On Framing and Displaying Paintings / by Chris Hall

Francois Joseph Heim, Charles V Distributing Awards to the Artists at the Close of the Salon of 1824, 1824, showing paintings displayed in the salon style.

Francois Joseph Heim, Charles V Distributing Awards to the Artists at the Close of the Salon of 1824, 1824, showing paintings displayed in the salon style.

Sometimes stuffing a painting into a picture frame can be as confining as a tuxedo, or a straight jacket.  A century ago and before, art could fit more comfortably in a frame.  Paintings were hung salon style, side by side, clustered together, and in close proximity to each other.  The elaborate and ornate gold frames acted as a visual stop, closing the painting off and keeping it from interfering with the neighboring paintings.  But these framing devices worked well with the paintings of the time, which were all created with formal academic techniques such as perspective, giving them the illusion of depth.  The frame acted as a kind of open window through which people would view the painted tableau within.  Modern Art, which favored the pursuit of truth and reality over artifice, destroyed this illusion.  

As painting grew more and more abstract and  perspective fell into disuse, the works became progressively flatter.  Impasto techniques and abstract over-all composition also meant that the paintings began to have aspirations of expanding outside of the frame.  This trend culminated in the epic scale works of the Abstract Expressionists.  These demanding works had territorial ambitions and  sought to overwhelm to the viewer.  The abstract compositions were now active participants in a gallery space, where before, the works of art were objects of passive reflection.  Modern Art paintings do not always play nice with their neighbors, and so galleries and museums began to drop the confined and cramped salon style installation of art, in favor of giving art more breathing room.  Part of giving Modern Art paintings more breathing room meant getting rid of the stuffy and confining ornate gold frames of old.  Instead, the new paintings were given thin, minimal frames, if they were framed at all.  The visual stop of the framing device was just too much for works of art that aspired to be wild and free, and to go on forever into space, expanding out into the world.  

Oddly enough, while the elaborate gold frames of yester-year may seem a bit too stuffy and formal for Modern Art paintings, the evolution of art installation from the salon style to giving works of art breathing room has unintentionally created a new formality:  cold-white, uninviting, and empty gallery spaces.  There is a new trend in art, however, to show small scale works, such as drawings and prints, once again in the salon style.  I believe the informality of salon style installation is suitable for the humble and democratic nature of drawing and printmaking, and the intimacy of salon style installation can also make a gallery space more inviting.  Salon style installation, where everything is displayed from floor to ceiling, is also good way to convey the idea that Art should be organic, without hierarchy, and without excessive pruning from an overly brutal gardener.