Without its frame, where does the image begin?

What is the frame?

First, let’s clarify that we’re not talking about the rate at which images are called to be displayed on a screen or the frame narrative used in literature, we are discussing the frame as in the closed outline that delimits an image.  

Baigneuse allongée sur le sol (1885), frame and painting by Degas, pastel on paper, Musée d’Orsay

In the wider sense, a frame is a border, a limit to an image’s support. So, technically, the edge of an artist’s canvas, the border of a photograph or the edge of a table are all frames. But not really. So why doesn’t the concept of frame hold up when talking of tables or saucers? Perhaps it is because tables and saucers are (most often) objects and not representations. Frames frame representations, ideas. This would lead us to a first understanding of what frames are: a contact point between two worlds, the “real” world and the world of representation.

However, it would be wrong to say that banal objects such as tables or saucers can’t become frames. If the surface of the object is used to represent, like this in this instance below where Brazilian artist Vik Muniz depicted a “Medusa Marinara” in 1997 with his spaghetti, then the contour of the object becomes the frame that holds the interpretation/representation. 

Does the frame validate the image or does the image validate the frame?

The chicken or the egg?

Looking at Vik Muniz’s Medusa, it seems to me that the representation made the frame. So which comes first, the frame or the representation? Perhaps the answer is both. A frame can allude to a representation by simply framing it. A representation has to stop and its limits will by default become the frame.

The frame used as a form of authentication.

The frame prepares the eye because what is framed requires your attention. The frame’s role is to ease our eyes from the “real” world into the artist’s representation and prepare our minds to fully take in the representation. 

Our eyes are trained to pay attention to what is framed, so much so that if a banal item such as cracked plaster is framed, we’ll look into the cracks for a deeper meaning. If it is framed then there must be a message to decipher, right?

In the frame of wall art, framed plaster (2005), by Esther Ferrer.

The frame contains the representation.

Frames hold worlds. They contain the representation of an artist and often prevent the representation from bleeding into the “real” world. With frames, we are allowed to freely cram alien images next to one another. Should a representation be given its space? Should the idea be given room to express itself? I believe so, or is hanging diverse representations next to one another a representation in itself?

Despite the restricted breathing space between each representation, each world is contained by its frame. The frame prevents one world from trespassing onto another.

Can a representation be unframed?

A representation can be devoid of a frame but it will by default always be framed by its borders.

Mark Rothko’s art, hung without frames at the Tate Modern.

Above, Rothko’s work is hung without frames but each piece is triply framed. They are framed by their limit, framed by the space between them and framed by the lighting. What is more, the pieces in this room dedicated to Rothko all talk the same language, they do not represent the same thing, but they come from a common ground. Perhaps a little bleeding from one painting to another is what we’re after here.

The frame is an opportunity.

Every good representation deserves a good frame because the frame is what will engage the eye. The frame should complement, elevate and give importance to the representation. Matisse thought that the sides of a frame were “the most important parts of a picture”. Van Gogh spent hours figuring out how to frame his paintings. Degas went as far as to invent and customise mouldings to frame his paintings. These artists wanted their art to be seriously considered. They understood that to open the door of the mind, the transition between this world and theirs had to be perfectly smooth.

A page of Degas’ Carnet de croquis (1878-79), Degas sketches various frame mouldings, Départemente des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Like books with good covers tend to sell more, representations with the correct frame have a higher potential of being absorbed and understood by the spectator.

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