Artists frame their paintings

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Mueller mit Pfeife, 1913, Brücke-Museum, Berlin Fotografie Eva Mendgen 2020


Die Dissertation Künstler rahmen ihre Bilder. Zur Geschichte des Bilderrahmens zwischen Akademie und Sezession erschien 1991 im Hartung-Gorre Verlag in Konstanz als Schlußstrich unter das Studium der Kunstgeschichte an der Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn am Rhein.

Fast 30 Jahre nach der Veröffentlichung der Dissertation – und etwa hundert wissenschaftliche Artikel, Buchbeiträge und Vorträge später – erschien meine letzte gedruckte Arbeit zu diesem Thema auf Einladung des Münchner Rahmenmachers Werner Murrer als Einleitung zum Ausstellungsprojekt Unzertrennlich, Rahmen und Bilder der Brücke-Künstler (2020). Das Genre des Rahmenbildes erwies sich noch einmal als Publikumsmagnet (s. dazu die Rubrik Bibliografie aus dieser Website ab 2023).

Vielleicht hat Tilmann Buddensieg, mein Doktorvater, doch recht gehabt, wenn er meinte, dass die Kunstgeschichte vom Rahmen her neu geschrieben werden müsse; am besten wohl in  englischer Sprache, denn die meisten Einladungen für Texte und Vorträge kamen aus dem englischsprachigen Raum, dort fanden sie auch die größte Verbreitung.

von oben nach unten: Doktorarbeit Künstler rahmen ihre Bilder (1991), Katalogbuch Franz von Stuck (2002), Katalogbuch Unzertrennlich (2020), In Perfect Harmony (2x 1995)


How do we see and perceive a work of art? Why are paintings reproduced without their frames? When are a picture and frame inseparable? How do I find out? What consequences does the „frame-perspective“ have for the interpretation of the work of art?

Such were the questions leading to a thesis, written in the 1980s, about artists framing their paintings between academy and reform. There were no digital inventories and libraries at that time, and – luckily – research was devoted to studying artworks at first-hand, in situ, in public and private galleries, in framers‘ and guilders‘ studios, and very often in storage, where it was possible to have a closer look.

It was not so difficult to find prominent examples of paintings in their original frames, but as this was considered a peripheral phenomenon, more or less unimportant to art history, it took years to document examples carefully and convince art historians that they were an integral part of a particular work of art.

Eleven case studies are based on 123 examples of „picture-and-frame-compositions“ by Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Mc Neill Whistler, Franz von Lenbach, Arnold Böcklin, Franz von Stuck and Gustav Klimt. The examples were derived from research in museums, private collections, libraries and archives, from the antique and the art trade and in guilders‘ and restorers‘ studios.

Cette attention portée aux choses, à l’histoire de leur présence,
suppose un regard sensible, mais aussi une méthode.
Il est significatif qu’ Eva se soit intéressée, très tôt,
pour sa thèse, à la question de l’encadrement,
à ce qui, à travers l’évidence muette d’une tradition visuelle,
en apparence extérieure à l’oeuvre, fait sens. (Joseph Abram, Laudation 2019)

From this foundation research, two internationally acclaimed exhibitions emerged in 1995: In Perfect Harmony. Picture + Frame 1850 – 1920 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) and Bild und Rahmen der Moderne von Van Gogh bis Dalí (Kunstforum der Bank Austria Vienna). The catalogue was published in an English and a German version, tailor-made designed by Piet Roozen, they remain important reference works to this day.

Praise was given in more than two hundred articles, which were published in journals, magazines and books internationally, to the first-class selection, the importance and fascination of the theme, the all-encompassing concept and the cooperation of art historians and restorers: Wolfgang Kemp, Edwin Becker, Lynn Roberts, Isabelle Cahn, Louis van Tilborgh, Matthias Waschek, Christine Traber. (With special thanks to Cornelia Peres, Axel Föhl, Inneke Middag, Edwin Becker and Stefan van Raay.)

Here, the works of important representatives of Classicism, Victorian art, Art Nouveau, Impressionism and Modernism of the 20th century were exhibited for the first time in frames designed by the artists; a „feast for the eye“ as the press wrote at the time.

Exhibits and books were a lasting success, with visitors, press and for museum, exhibition and conservation practice.

This frame design topic has been further developed. Thus, it was applied in greater depth to Franz von Stucks’ frame and overall communication concept. Stuck was considered in the 1900s as one of the best German painters, sculptors and draftsmen. The publication, Franz von Stuck – Die Kunst der Verführung, das Markenzeichen Franz von Stuck: Eine künstlerische Erfolgsstrategie / Franz von Stuck – The Art of Persuasion, the Trade Mark of Franz von Stuck – a successful artistic strategy (2002) was the basis for five exhibitions (Franz von Stuck Birthplace, Tettenweis / Museum Villa Stuck, Munich / Erwin Scharff Museum, Neu-Ulm / Museum of Modern Art, Passau / Museum Wernigerode Castle).

Stuck demonstrated not only an individual artistic style, but also a complete style of communication that goes far beyond his time. On behalf of the Von Stuck estate, both a scientific analysis of the graphic work was completed, as well as a re-evaluation of the complete works.

Research continued e.g. with a scholarship from the Center for Advanced Studies in Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C. (joint Fellowship „German Expressionist frames“). Invitations followed to speak at lectures and symposia in Europe and overseas or to collaborate on publications such as The art of the frame in the context of Expressionist masterpieces.

Having collected hundreds of examples, more questions were – and still are – asked, like:

Do the artists‘ intentions count? Is the frame a bridge between painting, architecture and craftsmanship? Does it perhaps open a common ground between artists and their public? Is the concern for the frame – and its individual appearance – perhaps the manifestation of a first impression, if not a ritual in the interplay between individual and society and institutions? And another concept, changing the way art is viewed.

Is the frame suitable for the composition and date? Not all frames are original, but they may best suit the work, taking into account the artist, the frames they favoured and the date. Are all frames made by the artist suitable for the work? – regardless, all original frames should be kept, even if the work is reframed to better suit its surroundings (at that moment in time – tastes change) – place the original frame in storage (in the attic), mark it well and sell it with the painting. This is very important.

Not so long ago, a German journalist proposed in an interview with me in the context of the exhibition Unzertrennlich. Rahmen und Bilder der Brücke-Künstler (Inseparable. Frames and paintings of the artists of the Brücke) that the frame changes one’s view of the picture – and vice versa (Der Rahmen verändert den Blick auf das Bild – und umgekehrt) –  the frame became a sort of proper genre during the 19th and 20th century for modern and vanguard artists.

Meanwhile the pandemic seems to have changed priorities again. Original works seem to have lost their value, being reduced to two-dimensional reproductions within the given format of the flat screen, sometimes en miniature, sometimes huge. Is there an awareness of the need for quality? For reproductions, for the communication of the work of art, for the respect of the artists’ intentions and the right of the public to information beyond commercial interests?

Is this, perhaps, the manifestation of another first impression?

The methodological aspects represented seem to be more valid than ever in the age of digital reproductions of artworks, the reproduction of the artworks in their frames.

The times have changed, and printed publications are getting less and less important, most of the editing houses I have been working with, meanwhile werde forced to reduce their program or even vanished. Nevertheless the subject of the framed painting, paintings in spatial context, the message of the original and the obligation to preserve and communicate its integrality, stay the same. Therefore articles and lectures will be re-edited on my website, frame research will continue, beginning of 2023 by an essay written by Peter Nahum.

Frame by Edward Burne-Jones