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New York University Frame Conference

A report by Lynn Roberts

The frame conference, From Classicism to Expressionism: A Synthetic Approach to the Frame, organized by Lisa Koenigsberg, was held at New York University and the Brooklyn Museum of Art from 18 to 20 March 2004. The standard of the papers was generally high, but some presentations stood out, either for the enthusiasm of the speaker or for their contribution to academic debate. One of the most notable examples of both was Michael D. Hall's riveting lecture, 'Main Street Profiles: Pictures, Frames and the American Scene'. This delivered a cataract of 20th-century American frame designs, examining their physical structure and the influence on their design of primitive and Oriental art.

Marco Grassi, the conservator and consultant, gave an intriguing paper on 'Early Renaissance Looking-Glass Frames', copiously illustrated with examples of those frames where slots held sliding shutters to cover the glass, some still retaining their painted shutters. The style of these small, intimate objects ranged from Classical aedicular to Mannerist, dying out in the face of the larger Baroque glasses of the 17th century; the two previous centuries had produced some delightfully elaborate confections of putti, scutcheons, masks and crests.

Marilena Mosca's paper, 'Frame Carvers and Designers in the Medici Workshops', was an extremely able examination of 17th-century Florentine botteghe and some of their most notable craftsmen, Il Volterrano, Foggini, Crosten and Marmi, illustrated with examples of their work and by designs from the Pitti Palace. These and others will appear in her book, written with Jennifer Celani, The Medici Frames (Cornici Medicee), to be published in spring 2005.

New light was shed on Degas and his frames by Elizabeth Easton of the Brooklyn Museum; she considered not only the artist's designs in his sketchbooks, but how they were brought to life by Cluzel, his framemaker, and by the understanding of his patrons, Mr and Mrs Havemeyer. She also noted that some of the few painted Degas frames on his work in American collections contain titanium white in all the various paint strata, thus dating those paint layers after 1921. Like the Havemeyers, the American collector Dr Albert C. Barnes was interested in Impressionist frames, and like them used American-made versions of the artists' designs, which have previously been regarded as original.

Eva Mendgen spoke on the frames of Stuck, Klimt, Munch, Kandinsky and Klee, and their relationship to the exhibitions and interiors where they were displayed, whilst Richard Ford of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, discussed the frames of Nolde, Kirchner and Die Brücke. The members of Die Brücke were interested in the blending of art and craft, painting and architecture, although Kirchner's 1906 manifesto advocated smashing all picture frames. Nolde trained as a furniture maker, and produced his own frames, painting them black and red, or black and white, to make 'the strongest possible contrast' with gold French frames. In the 1920s he, like Gauguin, used 'primitive' motifs of animal gods and birds, although he also incorporated Classical ornament (guilloche and Greek fret), Spanish motifs and Gothic vines into his designs. His last works were framed in grey or dark-stained wood, and hung on bright yellow or blue walls. Schmidt-Rottluff and Kirchner experimented with finishes; the former used silver, bronze and aluminium; the latter bronze leaf, benzedrine and wax. Kirchner sought for harmony, as against Nolde's wish for contrast; many of his frames used stepped profiles, and were later variously coloured.

Tracy Gill, frame scholar and consultant, gave a paper on the Aesthetic Movement in late 19th century America, discussing the frame in both its narrow and a wider sense, showing Aesthetic interiors and the motifs which articulated the frames in this style, whilst Susan Larkin spoke on 'Childe Hassam's Frame Choices', the subject of her essay in the catalogue of the Hassam exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art, in June 2004. A critic had noted in 1921 that 'Childe Hassam was most active in designing the frame to fit the picture', and this paper showed how Hassam manipulated the viewer's perceptions through the variety of his framing: European and American, new or old, adopted designs or his own. He admired Whistler for his art and his approach to display, copying his reeded frames, and producing a version of Whistler's Lange Leizen frame with chinoiserie motifs for his own Chinese Merchants (bought by Whistler's patron, Freer, and now in the Freer Gallery of Art). From 1912 until his death in 1935 Hassam used the Milch Gallery framemakers, devising new frame styles with them, which were often ornamented with foliate swirls and including his initial 'H' carved in cursive script in a circle. These monograms were generally repeated with varied orientation on the four frame rails, so the frames could be reused as landscape instead of portrait, or vice versa. A later aedicular frame, for Greek Women bringing Fruit to an Altar, was carved with sunflowers on the pilasters by a William Kirchner, whilst for Colonial Quilt Hassam used an actual window frame as a setting, mimicking the painted window within the image.

Nannette Maciejunes of the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, discussed 'American Modernist Artist-Designed Frames', based on the collection of Ferdinand Howard, an early 20th century businessman. Much of his collection was framed by Robert Laurent, a sculptor and woodcarver from Brittany, trained in Paris and Rome; some works were framed by the artist Max Cunie, who decorated and painted his frames, and others by a framemaker called Prendergast, who favoured a chunky, hand-crafted style.

Peter Cannon-Brookes spoke illuminatingly on the Tradescant paintings in the Ashmolean Museum while Tessa Murdoch of the V & A gave a paper on 'Architect-designed Frames for the Grand Domestic Interior, 1690-1750'. This covered the work of the Huguenot Pelletier family for Ralph Montagu at Boughton House, including carved and gilded furniture and frames, and amounting to the vast sum of £2,000 by Montagu's death in 1709. The Pelletiers were succeeded at Montagu House by James Moore and John Gumley, who also worked for the Royal Family, the Duke of Buccleugh, Lord Macclesfield, the Earl of Burlington and at Blenheim Palace; they influenced William Kent's designs for looking-glasses, just as Flitcroft influenced his Palladian picture frames.

Other papers covered the structure of the frame, gilding, the Auricular frame, Spanish frames and altarpieces, the makers' stamps on 18th-century French frames, the Italian influence on American frames, and the minimalist frames of the late 20th century. The conference was attended by Paul Levy, who was to be created a Cavaliero at the Italian Embassy in New York for his services in restoring a Renaissance altarpiece frame to its original church in Italy.