Arts - Spring 2020

If You Frame It Like That

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So much depends on the way a work is formatted

By Lincoln Perry | March 2, 2020
Raphael's <em>Madonna della Seggiola</em>. (Alamy)
Raphael's Madonna della Seggiola. (Alamy)

Picture this. In the foreground, by a thatched farmhouse, a beautiful woman holds by the claws the chicken she’s just slaughtered, her white apron stained with blood. She talks, perhaps flirts, with an equally gorgeous hunter in leather, a hawk on his gloved arm. Behind them loom the picturesque ruins of a Welsh castle, gray clouds throwing it all into high relief. I once came upon this scene while on vacation, and it would have made for a memorable photograph, the image preserved within the confines of a four-by-six-inch print. But instead of fumbling around for a camera, I continued instead to gaze at the scene before me, which, in all its expansive, seemingly limitless glory, became burned into my frontal cortex. For that I am forever grateful.

Artists have always faced this issue: the world is immense, so what slice can evoke the whole cake? How to summon the gestalt of passing clouds, birdsong, the smell of the chicken’s fresh blood? How are we to frame our experience, to fence that particular field? The animals painted on the walls of the Lascaux Cave in southwestern France cavort in free-range fashion on undulating rock; their descendants take the form of graffiti, spray-painted on subway cars around the world. But art generally tends to confine itself, and for artists, limitation and freedom, prohibition and potential, are locked at the hip. In choosing the format for their work—whether it be a canvas, a subway car, a rock face, or a wall—they court implicit meaning and metaphor.

The frame’s orientation also influences the way we see what’s depicted within. A horizontal rectangle might suggest a landscape vista or, like a Chinese scroll, movement through time, where the past becomes occluded, the present visible, and our future viewable only through unrolling. (The rectangular format of TV and movie screens, for example, was chosen for a reason.) But when all sides of the rectangle can be seen at one time, we intuitively become conscious of the frame, comparing length with height, and we begin to subdivide the space into sections, creating boundaries—without which our minds and eyes might wander, like the animals of Lascaux, nibbling on this and that.

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