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The Lost Art of the Picture Frame

February 3, 2010

frame.jpegWhen I was growing up, I used to think it strange that the mother of a close friend of mine had empty antique picture frames covering almost every spare bit of wall in the entrance hall of her Victorian townhouse. The walls above the stairs were also covered in frames, making the surfaces of the house look like they were adorned with the whites of eyes.

I couldn't understand why my friend's mother liked empty frames so much. I had grown up in a home where my mother sometimes made picture frames, but always filled them up with art of some kind. But now when I visit my friend's mother's house, I think of the empty frames as being rather beautiful.

We have, as a culture, lost interest in the art of framing pictures. The artworks that hang in my apartment don't have frames. If I come across frames in other people's homes, they are often cursory wooden squares from IKEA. If you want to see a beautiful frame these days, you have to go to an art museum. Even picture frame stores don't sell lovely frames anymore. The one around the corner from me has a decidedly ugly collection which it is currently flogging off for as little as $10 a pop. I don't think many people are buying them though -- the same frames have been gathering dust in the window since last summer when I moved into the neighborhood.

I can understand why frames have fallen out of fashion -- they're heavy, nice ones are expensive, and they "hem" work in, rather than giving it a more expansive feeling and connection with the environment around which the art hangs. But there's so much craftsmanship that goes into making a beautiful picture frame. In some museums, like the ones in Moscow I visited a few years ago, the frames are sometimes more enticing than the paintings they contain.

The National Portrait Gallery in London is one institution that is working to preserve the art of the picture frame. Back in 1996-1997, the museum held an exhibition about frames and then developed a website devoted to developing research and interest in the subject. The organization continues to update the site regularly.

Maybe someday picture frames will make a comeback. In the meantime, I might start trawling thrift stores and art galleries for interesting specimens.

PS This blog post has elicited some wonderful responses over the past few days. One of my favorites is from Kary Schulman, director of Grants for the Arts in San Francisco, who wrote to say that the post reminded her of a scene in the Steve Martin comedy, Picasso at the Lapin Agile:

As one character, the art dealer Sagot shows off his Matisse, he points to the frame as its most important feature. He says, "Otherwise, anything goes. You want to see a soccer game where the players can run up into the stands with the ball and order a beer? No. They’ve got to stay within the boundaries to make it interesting. In the right hands, this little space is as fertile as Eden."


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