Picture the Frame

Paintings have often been upstaged by their flashy surroundings, prompting artists to fight back

A PARISIAN art dealer once bought, at an exorbitant price, a painting by Matisse called ``The Young Sailor II.'' But then he began to worry. ``Afraid that he would never be able to sell `The Young Sailor,''' writes art historian Pierre Schneider, ``he did what art dealers in that predicament so often do: he had a spectacular frame built for the picture.'' It was sold within 24 hours to an ``eminent collector.'' The implication is obvious enough, even if it is not particularly palatable: The most ``eminent'' collector of paintings can be swayed by an extravagant frame.

Frames, throughout their history, have frequently been treated as persuasive ``packaging.'' Sometimes their involved and convoluted decorativeness has openly acknowledged this doubtful role by an elaborate display of carved ribbons and swags, flowers and fruit - often fascinating and splendid in itself, making the painting more or less unnecessary. Instead of being enhanced, the image contained by such a frame can only too easily be overwhelmed. Instead of playing a supporting role, this four-poster-bed of a frame, isolating a picture from its surrounding wall, completely upstages it.

It was not ever thus. Early frames - in the Middle Ages - were sometimes quite literally ``supports.'' They physically helped to hold together pictures painted on panels made of more than one piece of wood. They countered shrinking and warping. Earlier still the frame was actually made of the same piece of wood as the painting within it: The lower painting surface was carved out, leaving the ``frame'' in relief.

If the function of such frames was to delineate the image, more frequently, in Gothic churches, the frames were virtually part of the architecture and images seemed almost subservient. Holy pictures were contained within elaborate, compartmented constructions which were free-standing and echoed the architecture of the church itself - nave and aisles, arches and pinnacles.

So the historical background of the picture frame is self-contradictory: On the one hand it was architecture-in-miniature, with the contained images subservient. On the other, it was simply the interval between the depicted world of the painting and the ``real'' world outside it. The frame announced ``here the picture ends,'' although sometimes the picture crept up a little over the frame, just to assert its independence.

That paradox has continued, and artists have variously seen the frame as a necessary bane or a final and glorious enhancement of their work. Some artists have often found frames an intrusion.

The Italian Renaissance painter, Fra Bartolommeo, according to the biographer Giorgio Vasari, raged at the frame makers of his day who ``habitually covered an eighth part of the figures with the projecting inner edges of the frames.'' His solution was to paint a frame around one of his panels, ``a niche in perspective, which had the appearance of being carved in relief.''

It is intriguing that in the late 19th century, Georges Seurat, a pointillist, felt the need to paint a border - in the same pointillist technique as his pictures, but depicting nothing - around some of his paintings. These margins served a dual purpose. They enabled him, and not the frame, to determine precisely where his painting ended on its four sides; and they provided an added kind of breathing space, a quiet interval, between the illusory realism of his picture and the hard cutoff of the frame.

The 20th century has rebelled with characteristic disrespect and inventiveness against convention in framing. Pablo Picasso framed one of his Cubist still lifes with a length of heavy hemp rope.

More recently painters whose very large works seem to extend in all directions prefer the most minimal of frames: mere battens nailed to the edge, or the canvas simply taken around the stretcher (the hidden framework that holds the canvas) and nailed or stapled behind. Some paintings have just had their edges taped. The conventional materials of wood, gesso, plaster, and gold leaf have been challenged by aluminum, steel, plastic - even cork, linen, burlap, and sand for texture. Anything is possible. No rules.

On the other hand, some modern artists have acknowledged the edges of a painting as so crucial that their paintings have been built in response to it. Frank Stella's ``pin-stripe'' paintings are the classic instance. They are, arguably, all frame - frame within frame within frame, reducing with geometrical progressiveness from outer edge to center point, or from center point to outer edge. When these paintings were made in the late '50s, early '60s, they were seen as a reaction against the free-flow, no-edge - no frame - works of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline.

Ironically, perhaps, Stella's subsequent development has taken the influence or pressure of the painted image on its framing edge to extremes. This resulted in canvases of fairly unconventional shape and wild multidirectional painted constructions that Pollock and Kline never remotely visualized. They tended to ignore the frame edge, if possible. Stella has exploited it.

In any case, the issue of the ``frame,'' either as constructed and emphatic, or as implied conventional sides-top-bottom, is far from dead in our century. Instead, it has been transformed by the wish to escape strict rules, and then sometimes reasserted by the need for rules again.

One thing is certain. It is no longer enough to think of a picture frame as an equivalent for a window frame or the frame around a mirror. The day of frames as architecture or furniture are - or should be - over. And if not, then surely the day is over for frames as symbols of affluence or status. Good paintings are too self-sufficient to be dolled up in fashionable frames like dowagers in florid hats and pretentious pearls.

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