Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Art of Frames

Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend a unique workshop on frames, sponsored by the Appraisers Association. The morning session was held at the studio of Eli Wilner & Co., a company that specializes in restoration work on historical frames and reproduction historical frames. In this first picture I took, one of the studio workers showed us a frame made by American architect and designer Stanford White (1853-1906), and he explained the difference between the sections that were carved in wood and the other parts that were made from compo (or composition), a plaster-like substance that uses molds to make decorative components. You can see the sample molds as blue strips in the lower right. The second picture below is a detail of a frame being hand-carved by one of the skilled wood carvers. These days they use computers to generate the patterns on paper, which are then applied to the wood, enabling the carver to understand what sections are carved out and what is left behind. We also learned more about the process of gilding frames, and I participated in the opportunity to apply gold leaf to a wooden frame. You use a special application brush that lifts the gold leaf almost magnetically and then you gently apply it to the water-brushed surface of the frame. After it dries it is buffed to make it shine. I'm actually abbreviating the process. Technically, there is wood, then gesso, then liquid clay or bole, on top of which the gold leaf is applied. Needless to say, I was amazed at how much more complex the making of a frame actually is. During the afternoon session we had a fascinating "frame history lesson" with Suzanne Smeaton, a specialist in the history and valuation of American frames.

Because of this workshop, I have to say I think I can now look for some general signs of carving or compo, what the color of bole coming through the gilding may mean, and what the difference between a miter joint and a miter joint with a spline is. Before I went to this workshop, I knew zilch about frames, except what I liked, and it has so inspired me to learn more that I'm actually reading Timothy Newbery's Frames and Framings in the Ashmolean Museum (2002). Although the whole day was geared toward appraisers, as the market for historical frames has increased, it was very interesting to go as a curator because I feel it is important for me to consider at times the frames along with the historical paintings in the collection at Columbia University. Without proper documentation and provenance, it is very difficult to know if a particular frame is the genuine one for a painting, but at least I think I can now do a basic survey to determine if a frame is at least historically close to the time period of the work of art itself. Putting this new skill into practice is going to take a lot of time, of course, so I am not making any claims to be an expert, but I do hope I can at least now do some quick, general assessments over time.

Taking this further into aesthetics, I am now also finding myself interested in actually looking closer at frames in museums. For instance, if you look at the glorious frame above, which is from the Robert Lehman Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can see that it is gilded and carved wood. The tombstone information for this frame also states that it is made of oak, from France, and dates from ca. 1690. During the reign of Louis XIV, French frames reached an apogee in design and style, as did all fine and decorative arts under the influence of the "Sun King." The gilding on this frame would have enhanced the presentation of the art work, particularly in candlelight, giving the work a beautiful glow. This is an ogee frame, meaning that, seen from a cross-section, it has an S-curve that rises from the outer portion and slopes inward toward the picture. The effect of this would have been to draw one's attention into the picture plane, enhancing the intended three-dimensional effect of whatever painting would have been in there at the time. The detail you see here of the lower left corner shows well the remarkable skill in the wood carving, although obviously there is some noteworthy wear and tear considering its age.

Aside from the materiality and history of frames, it did occur to me, over the course of the day, how frames are both painterly and sculptural objects. Because they are so closely attached (literally) to paintings (or photographs, drawings, etc.), we perceive them as part of the two-dimensional art world. But, in fact, the way they are carved or molded follows very closely the methods that are followed in a sculptor's studio. Frames thus are related to fine art, but they are also decorative objects. Their intent is to harmonize a painting with an interior space. These days we are accustomed to seeing framed painting on museum walls, but the long history of easel paintings reminds us that these works were intended for the home, and thus the frame was needed to enhance or decorate the interior space. Frames also change over time based on the taste of an owner. Hence, more modern-looking frames occasionally have been added to historical pictures to make them more appropriate to styles like mid-century modernism. The trend these days, of course, is to return paintings to period frames whenever possible, and places like Eli Wilner keep in stock thousands of actual historical frames from the past for exactly that purpose. But frames are complex creations. They have an in-between status, being two-dimensional and three-dimensional, painterly and sculptural, fine and decorative, all at the same time. Indeed, thinking about them from this perspective makes us realize they are fascinating artistic objects worthy of their own further study and examination. Consider that the next time you walk into a museum and look at your favorite painting by Rembrandt or Van Gogh. You be surprised to discover how its frame impacts the work you see before you.

UPDATE 10/4/15: No sooner had I published this blog post, when Hyperallergic published this article/review by Allison Meier about French frames from the 17th and 18th centuries. Warning readers/viewers to "prepare to be blinded by the gilding that encircles each work like an overwrought halo," Meier reviews the free exhibition currently being held on this topic at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. It looks like an interesting exhibition, but alas I won't be able to get to it before it closes in January.

No comments: