Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Subject of Art #3: To Frame Or Not To Frame? The Aesthetics Of Hanging Paintings

A frame creates a visual separation between the space depicted in the painting and the space of the room in which the painting is hung, allowing the viewer to see a three dimensional scene on a two dimensional surface. Frames are both asthetic and functional, as an added support for the wood stretchers that the canvas is mounted on, protection for the painting and to keep the canvas from warping. The choice of frame — style and color, or even having a frame at all — has a significant effect on the viewing experience of the painting.

The beginnings of the unframed aesthetic for canvas paintings take place during the late 19th century. At that time, some artists — like French Symbolist painter Franz Von Stuck and the many visionaries who were part of the Art Nouveau movement — began to see the frame not as a separate, complementary element to the canvas, but as a direct extension of the painting, as a way of bringing the painting out from it's illusory space into the real world. They weren't ready to abandon the frames yet, but they were designing them with carved and/or constructed imagery to so closely match the image that the two began to fuse into one. In the early 20th century, painters like Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall went a step further, taking plain wood frames and painting directly on them, allowing the frame to literally become part of the artwork.

These innovations in the presentation of canvas paintings were beginning to deconstruct the idea of the painting as separated from the real world of the viewer by the confines of the frame. However the complete removal of that frame would not take hold until after World War II, starting with the Abstract Expressionists in America.

From the 1950's onwards, many abstract painters began to view the painting itself as an object to be contemplated within the real world and the tradition of framing the painting became an impediment to that vision. The Abstract Expressionists worked at a very large scale, with paintings that were so big that a viewer standing close enough would have their visual field completely filled, in effect bringing the viewer into painting rather than looking out at it through a window. Because the frame tends to denote where the painting ends, it would be contrary to the aims of Abstract Expressionism to allow the painting to be limited by the hard line of the frame. However at the time, collectors and patrons were still under the influence of the tradition and so even these giant canvases may have been framed to satisfy their owner's sense of propriety.

With the advent of Post-Modernism's iconoclastic ideologies in the 1960's, the frame came to be seen as another symbol of oppression and so tended to be dismissed altogether. Painters of this era, like Frank Stella, saw their work from a sculptural point of view, almost as if the painting were a sculpture that happened to be rectangular, made of canvas and painted. Stella quickly even abandoned the rectangular part, experimenting with canvases built in different shapes and configurations that would have confounded any framer's attempt to contain it.

One of the key innovations of this time was the understanding that the canvas material actually extends around the sides of the frame it is stretched over and that there was no reason that the painting should not continue around the sides as well, which had the effect of literally turning the painting into a three dimensional object and rejecting the frame because it would actually hide part of the artwork.

In response to this aesthetic, artists began working on canvases with greater depth, allowing more space on the sides to be painted, and deep canvases (3-4" thick) can be commonly found these days. For others, the painting proper was executed on the front surface of the canvas, but the sides were left uncovered, allowing all the drips and splatters that normally occur during the painting process to be visible and serve as a record of the artist's activities.

Through it all, figurative painters quietly continued the traditions that suited their expression best, including the frame, and as the Post-Modern uproar died down through the end of the 20th Century, the art establishment has begun to take interest in the aesthetics and values that had sustained the culture for so many centuries. As a result, one can find both ideas, the framed and the unframed, in full bloom within the art scene of any community and we are all the more rich for it.

If you are an artist contemplating whether or not your canvas paintings should be framed, consider the following questions:

Do you want your painting to be the window into another space?
A frame will complement the work nicely and you would do best with a studio style, 3/4" depth canvas which will fit the most different kinds of frames.

Do you want your painting to be viewed as an object existing within the room? Consider not framing it and using a canvas with a depth of at least 1.5" which will create more of a presence and give the work more of a three dimensional solidity.

BINDERS offers a large selection of frames in many styles and colors, as well as on-site professional custom framing. Always remember that the possibilities are endless, perhaps you will think of a way to present your art that has never been tried before!

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