Jarvis Hall works on a frame.
Jarvis Hall works on a frame.
Most of us don’t give much thought to the frames that cradle paintings. They are, as Calgary framer Jarvis Hall observes, the “unsung hero we don’t notice” in our headlong rush to feast our eyes on the picture, the real star of the show.
But, for Hall, frames are a fascinating part of art history. Their twists and turns can yield mysteries both puny and grand, often signaled by small material clues – a few extra nail holes here, an oddly butted joint there, or, perhaps, a tiny abrasion that indicates a painting was not quite dry when it was dropped into its original frame.
As with anything, the closer you look at frames, the more interesting they become. But Hall, who can spend hundreds of hours building a large and complex frame, acknowledges his sleuthing can sometimes border on the obsessive. “It’s not like CSI,” he says. “But there are certain things I do get a little carried away with.”
At their most basic level, frames have two jobs – to protect the art and to draw people into the viewing experience. But frames can be laden with a wealth of other cultural baggage. In European museums, for instance, gilded frames are scattered along the walls of cavernous galleries like so many golden bread crumbs, marking a path through dense thickets of art.
But why were frames covered with gold in the first place? The answer, says Hall, is simple. Back in the day, of course, there was no electricity. Most art was seen by candlelight in dim interior spaces. “The flame hits the highly contoured surface of a picture frame that’s gilt in gold, which then illuminates and casts that light back against the painting,” he says.
As well, many early European paintings were displayed in churches – think, for example, of altarpieces, paneled paintings often encased in ecclesiastical armatures. A golden sheen offers a potent visual message to the masses about faith and the power of the clergy. And, of course, gold is congenial with most natural colours, says Hall. In other words, gold just looks good around paintings.
Hall, the son of well-known realist painters John and Joice Hall, recently led a tour in the Glenbow Museum – not to look at art, but to consider the frames. He made some surprising discoveries, and was pleased to find his audience equally intrigued.
First, a small mystery: A 1931 portrait of Patrick Burns, an Alberta rancher, businessman and senator, by artist Kenneth Forbes is housed in a frame Hall believes was made by Irving Couse, an artist and framer from New York who moved to New Mexico in the early 1900s. Hall points to a simplified arrow motif in the corner of the frame and notes that Couse, influenced by the native art in Taos, began to combine Art Deco and Art Nouveau elements with indigenous symbols to create his own framing vernacular. “I found the use of a southwestern American frame on this very Canadian portrait to be odd,” says Hall. He suspects someone may have changed the frame at some point, possibly to match the décor of the house in which it hung.
A second discovery was the frame around a 1974 painting by William Kurelek, Young Ukrainian Church Carollers. Kurelek, who painted scenes from his childhood on the Prairies, often made his own frames from whatever he had at hand. For a time, when he worked at a Toronto framing shop, he had access to old frames he could pirate and piece together. Hall knew the painting he spotted in the Glenbow’s storage area was still in Kurelek’s original frame because of a motif – a running vine with maple leaves – the artist often used. Hall found himself contemplating how Kurelek had cobbled the frame together, and was particularly thrilled to find his framing notations on the back. “It’s a fantastic little road map,” he says.
William Kurelek Fram
The frame of a 1974 paintingby William Kurelek, Young Ukrainian ChurchCarollers, shows a motif of maple leaves on avine that the artist often used on his frames.
Hall has owned his downtown Calgary framing shop for a decade and often gets requests to reframe newly purchased art. “The only thing collectors can change about a piece of art is the frame,” he says. “And they do it often.” But he believes such changes can be ill advised if they put the art and the frame at stylistic odds.
He points to the French Impressionists, who typically displayed their paintings in plain white frames. “The gold, they felt, was too harsh around their new style of painting,” he says. “So they would white out the frames, which gave an easier break between border and painting.”
But the wily dealers who sold their work to American industrialists quietly replaced the plain frames with gilded ones that matched the furnishings in the millionaires’ mansions. “It was more attractive to the purchaser, who then understood that all of the gold surround was equivalent to the gold things in their homes,” says Hall.
Over the years, Impressionist works in gilded frames have made their way into museum shows and permanent collections. “If you see Impressionist paintings at the Met, or wherever you are, they will all be in a style of frame that 90 per cent of the Impressionists who made the paintings would be horrified to see,” says Hall. “It was not their intent.”
By Portia Priegert