The frame helps viewer interpret the art

March 08, 1998|By Glenn McNatt

THE announcement last week that the Baltimore Museum of Art will remount its collection of Matisse paintings in traditional frames has set me to thinking about how frames change the meaning of artworks.

There is a quite dramatic example of this at the Walters Art Gallery. The museum has a lovely "Madonna and Child" by the 15th-century Florentine painter Fra Filippo Lippi. The work is mounted in a heavy, gilt wood frame carved to resemble a window.

The interesting thing about this picture is that part of the Madonna's halo is cut off by the top edge of the frame. The effect is to make the Madonna appear as if she were standing just outside a real window and the viewer were seeing her from inside.

Thus the frame constitutes part of an optical illusion that directly connects the pictorial space occupied by the Madonna with the real space occupied by the viewer.

This was a revolutionary device, because it implied that the Madonna's existence could be confirmed according to the same visual rules that applied to the real world.

By putting responsibility for judging squarely on the viewer, Lippi's painting affirmed the central place the Renaissance assigned to the human observer. It represented the new attitude that reality was something to be judged according to human experience rather than divine revelation.

By contrast, you can see the older, medieval conception of reality in the "Madonna and Child" painted a century earlier by Italian master Naddo Ceccarelli, also at the Walters.

Ceccarelli's Madonna is framed by a gilded wooden case for religious relics that is carved in the shape of a church. Her placement on the case shows that she is connected to the church. But the space she occupies in it is symbolic, not real. Her relationship to the church -- and its significance for us -- is something that we take on faith, not observation.

In both the Lippo and Ceccarelli Madonnas, the frame serves a much more important purpose than simply protecting the picture. It tells us how to interpret the picture, and in doing so reveals much about the basic values and beliefs of the age that produced it.

In later periods, the frame assumed a more purely decorative function. The Italians and French liked ornately carved, gilded frames, while the Dutch preferred simple black ones. But in all cases frames were devices that helped integrate pictures into the decor of a room while at the same time setting them off as belonging to the separate realm of art.

By the 19th century, however, artists had begun to question the conventions represented by traditional frames. Photography, for example, called into question the relationship between reality and art. The minute accuracy of a photograph was itself a window on the world whether or not it was accompanied by a frame. Moreover, photography's claim to visual truthfulness had begun to push painting away from literal representation and toward abstraction.

As the literal space of realistic painting gradually dissolved into the psychological space of abstraction, the frame became less a window on the outside world and more a symbolic boundary of inner consciousness.

Contemporary art, largely preoccupied with exploring the interior landscape of consciousness, often dispenses with the convention of the frame entirely. For the contemporary artist, the total environment in which the artwork is experienced constitutes its frame, as it were.

The implication of this late 20th-century view is that the world of perception, which for the Renaissance artist was the ultimate test of reality, is just a setting for the true subject of art, which is human consciousness.

I'd love to see one of our museums mount an exhibition exploring the role of frames in different periods and in different cultural traditions. For example, the pedestal of a Greek or Roman statue can be thought of as a kind of frame, in the sense that it sets the object off from the world.

Likewise, the famous Baga headdress at the Baltimore Museum of Art is a piece of religious sculpture that only assumes its full meaning when employed in the ceremonial dance dedicated to its female deity. The dance is the frame that tells the viewer how to interpret the sculpture.

I'm sure there are many other such examples. If the Affair of the Matisse Frames stimulates curators and museum officials to come up with creative exhibits that challenge us to see familiar artworks in a new way, all the controversy will have been well worth it.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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