How a frame becomes the art

Picture frames are difficult.

Take a picture to a framer, and you will probably encounter bewildering and complex choices.

Frames should, above all, suit pictures. But they should also suit their surroundings. A frame is a kind of no man's land between the two.

A frame isolates the picture, so it can exist in its own world without competition. And it helps to harmonize the picture with its setting. But this is dangerous territory - unless the painting is acquired just because it matches your curtains. But few serious artists would countenance that approach.

A new book looks deeply into the art of framing in the United States. "The Gilded Edge: The Art of the Frame," (Chronicle Press, edited by Eli Wilner) is an impressive, well-illustrated compilation. It aims to foster recognition of the history of picture framing (or "enframement," as some experts term it) in America.

The main point is that the development of framing in the US and Europe gradually diverged until American framing took on unique characteristics. In Europe, frames were long valued in their own right. Far less so in America. The book argues that only now are the virtues of American framing history being seriously regarded.

Generally speaking, it was not until the 1870s that American artists and collectors started to give frames much aesthetic consideration. Some artists today still consider framing literally a peripheral concern. And until quite recently, museums have given surprisingly little thought to the appropriateness of frames to the works they enclose.

Period aptness may be one consideration. A modern frame on an 18th-century masterpiece can jar terribly. But some examples in the book show how subtle effective framing can be. Historical accuracy isn't everything.

"Glass Bowl of Fruit" (1928), by gentle modernist Konrad Cramer, has its reframing story told by the curator of American paintings at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, David Park Curry. The Cramer, he writes, "was compromised by a shiny, cheesy strip molding" when the museum acquired it.

Today it is framed in a veneered molding of the 1830s. This frame sets off the picture with striking dignity and simplicity. But why such an old frame?

"We know," Mr. Curry explains, "that certain early modernists [including Cramer] collected 19th-century popular art - quilts, weather vanes, 'school-girl' pictures, and so forth." They found this folk art "inspiring and reassuring." He suggests that Cramer's still life "gives us a Jazz Age equivalent of a genteel young lady's 19th-century watercolor." So he framed it accordingly.

A hero of late-19th-century American framing to emerge in this book is the architect Stanford White. He was also an art collector, an interior designer, and very sensitive to his and other people's surroundings. He had a burning interest in framing.

White's interest resulted in remarkable frames, two of which are on this page. White was keen on historical frames, and knew a lot about design from different cultures. He must also have realized that a frame isn't necessarily just a utilitarian thing, but can have the air of a shrine or of a precious setting for a valuable jewel. The elaborate frame he designed for the modest portrait of his wife, Bessie (below), does not overwhelm the painting it presents.

Increasingly, from the 1870s forward, artists themselves paid close attention to suitable, original frames for their art. The Georgia O'Keeffe shown here is a case in point. Though usually she used simple silver frames, this remarkable scallop-edged frame is, unavoidably, an integral addition to the work's complete image.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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