The Dialogue of Object and Frame


May 06, 1991|By HIRAM W. WOODWARD Jr.

Artists make works of art; curators tend to be responsible forthe frames. Frames are not only pieces of wood around an oil painting, they are case fabrics behind a small bronze, the appearance and content of a label, the color of the wall.

Even more broadly, much that belongs to the viewer's share of the museum experience, for which the curator is less responsible, can be considered frame: powers of sympathy and intuition, knowledge and memory, and tired feet or an empty stomach.

Seldom is there an installation in which frame has loomed as large as in the mid-19th-century Hackerman House of the Walters Art Gallery that opened yesterday. The art is the product of other cultures, and few of the Chinese, Japanese or Koreans who created it could have imagined that it would ever have such a frame -- one with a particularly strong and distinguished character.

What we sometimes tend to forget is that everywhere, and throughout history, this is the way cultures have interacted: foreign objects have been put in familiar frames. In fact, not to put the object in a frame, to leave it inviolate in its original setting, is to learn nothing from it. Books are translated and discussed; works of art are photographed and interpreted. Civilizations develop when there is interaction -- a dialogue -- between the foreign object and the frame, and when the frame -- our own culture -- changes as a result.

In the court circles of mid-18th-century France, Chinese porcelain was sometimes framed with elaborate gilt-bronze mounts. Chinese porcelain exported to Europe in the 18th century ranges from wares indistinguishable from those made for domestic use to objects with specifically European shapes and designs. The double-fish celadon vase falls somewhere in the middle: The shape is an adaptation of an auspicious traditional Chinese Buddhist emblem; the glaze is of a type seen on palace wares in the mid-18th century. Yet more examples probably survive in the West (two pairs are at the Walters) than in China.

Once this fish and its mate reached France they were outfitted with mounts in rococo style. Sheaves of grain and spreading leaves embrace the vase, breaking up its contour and transforming it into an absurdly awkward ewer. The vase holds itself in, tight as an egg, a glassy, textured egg. The glittering mount -- the hard and heaving pretending to be soft and light -- invades our space and that of the double fish to an approximately equal degree.

It was because the porcelain was precious -- wonderful to look at, inviting to the touch -- and had such a beguilingly exotic character that it deserved assimilation into the world of rococo charm and fantasy through the addition of gilt-bronze mounts.

At the same time, the vase rebukes its frame: tells it that it is too frivolous, that its naturalism is too literal, and that it has no propriety or decorum. Indeed, shortly after the mounts were made, criticisms such as these led to the downfall of the rococo style and the rise of neo-classicism.

The mounted double-fish vase stands at one crucial moment in the meeting of East and West. Another occurred in the late 1870s and the 1880s, when what is known as the aesthetic movement widely affected taste. The Japanese pavilion at the international exposition in Philadelphia, 1876, at which William and Henry Walters purchased nearly 400 Japanese objects, stimulated the new attitudes toward decoration, encouraging asymmetry, juxtapositions of patterns and textures, the interplay of flat surfaces, and a generalized rather than literal naturalism.

Because of the historical importance of the aesthetic movement, a room in Hackerman House, the Japanese Study, has been decorated in such a way as to suggest the environment in which an American collector would have placed Japanese objects in the 1880s. The room incorporates furniture in an Oriental style made for William T. Walters' 1884 gallery.

The dialogue between object and frame in Hackerman House goes beyond that seen in 18th-century mounted porcelain or in the Japanese Study.

Hackerman House stands on a historic square created around the Washington Monument. Mt. Vernon Place itself is part of the frame. A competition for the monument was announced in 1813, and Robert Mills was chosen as architect in 1814. In Mills' winning design, later modified, the monument had six balconies, onto which people could step to read inscriptions around the shaft concerning the events of the six years of the Revolutionary War. When the older architect Maximilian Godefroy, designer of the Battle Monument, saw this proposal he belittled it as the pagoda of Bob the Small -- the balconies looking to him like the tiered roofs of a Chinese pagoda. There has been a dialogue of East and West on Mt. Vernon Place from the beginning.

Baltimore is a city that some people have thought of as inward-looking but it is also a port city that has looked outward. The dialogue between object and frame has a past. May it also have a future.

Hiram W. Woodward Jr. is curator of Asian art at the Walters Art Gallery.

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