This afternoon, I’d like to introduce you to the oldest accessory in tomorrow’s exhibition. A large and bulky frame, she was “acquired” in mid-2018, accompanied by a document, or a collage of some sort, made from fragments of found writings, official papers and historical imagery. After intense analysis and fact finding, the document acts as a living birthmark, giving us insight to her travels, self-perceived or otherwise. The data recovered during a self-initiated audit to research her own history becomes a part of her identity. Referring to herself as “Rebecca”, and understanding herself to be of Parisian-descent, born sometime between 1740 and 1890, Rebecca identifies as a “champagne-gilded open back frame, with elegant ornate embossed carvings and a beaded outer edge”. Her exact age is unknown, so she simply refers to herself as an “antique”.
Closer analysis of the document reveals a rich history and understanding of frames, as Rebecca sought to finally attach a history to her identity. Her fascination with her purpose uncovered the history of the frame, making its debut in the form of altarpieces in 12th-century Italian churches and private chapels. 15th century tabernacle frames, plate frames and tondo frames became the standard in later years. In the 18th century, high-end collectors commissioned hand-carved wooden frames as art collectors tended to look for frames that exhibited superior craftsmanship, documented a proven provenance and were signed by the maker. The process of becoming a frame maker was rigorous and increasingly difficult — with some apprentices spending more than 15 years serving a master. Only Jean Chérin and Etienne-Louis Infroit, two of France’s greatest frame makers, were registered as both carpenters and “sculpteurs”, meaning they could build and carve their own frames.
Seeing her reflection against the glass surfaces of other works nearby, Rebecca would compare her ornamentation to frames older than her. She noticed differences. Unable to see her own backside, Rebecca would lay against plain paper surfaces, hoping for a relief on her back showing the name of a great maker to yield a print. This dream would not come true, either. Her back was bare.
Frames from the eras of Louis XIII and Louis XIV emulated the elaborate baroque craft found in French architecture and interior design. Highly ornamented, decorated in foliage, flowers, and carved ribbons, the frames were equal to the works of art by themselves. Rebecca enjoyed her similarity to these styles of frames, and chose this lineage as her own. She hand-picked her legacy as an official vessel for paintings from the Masters.
As Neoclassicism formed the next movement, the second half of the 18th century saw frames influenced by classical architecture; thin, geometric and simple. And in the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution transformed England, resulting in the decline of craft frame making altogether. Woodworking machines mass-produced cheap moldings embellished with composition ornaments and fixable decorations. The carvers who once spent years perfecting their skills became obsolete. Frames fell out of fashion and were discarded, thrown in the backrooms of antique stores and storage closets. The standard among museums and collectors was to replace antique layers with sleek, minimalist edges.
The late 20th century brought a glorious return to antique framing, as 3 major exhibitions about frames were shown at The Metropolitan Museum in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Bagatelle in Paris in the 1990s. Prices soared to a record high in 1991, when a seventeenth-century carved amber mirror frame sold for almost a million dollars at Sotheby’s in London. Today these neglected treasures of bygone days are back in vogue, with cheap knockoffs just as popular as the authentics. The return of antique frames as an aesthetic choice uncovered a reality that left Rebecca somber and depressed, as she realized people weren’t calling her Rebecca after all. They were calling her replica.
To make a gilded frame, first you need very thin sheets of gold leaf. Take a carved wood object and brush on multiple layers of gesso, a heated mixture of glue, and a chalk and water mixture. Then rework the gesso layer to remove all evidence of brush strokes and surface texture. Next, add 3–4 coats of rabbit skin glue and water. When it is dry, wet the object with gilder’s liquor, a solution of water, alcohol and a little rabbit skin glue. While the surface is still wet, cut a piece of gold leaf with a gilder’s knife, lift it with a gilder’s tip, and then carefully lay the sheet of gold down on the glue. The gilder’s liquor will activate the rabbit skin glue and as the water evaporates, the gold is slowly “glued” to the object, making an antique frame. As it turns out, there are 3 types of frames of the antique style: Authentic Antiques, usually from Europe, centuries old, whom Rebecca wanted to be. High–Quality Reproductions, hand-carved and gilded frames that only differ in minor detail to the original antiques, created by American companies like Newcomb Macklin in the 1980s. And Low–Quality Reproductions, cheap preassembled frames made of inexpensive wood, polyresin or polyurethane sold in chain stores. This is who Rebecca is.
One other attribute identifies low–quality reproductions from the rest. Rebecca soon knew why there was so much Chinese writing and history compiled in her birthmark. Fastened on her back, a small white sticker, with the words MADE IN CHINA, revealed her true origins. The history she envisioned for herself belonged to someone else, a long-lost ancestor or her former self in a past life.