for the sake of a finish to an artwork. But when this finish is designed by the artist with as much thought and care as the work it surrounds – attention must be paid. Preserving and presenting art as it was intended by the artist is the duty of today’s conservators. And as a curator and an art historian, I hope that this duty is equally shared by museums, their directors and curators.

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