Art museums are in essence frames. A museum separates the art it contains from the chaos of the outside world and encourages aesthetic appreciation. We enter The Art Institute of Chicago through doorways framed by a monumental Renaissance Revival façade. Inside, the walls, ceilings, and openings of the original 1893 building that houses the European paintings collection are articulated and scaled by an extensive vocabulary of moldings that define each surface. These borders subtly clarify our perception of the solids and voids that together create a series of containers in which our attention is concentrated on the paintings hanging framed on the walls.
Through most of history, art in the service of god or king was integrated into the very fabric of society. Frames and museums served specialized functions if they existed at all. As the modern, multifarious society developed and old beliefs faltered, the frame became progressively disengaged, and the modern museum was born as an institution and structure designed to contain the art of all religions and civilizations and to present it to an ever-increasing public. In the 20th century, there has been growing pressure to blur the distinction between life and art and to subvert the role of both frame and museum. One could even date the crisis of today’s museum, trying to function as an appropriate setting for much of the art of our time, to that fateful day when Malevich allowed his paintings to float, frameless, up the wall and when Picasso irrevocably destroyed the distinction between the frame and the elements within the picture itself.
While there has been philosophical musing on the role of the frame, none is as eloquent as the Spanish writer Ortega y Gasset’s essay “Meditations on the Frame,” presented here in English for the first time. Pondering the necessity of the frame, he asked at the end of the essay why oriental paintings are not framed. As Okakura Kakuzo observed:
The tea room is absolutely empty, except for what may be placed there temporarily to satisfy some aesthetic mood. Some special art object is brought in for the occasion and everything else is selected and arranged to enhance the beauty of the principal theme. One cannot listen to different pieces of music at the same time, a real comprehension of the beautiful being possible only through concentration upon some central motif. Thus it will be seen that the system of decoration in our tea rooms is opposed to that which obtains in the west where the interior of a house is often converted into a museum.
The Japanese have no need to frame their paintings. In the tea room, architecture and frame are one.
This publication is an annotated handbook of the European picture frame from its 14th-century origins to the end of the 19th century, when its underlying assumptions were challenged. Through it and the exhibition it accompanies, the Art Institute’s Department of European Painting has focused on its superb collection of frames in the belief that today it is more important than ever to understand the historic role of the frame if we are to fully comprehend the paintings of the past and the challenges facing museums in the future.
Many have contributed to realizing this book and the exhibition, but both owe their conception to Richard R. Brettell, Searle Curator of European Painting. Their final form bears the stamp of his persistence and wide-ranging intellect. Patrons are normally more attracted to exhibitions of paintings than of frames! Thus, we are particularly indebted to John Nuveen and Co., Inc., for underwriting the costs of the exhibition and to the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation for making possible this publication.
The exhibition and publication owe a great deal to Paul Levi, London frame maker and historian and consultant on frames to many museums, who came to the Art Institute in 1984 to examine our European frames. His inventory not only confirmed the importance of our frame collection but also led to our commitment to focus attention on it. We are grateful to John Brealey of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for suggesting at the outset that we talk with Mr. Levi.
In the Department of European Painting, we would like to thank Mary Kuzniar, who supervised the logistics of the inventory, and Geraldine Banik, who typed manuscripts for the book. Also to be thanked are Martha Wolff, Gloria Groom, and Olivia White, who assisted with the installation. The provocative design of the exhibition is the work of Chicago architects Paul Florian and Stephen Wierzbowski. Exhibition graphics as well as design of other pieces related to the project were generated by museum designer Mary Grace Quinlan.
In connection with the book, Art Institute Frame Technician Steven Starling has been instrumental. We are grateful to him for his careful cataloguing of each frame, as well as for the thorough essay he provided. For their intelligent and sensitive editing of the book and efficient management of its production, we wish to thank Associate Editor Robert V. Sharp and Publications Intern Tom Fredrickson. The book’s superb photography is the work of John Mahtesian and John Geiser, of the museum’s Department of Photographic Services, under the supervision of Executive Director Alan Newman. Michael Glass Design, Chicago, is responsible for the book’s arresting design.
Finally, we would like to thank the many departments in the museum—Conservation, Museum Registration, Public Affairs—who provided essential support, as well as Assistant Director Katharine Lee, and Dorothy Schroeder, Assistant to the Director, who coordinated the diverse departments involved in the complex exhibition.
James N. Wood, Director
The Art Institute of Chicago