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How frames can define our perception of art

While the structure of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling helps define Michelangelo’s frescoes, 400 years later Jackson Pollock abandoned frames altogether. Andrew Graham-Dixon traces the historic relationship between images and their boundaries

I have been thinking a lot about frames and edges lately: the places where works of art begin and end, and where they meet the world that surrounds them. Both are vital aspects of the experience of art, and both are peculiarly ill-served by reproduction, which habitually turns every picture into a disembodied slide or screen-grab: scaleless, placeless, whirled into the great sensorium of our increasingly virtual world.

There is no better example of the way in which a work of art can be denatured by reproduction (none that I can think of, anyway) than the fate that has befallen perhaps the most celebrated work of art in the world: the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It is very difficult to think of Michelangelo’s masterpiece without calling to mind certain details made world-famous by the cropping and blow-ups of the reproductive process: above all, perhaps, the hand of God outstretched towards the hand of Adam; but also the many achingly beautiful figures that are Michelangelo’s ignudi, which stand so well as isolated images, extracted to an ideal art gallery. But to become fixated on such details is to become oblivious to the actual meaning, the grand and even terrifying majesty of Michelangelo’s entire scheme.

Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Photograph © Musei e Gallerie Pontificie, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City  Mondadori Portfolio  Bridgeman Images

Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Photograph © Musei e Gallerie Pontificie, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City / Mondadori Portfolio / Bridgeman Images

The only way to appreciate how the whole of his pictorial machine works — and it is a great machine, every part locked to every other — is actually to stand underneath it and submit to the implacability of its design. The ceiling’s meaning is linked irrevocably to its frame, which is in effect the very building that contains it: the central chapel of Christendom, as it was in Michelangelo’s time.

The last time I was there, I was struck by the overpowering momentum of the painter’s design: in particular, the way in which it moves us from unity and perfection towards failure and fragmentation. The story that unfolds in the nine great narrative paintings based on the Book of Genesis starts at the end of the chapel above the high altar. There we experience the majesty and power of God, as he separates light from darkness, creates the sun and the moon, calls the earth into being and breathes life into Adam.

The pictures that follow speak of sin, loss, time and death. Adam and Eve partake of the apple. The world is struck by the deluge. Finally, Noah lies slumped, drunk, naked in the eyes of his sons: a terrible image, both pathetic and bathetic, with which to end.

These later scenes are far more disjointed than those with which the sequence begins. Their compositions are fractured, so much so that the figures in the flood seem almost as if blown hither and thither within the frame that contains them, scattered like leaves in a gale. 

According to one school of thought, this is to be accounted for by the fact that Michelangelo actually painted the second half of his story first, at a time when he was still struggling with the scale of the ceiling. Only when he moved his scaffold along, in preparation for painting the rest, did he realise that he had to increase the scale of his figures and simplify his compositions so that they might be read from the great distance of the chapel’s floor: hence, or so the argument goes, the comparative grandeur and certainty of the images showing God the creator at the altar end.

When you leave the chapel and walk into the streets of Rome, you enter the final scene in Michelangelo’s story: the fallen world of modern life

But I think such an interpretation of the ceiling does insufficient justice both to Michelangelo’s intelligence and to his severity of intent. The subject of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is the tragedy of man’s alienation from God. It follows, therefore, that as man falls further and further from unity with the divine — from creation to fall, fall to flood, perfection to drunken foolishness — so, too, is his descent from perfection mirrored in Michelangelo’s art. In fact, such is the annihilating confidence of the artist’s use of the chapel itself, as a framing device, that you might say it includes the whole world in its structure of judgement.

When you leave the chapel and walk into the busy streets of Rome, you enter what is, by implication, the final scene in Michelangelo’s story, namely the fallen world of modern life: the post-diluvian world of temporality and death. It is the temerity of the Sistine Chapel ceiling to be framed in such a way that even what lies outside it is made to be part of its meaning. I can’t think of another work of art that frames all of human experience with quite such intimidating confidence.

Viewed from a certain perspective, the history of Western art itself since the time of Michelangelo has been one of progressive alienation from God — or at least from the sense of certainty that once stemmed from unshakeable religious belief. Approaches to framing the world, and indeed picture frames themselves, are important parts of that story. 

For André Félibien, a 17th-century French art theorist, ‘The frame is the painting’s pimp’

As art gradually came untethered from the fixed systems of Christian belief, from the 15th and 16th centuries onwards, so works of art migrated from their fixed place in church and became portable objects: things of barter and exchange, valued for more nebulous reasons — beauty, or force of expression — than faith alone. Frames were originally invented for the purely practical purpose of protecting the vulnerable edges of pictures when they had to be moved. But as art itself became ever more secularised, and therefore ever more mobile, the frame assumed an ever greater number of functions.

For André Félibien, a 17th-century French art theorist, ‘The frame is the painting’s pimp.’ I like this as a description of how the rather grand and gilded frames of French rococo paintings work on the eye: the porcelain dolls of the ancien régime, dreamily called into being by the erotic imaginations of painters such as Fragonard or Boucher, would be far lesser creatures were it not for the elaborately gilded frames that serve, like the proscenium arch of a theatre, to give consequence to their artful posturings.

But to Félibien’s adage I would add that the frame is also the painting’s protector — a necessary buffer against the vicissitudes of the world that surrounds it. This was particularly true for the Romantic generation, that group of painters who so decisively twisted art towards personal expression. The more fragile their subjects became — fleeting effects of light, fugitive impressions of nature — the more the Romantics felt the need to armour their works against the charge of mere eccentricity or idiosyncrasy. It is telling that both Constable and Turner had a habit of choosing particularly thick and sturdy frames for some of their smallest and most evanescent paintings.

Howard Hodgkin, Keith and Kathy Sachs, 1988–91. © Howard Hodgkin. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Howard Hodgkin, Keith and Kathy Sachs, 1988–91. © Howard Hodgkin. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery

This is a tendency that has persisted to the present. Howard Hodgkin, one of the finest of all living painters, uses the frame as a buffer to such an extent that he actually paints on it, collapsing the distinction between the image and that which contains it. 

Just recently, while looking through an old interview I did with him on the subject of frames and edges, I was struck by the extent to which he stressed vulnerability as the motive behind his method: ‘When I began as a painter, there was this strong feeling that you had to protect what you had done. It had to be impervious, to go armoured into the world. Without the frame, that particular central image would be vulnerable in all sorts of ways. One of the reasons that I use frames in the way that I do has to do with my instinct that the more tenuous or fleeting the emotion you want to present, the more it’s got to be protected from the world.’

There are also other, more aggressive modern traditions of framing. Picasso, the greatest of the 20th century’s many enfants terribles, used the frame almost like an offensive weapon. He had a habit of putting some of his boldest Cubist experiments in finely carved Renaissance frames. In his case, this looks like an Oedipal tactic, a way of underlining just how thoroughly he had slain the old ghosts of Western painting and indeed the very nature of painting as it was once thought of: a window looking onto a sacred truth. 

The painters of the New York School did away with frames altogether. Some of the larger paintings of Jackson Pollock look almost as if they want to venture beyond their own edges

Putting his pictures of a fractured world in ancient and venerable frames was another way, for Picasso, of killing the father. Half a century after Cubism, the painters of the New York School did away with frames altogether, hanging their large canvases without edge or border, as if to suggest that they had arrived at an art form that exceeded composition itself. Some of the larger paintings of Jackson Pollock, in particular, look almost as if they want to venture beyond their own edges: they are like images whirled out of the painter’s gestures like a centrifuge, inspired perhaps by the idea of an ever-expanding universe.

It is in the very nature of modern painting to be edgy, to live on the edge — both figuratively and literally. Wandering through the National Gallery in London the other day, it occurred to me how lacking in ‘edge consciousness’ (to coin a phrase) many of the great Renaissance painters were. What needs to be at the centre of their pictures — generally Christ, or a saint — does indeed occupy the centre, while everything else leads the eye to that point of sacred significance.

Step forward into the 19th and 20th centuries, and the difference could hardly be more pronounced: picture after picture seems to lead the eye not towards the middle of the canvas, but towards some half-framed obliquity, whether a face or a hand or an element of landscape.

Edgar Degas, Swaying Dancer (Dancer in Green), 1877–79. Photograph © Museo Thyssen-BornemiszaScala, Florence

Edgar Degas, Swaying Dancer (Dancer in Green), 1877–79. Photograph © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza/Scala, Florence

For me, Degas is perhaps the edgiest of all the founding fathers of modern painting. He is an artist who positively revels in stressing the provisional, almost accidental nature of what he has to show us, by engineering all kinds of strange cropping and cut-offs: a ballerina prancing out of view on one leg; a headless oboist; street scenes framed as though photographed by accident.

In such ways does Degas assert the melancholy credo of 19th-century realism: life is a broken and fragmented thing, without logic or meaning. It is an edgy assertion, indeed, and one revealed most acutely at the edges of his paintings. You could say that this is what the world looks like, this is how it has to be framed, when the certainties of the Sistine Chapel have been left so far behind.