PRINT Summer 1982


WHY IS IT THAT a painting is fundamentally conceived of in terms of the finite object and not as a property of a continuous surface existing in time ad infinitum? The concept of the painted surface is often confused with that of “the canvas.” I propose that painting be thought of as an enormous roll of diversified fabric, woven in a single piece and unrolled in time and in space. This surface extends for miles and miles but never appears on display. Its continuity is interrupted and broken up—cut into—to form innumerable fragments and portions of canvas (paintings), creating intervals and separations the understanding of which could greatly influence our way of thinking about and seeing painting, or for that matter continuity in the history of art. I turn my attention here to this “cut”—commonly defined as the “frame” or the “limits of the painting”—in order to discover its history. The artist knows that the cut must ultimately be mended—that at a certain moment in history a tendency will develop to sew up the gap between canvas and environment, to shape or expand the boundary so that the work is no longer perceived as separate, but as integrated back within the body of art.

If each painting is considered as a cut-out portion—and therefore an incident within the entire process of art—the specific cut can assume a larger meaning and broader connotation. It is a lesion, a wound, a tear, a slash, an action within the field of art. The gesture of the cut makes possible the condition of artistic “diversity,” and is the origin of the power of art; to emphasize the boundary means to point out art’s specific concerns and to delineate a sacred enclosure. By detaching the fragment from the whole this laceration renders the fragment’s surface independent and mobile, and transforms it into a vehicle that is no longer tied to the original context, but adapts to the structure of its environment. Through its survival instincts, art’s “body” reacts and tends to suture the wounds and sores. The result is a scar or thickening—a frame—which functions as a defense, constructing a barrier which wards off and repels the isolation imposed by the cut.

Art, in fact, defends its open, lacerated boundaries by transforming them into appendices linking it to its environment. Unable to effect an umbilical reconnection with its original body, art accepts these connections, shaping frames for itself that respond to its own fragmented forms. The frame therefore relates like a skin to its content, resulting in various possibilities of form, from the naturalistic to the abstract, which are associated with the fields of furnishing and design. As the frame takes on this decorative disguise, the area it defines—the internal surface of the painting—is glorified by the crystallization of the painted surface. But this glorification is in fact a kind of death. In museums and galleries in particular, art is placed under glass and defended, and isolated, by security systems. Its physical properties are obscured, causing the public to lose all contact with the materiality and the porosity of canvas and paint; everything appears sleek and smooth. While seeming to be protected art is made untouchable; that is, immaterial and ideal. This process is a subtle one, but it has the effect of further mutilating the of body of art, rendering it devoid of reality and making negotiable items from its stumps.

On the other hand, the scar/frame could be said to take on the courageous role of combatant on the behalf of art. In the iconographic investigation that follows I will examine certain solutions whereby the frame confronts the boundary as a place of passion and expression. I have chosen work that delegates to the border an artistic function and a relationship to its environment—frames that can overcome the isolation of an artwork in favor of an expansion of its esthetic interest.

Initially the frame was a simple ornament appended to the work of art. Then it began to play a role in one’s perception of the art, finally becoming itself an autonomous sign. This dynamic has evolved over a long passage of time, and it would be an immense task to discuss all the developments within it. To initiate an investigative line of thought, however, several questions can be posed: what is the function of the boundary in relation to the codes of the real world? Is art merely indifferent to these codes, or is it in fact actively different from reality? Or is it a membrane through which various analogies with reality are filtered? Or, perhaps, is the frame an intervention between art and reality?

The frame does in fact have the purpose of positioning the pictorial object in the world. It is an enclosure which isolates art and identifies its “separate” reality. If we briefly analyze the history of the frame we can see that its introduction in the representation of images is tied to a process of solemnization of the subject; the pictorial figure is distinguished from the supporting wall, and this distinction subtends its “otherness.” The artistic representation is, therefore, an occurrence made separate from reality, which is perceived as similar and inherent to, but not the same as, its representation. This sort of visual celebration of reality can be seen in an illustrated frontispiece to the writings of Terence, dating from the 5th or 6th century A.D.1 Here a framed circle isolates the portrait of the poet; this commemorative medallion sits on a pedestal and is supported by two masked figures, establishing a sacred enclosure around the image of the face. The framing devices distinguish and concretize the “representation of the world” as art. This is no trivial function: it satisfies a real need. The framing enables art to establish a concrete and a mimetic role for itself. Art affirms its existence through its efficacy and its powers of transformation; the frame is an index of both the autonomy and the difficulties of artistic investigation. The laceration or cut, then, along with the consequent scar or frame, can be seen as a sacrifice—as a demonstration of art’s willingness to be mutilated for the sake of recognition as art. And the frame is the point at which art reclaims its dominion, designating its territory and construction.

This tendency to establish a separate space is perpetuated throughout the centuries. The altarpieces of the 14th century, for example, from Simone Martini’s to Paolo Veneziano’s, are celestial architectures within which the sacred and spiritual world is closed off and protected, thereby attaining meaning and equilibrium. At this point frame and religious representation are harmonious; articulated by gilded and linear pinnacles and planes, they exalt one another and partake in the same rituals. This is the result of the merging of religion and art. The moment that art avoids the subject matter of the world and, in its closed-off space, attempts to evoke the incorporeal, its illusoriness becomes the basis of its structure. Objectifying the nonperceptible (the divine), the painting becomes the space in which the Idea-made-physical finds unlimited play.

From the 8th to the 14th centuries the Bibliae Pauperum interweave texts and illustrations in which the writing decorates and reveals the image, just as the images illustrate the text; they frame one another. Other illuminated books, too, from the Evangelarium to the Tacuinum Sanitatis, executed by the clergy, have numerous pages in which the figure is reduced to an ornament of the written sign and to typographic characters whose illuminated sections reveal allegorical scenes and celestial encounters. Here, too, the frame, be it written or drawn, is not an inert, still thing. Its shaped characters emphasize the confusion and antagonisms between story and image. Through its edges and apertures the arguments intertwine and influence each other. There is a fragmented unity of seeing and reading; both follow a path toward a vision of the religious as everyday reality.

Once it is established that the art space draws its “reality” from a cut and a scar, which frame and contain the discourse (both written and visual), the visual representation becomes a detached product among other distinct products. It occupies a portion of the surface—the page, the floor, the wall—and it is a visual opening in the literature and in the architecture. It follows that the frame should be an architectural fragment, in harmony with the building of which it is a part, be it sacred or profane. Within the frame the real and the imaginary coexist and are dedicated to magnifying or elevating the rituals of the temple or building. In the Renaissance the frame begins visually to include posts, lintels, columns, doorjambs, and friezes, so as to be more consistent with the surroundings and to assume the concrete aspect of an architectural window. From the work of Masaccio to that of Piero della Francesca the frame assumes the form of an ancon or bracket, taking on a structural character, seeming to merge with buttresses and arches. It opens up an alcove or visual niche, where the relationship between interior and exterior space can be reinterpreted. The frame seems to create an illusory and potential opening in the wall; in alluding to the wall, it alludes to the territory outside its borders. It indicates, therefore, an expanded space; one might even say that its piercing force magnifies that space. Thus, during the era associated with the colonnade or loggia (I think of Andrea Mantegna’s Pala di San Zeno, 1459), the frame and the architectural construction deal with space in similar fashion. The frame is meant to change one’s conception of its interior space, which is no longer confined to the sacred world, but rather deals with the visual complexity of the larger environment. Paintings of the 15th century no longer adhere to a predetermined configuration, but to an organization determined by their placement within architecture. The frame of a religious painting is no longer an element that contains the viewer’s vision, but rather one that expands it with its weight and architectural consistency. And so its form evolves from the gilded membrane to the architectural fragment, a rigorous, substantial, and strongly plastic support.

If we continue along this line of development to the Baroque period, the frame, with the work of Correggio and Titian, assumes the form of environmental decoration, taking on the shape of rosettes and arches, doors and windows. It becomes even more an expression of and a part of the architecture that surrounds it. The sensual and expressive aspects of the frame become more pronounced at the end of the 16th century; the Baroque culture forges a strong link between painting and theater, and the frame, faced with a dramatic encounter with the art it circumscribes, becomes a “stage set.” It is transformed into an imaginary proscenium which isolates the stage on which the painted figures act. The frame must compete with the rhetoric and complexity of the pictorial scene, and it becomes embellished with sculptural elements—twisting, spiraling, and flowing shapes. It is crisscrossed with compositional junctions and integrates icons and symbols; each detail, from flower to skeleton, from putto to serpent, refers back to a long chain of figurative memories which the material exalts for their sensuous celebration of both life and death. In the 17th century the cut and the scar become sumptuous, obsessed with both flesh and history. There is no longer even a vestige of transcendence; the frame’s components become supple and elastic to the point of turning into unbridled decoration—morbid and intrusive forms whose ambiguous beauty is wedded to that of baroque architecture. This push toward sensuality and this dormancy of rationality produce enclosures of monsters and caverns of phantasms, in which painting is lost within boundaries of the horrible and the terrifying, if also the impossible and the marvelous.

This harmony between the arcane and the fantastic diminishes with the development of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Optical extravagances are no longer allowed as art seeks to dissolve its theological bonds, giving itself over to secular concerns. Everything that was illusory, sensual, and magical is disavowed in favor of the scientific, impersonal, intellectual, and philosophical study of the represented subject. The 18th century mind (as represented, for example, by the work of Alessandro Magnasco and Ferdinando Bibiena), sees in painting, and therefore in its frame, something autonomous, capable of having its own meaning and mental weight. The window begins to close in on itself, to gain a conceptual inwardness; it is no longer a reliquary or votive chapel which opens to the spiritual world, but a self-reflexive object whose existence glorifies only the existence of an autonomous system, that of art and its visual mechanisms.

Denied as a transition between the real world and the represented or imagined world, the frame can only refer to itself. It no longer effects perspectival alterations, creating a space through illusionism; rather it becomes an “artifice,” a blind theatrical prop detached from space. It has an order autonomous to itself and existing independently of whatever it will contain. It is during the 18th century, in fact, that the artist/artisan dichotomy produces a compartmentalization of production, each group fulfilling its given task, painted canvas versus carved frame. The visual enclosure is now seen as an independent product, to be adapted at will to the painting. With the dissolution of any tie between painting and frame, frames become creative, imaginary, transparent, and subtle planes which “feign” a relationship with the painting, but in fact exist in self-glorifying expressiveness. They abut the painting’s edge, but they ignore it, existing in a state of purely rhythmic scansion. And so they may become very thin or very substantial, taking on the aspect of a frill or a baldachin which filters or annuls the presence of the wall.

At this point in history one can no longer avoid the problem of the frame as an independent object with its own grammar. An intimate link between the enclosure and its pictorial territory can no longer be pretended. The frame as partition faces the world as an autonomous unit; it finds its own independent course and begins to investigate its own nature.

By the mid-19th century artists start to face this intrusive presence, and to attempt to resolve the issue of the coexistence of painting and frame. No longer is the painting submerged in the frame; the process is reversed—the frame becomes absorbed by the painting. With Art Nouveau, the linear and architectural ornamentation of the frame are seduced by the sensual embrace of the painting. The frame takes on the threadlike and superficial forms of plants and aligns itself with the pictorial surface, becoming an extension of it. Painting and frame fluidly affect each other with reciprocal images, as in Jan Theodoor Toorop’s The Song of the Times, 1893, in which, through flowing hair and echoing patterns of graphic line, a complex universe spreads out from the painted surface to a carved surround. Here the frame is not only outline but image, depicting both a foreshortened sky and the macabre beauty of a skull. Everything develops on the painted surface, but it is as if the vitality of the painting’s iconic and linear rays suffuse everything around them, threatening to jump even farther than the frame to the wall. Through the curves and serpentine shapes unleashed by his figures, Toorop aspires to translate the world into arabesque. The environment that previously isolated the art is turned back on itself, and it is the frame that is responsible. In Vincent van Gogh’s Lemons, Pears and Grapes, 1887, in which waves of color from the fruit change direction and spill over their container, the frame is painted and echoes the chromatic sign. It is no longer oppressed by what lies beyond it, but is rather the seducer of that outside world. In van Gogh’s work the idea of maintaining contact with the outer world (everything can be painted) stems from two sources: his knowledge of the calligraphy which, in Japanese prints as in Dutch miniatures of the time, surrounded the depictions of people and exotic landscapes; and his visit to the studio of Georges Seurat, an artist who would paint the borders of his canvases to simulate real frames.

Van Gogh, disturbed by the intrusiveness of the gilded 19th century frames which outshone his bright palette, expands his vision to encompass not only the painted image, but its borders as well, as early as 1889. Chromatic bands define the total absorption of the frame by the pictorial process. The edge of the canvas is seen as important to one’s perception of it and is therefore treated in reductive and emphatic fashion. Seurat, on the other hand, muffles the edge and keeps it within the pointillist palette; but with both artists the frame’s status evolves from serving as an introduction to the painting to being an intrinsic part of the painting’s system: it becomes one figure among many—an equivalent to the painted surface.

In the past, in accordance with the belief in the superiority of the fine arts to the crafts, painting has claimed supremacy over the frame. At the end of the 19th century, painting—from Max Klinger to Gustav Klimt, from Toorop to Jens Ferdinand Willumsen––attempts to overcome the laceration that has differentiated art from its environmental support. There is an attempt to demonstrate that the border of the painting can be involved with the poetics of the painting itself. The use of the plastic, elaborate frame by Willumsen in his Jotunheim, 1892, and of the photographic frame by Fernand Khnopff in his studies, Woman and Girl, 1890, express an unconditional faith in the total work. Here the frame is no longer a boundary of art, a cut in one’s view of a painting, but is part of the mechanism of seeing the work. It is a framing device for the eye (photography is at hand) and an intertwining of painterly and sculptural materials. At an unstable period in the culture, the Symbolist and Post-Impressionist modes give reassurance that esthetic and visual principles will dominate reality. No longer can one differentiate between surface and nonsurface; art intends to unify pictorial space with what lies outside it, and the esthetic pursuit touches all frontiers, including that of the frame.

This in turn gives rise to a tendency to empirically derive art from reality. Both Cubism and Futurism attempt to transport art across its traditional boundaries and into the real world. Thus the painted surface is no longer confined to a sacred realm and becomes a part of the world of objects. Pablo Picasso refutes the principle of imitation and assumes the value of materials in and of themselves. Paint and form are independent from the representation of painted things; what matters is the process and the technique of art.

In this search for art’s active function reality is no longer a point of departure, but of arrival. A painting establishes itself as a real thing; and if the internal space of the painting is equivalent to the space of existence, the periphery of the painting is as essential as the center. In his Still Life with Caned Chair, 1912, and his Pipe and Sheet Music, 1914, Picasso uses the frame as both a concrete principle and an abstract system. In the first example the rough texture of the cord that outlines the oval reminds one that the work of art is a common fragment, lifted from the real world. In the second case the frame is painted, along with a plaque bearing the name “Picasso;” the painted object reveals its artificiality as a drawn and painted sign. Both paintings convey a similar concept of reality: the authenticity of the image equals that of the world.

This materialization of painting is subject to an objective escalation, the progression of which finally comes to encompass not only things, but the environment itself. With Cubism, and with the contemporary Futurist movements in Italy and Russia, painted surfaces become fields of energy in which objects interact from center to outer boundary. The frame is transformed from a stage set for the visual field into an actor, a mirror, and a garment. In Giacomo Balla’s The Hands of the Violinist, 1912, for example, the frame responds to the dynamic of the musician’s movements and assumes the form of a triangle. Within the triangle the painting fans out from bottom to top, almost as though the image were pushing apart the boundaries of the painting so as to arrange itself in a “photographic” (then called “chronophotographic” [E. J. Marey] or “photodynamic” [Anton Giulio Bragaglia]) sequence. Attempting to mimic the progression of gestures, Balla conceives a frame that alludes to it.

After the frame has entered this sympathetic rapport with the painting, a new concern can begin to emerge. With Dadaism and Surrealism the frame itself becomes a focal point, and attains a power to create on a par with that of the artist. Around 1920 Francis Picabia executes his Danse de Saint Guy, remade in 1949 with the title Tabac-Rat, in which the space delineated by the frame is not occupied by canvas at all, but contains a few pieces of string which cross the frame longitudinally and on which rest three pieces of cardboard. One of these fragments has Picabia’s name handlettered on it, the other two each have one of the work’s two titles. The physiognomy of this “painting” flaunts the liberation of Dadaist art. The empty surface, scattered with signs and objects, frames the role of the frame and gives artistic sanction to any piece of the world inserted within its borders. With this piece Picabia assigns to the frame the function of a magnet, capable of attracting any and all objects. In his works from 1923 to 1925 the enclosure that isolates the painting from the wall attracts to the surface within it buttons, corks, paint, nails, and so on—almost as though to register the “simultaneous development and contents of all events in the world.”2 And so the frame is transformed from an immobile object into a focus of tension. In keeping with the typically cannibalistic attitude of Dadaism, it opens itself up to stinging insects and butterflies, tooth picks, and mirrors.

This disquieting aggression at the edge of the painting corresponds to a defensive calm at the center. With Surrealism comes the realization of the objective facts of the psychic interior, as an interest develops in the life and activity of the human mind. Painting begins to describe appetites for food and sex and is transformed into a “skin” which makes manifest internal events. The frame likewise becomes a “second skin” which swathes the anatomical and psychic fragment. In Couple with Head Full of Clouds, 1926, Salvador Dali uses the shapes of the two figures in Jean-Francois Millet’s Angelus as frames around a landscape of the unconscious, replete with mysterious deserts and out-of-context objects. In The Representation, 1937, René Magritte embellishes a female nude with a gilded wood outline, as if to suggest between the frame and the paint an amorous relationship based on an erotic caress.

This fusion of “bodies” however, is only one of several 20th century developments in the frame. The tracing of the transformations of the frame throughout Modernism—including such practices as the complete abandonment of the frame by some artists and the view of the gallery, museum, or art audience itself as a sort of context-establishing frame—is too large a task to do more than suggest here. Such a study, however, would have to discuss that art in which little value is attributed to the frame—in fact the frame is next to ignored, in order that the work may pass unimpeded into a social and architectural context. For Piet Mondrian and Georges Vantongerloo painted form has more significance than reality, and they feel no need for any contact or mediating device between art and the real world; for them the frame is a false problem, to be thought of only as an imagined, invisible partition. Elsewhere the frame exists as an actual object, as in the work of Theo van Doesburg and El Lissitzky, but it is translated into a polychromatic, controlled, and rational architecture. Here, there is no differentiation between surface and frame; both convey a sense of edge and definition. What matters, then, in their work and what follows it, is the fully developed rhythm of the “whole”—both the picture and the environment—which includes the following progression: painting, frame, wall, room, building, city, territory, earth, universe.

Germano Celant is a contemporary art historian and contributing editor to this magazine.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. C. Bertelli, Grammatica della cornice, in “Rassegna,” Milan, December 1979, pp. 33–41.

2. R. Huelsenbeck, Dada-Halmanach, Berlin, 1920, p. 35.