EasyFrame

Displaying Art: Framing Ideas from History — Post-Impressionism to World War Two

For the third instalment in our “Displaying Art” series, we’ve been looking at the picture frames created between the Post-Impressionist era, which emerged in the 1880s, and World War Two.

What did frames look like at the beginning of the Post-Impressionist era?

As we discussed in our last blog, the 19th century was a period of increasing variety when it came to picture frames. Ornate, gilded frames remained popular, largely due to the invention of compo (a kind of moulded resin that mimicked the appearance of carved wood), however – particularly towards the end of the century – many artists began to favour simpler, more modern styles.

While some of those artists belonged to the Impressionist movement (most notably Edgar Degas), others were followers of a new trend, Post-Impressionism, that pushed back against an emphasis on naturalism; these artists began to experiment with bright colours, abstraction and symbolism. Key artists within Post-Impressionism were Paul Cézanne and Van Gogh, whose “Still Life with Grapes, Pears and Lemons” we’ve spoken about previously because of its original frame (painted by the man himself).

The Post-Impressionist artist who was most active in rejecting the conventions regarding picture frames was the Pointillist Georges Seurat. Not only did Seurat opt for plain, simple frames, he was also known for creating a double frame effect by painting a margin around the edges of his works. In his most famous work, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” there is a clear border around the edge composed of fine blue, red and orange dots, which merges subtly with the objects within the picture. In addition, the painting is contained within a specially designed white frame, which provides a fitting contrast to Seurat’s busy, colourful scene.

In Seurat’s later work, “Evening, Honfleur” this idea was taken even further. Where before the margin was painted onto the canvas, here it is painted directly onto the frame. Seurat hand-painted this frame himself, using a complementary colour palette that has the effect of extending the picture – a calm coastal seascape – beyond its own boundaries. In the case of an even later work, “Le Cirque“, the margin merged into the frame; look closely at this famous work and you will note a fine, dark blue border painted onto the canvas and blending subtly into the painted blue frame. In making this choice, Seurat seems to suggest that artwork and frame are indivisible.

As we’ll see, this idea of merging art with frame would be taken up by artists outside of the Post-Impressionist movement.

What did picture frames look like in the early 20th century?

At the beginning of the 20th century, many different movements were jostling for attention in the art world. Post-Impressionism gave way to Fauvism, and Symbolism to Art Nouveau. In the United States, American Realism came into its own; in Germany, Expressionism began to gather steam, and in Italy, Futurism became the most exciting new trend.

Across the board, artists began to experiment with new styles of picture frame. Futurists such as Giacomo Balla created works in which the image extended onto the frame, as can be seen in this study from 1914, “Abstract Speed + Sound“.

In the world of Art Nouveau, meanwhile, the picture frame found new life. As photography became more accessible for ordinary people, frames shrank to fit the images. In response, Art Nouveau craftsmen such as Hector Guimard began creating small, decorative frames, such as this one from 1907.

It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s, though, that artists began to take true leaps forward with the picture frame.

How did picture frames change during the 1920s and 1930s?

As we have seen, artists at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries began to play with the conventions surrounding picture framing. By painting directly onto their frames, they began to suggest a new approach to art, in which the work had a life of its own, beyond the confines of its frame.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Surrealist painters began to play with this idea more seriously – and in particular, the relationship between spectator and artwork. A painting such as Rene Magritte’s “The Human Condition” invites the viewer to consider the way in which they observe and interpret works of art. By placing a painting within the painting, Magritte plays with the idea of what is real, and what is surreal; we are forced to remind ourselves that the scene outside the window is just as artificial as the painting depicted on the easel.

This playfulness extended to the treatment of framing for Surrealist painters. In 1936, Salvador Dali created “Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds“, a pair of paintings depicting a desert scene within two head-shaped frames. In this instance, the distinctive framing lends another dimension to the artwork that goes beyond the scene on the canvas.

In the same decade, Hannah Gluck developed her own picture frame style: the Gluck frame. This frame had a distinctive three-step arrangement, jutting out towards the viewer. The vital feature of this frame was that it was designed to be painted the same colour as the wall on which it hung, thus merging it with its surroundings – and not the artwork, as in the case of Seurat.

At the same time, American painters dabbling in the surreal were also experimenting with unconventional frames. American frame maker George Of created frames for a number of painters associated with Alfred Stieglitz, including Georgia O’Keefe. The best example of his work dates from 1935 and was created for O’Keefe’s famous painting “Ram’s Head and White Hollyhock“; though made by Of, the design came from O’Keefe herself, who had been inspired by indigenous crafting traditions in New Mexico.

As we will see in our next instalment of this series, picture frames continued to develop and change, particularly after the Second World War. But until then, why not do a little framing of your own? With EasyFrame you can design and order your own custom-made picture frame, and have it despatched to your home address within just three days.

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