Posts tagged #Early 20th century

Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘America Today’ mural

Entrance to the installation of ‘America Today’ by Thomas Hart Benton, 1930-31.

Benton’s extraordinary mural ‘America Today’ (1930-31) is now installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Modern Wing for all to see and enjoy.  Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) was commissioned to paint the mural for a boardroom on the third floor of The New School of Social Research in New York City. Conceived and executed in nine months, the mural depicts all the dynamism of early 20th Century America and includes images ranging from cotton picking in the rural South to the machinery and workers of urban America and the social life of the city.  After several decades at the New School the mural was acquired by AXA (then Equitable Life) in 1984 and in 2012 AXA donated the mural to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From a frame perspective the mural is of interest for its unique use of frame molding. Benton collaborated on the molding designs with the Austrian-born architect of the New School building Joseph Urban (1872-1933), one of the founders of American Art Deco. The moldings are silver-gilded and of a shape that underscores Urban’s Art Deco aesthetic. In preparatory sketches and drawings by Benton it is clear that the use of the molding was an integral part of the design and installation plan.

The mural is not only enclosed by the molding in the conventional manner: single passages of molding enter from the top and bottom in arcs and angles and terminate within the mural, penetrating areas of the composition and serving as breaks and transitions from one passage to another. It is a fascinating and unique use of the frame.

Early 20th Century Painted Frames

During my summer travels in the Netherlands I visited the Kröller Müller Museum in De Hoge Veluwe national park. Renowned for their many extraordinary paintings by Van Gogh, I was delighted to see the framing treatments on many of the Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings in the collection.

Nature morte géométrique  (“Geometric Still Life 1”) o/c, dated 1919, George Valmier (French, 1885-1937) 

Detail, Valmier: note the sympathetic angled profile of the frame and the contratsting white angle near the sight edge.

Three Cubist artworks clearly demonstrate how effectively a painted frame can showcase a composition. The George Valmier (1885-1937) ‘Geometric Still Life 1” of 1919 is framed in a simple profile: a primary outer portion that slopes back toward the wall at a 45˚ degree angle, painted a medium grey with the sight edge of the frame another 45˚ angle painted in white. The grey is carefully keyed to match areas of the canvas painted in the same tone and the white inner edge of the frame sets off the black edge that Valmier painted around the entire perimeter. The choice of color and the clean angles of the profile harmonize and support, rather than constrain, the vitality of the composition.

On Gino Severini’s “Still Life With A Guitar” also dated 1919 another angular profile in white and pale grey surrounds the painting. At first glance the profile is a simple raised inner flat in grey at the sight edge surrounded by a wide, flat panel in white. A closer look, however, shows that the inner grey flat has an additional small step where it meets the white panel, and the outermost side edge of the wide white panel has also been painted in the same grey as sight edge. These subtle and sophisticated touches create a fascinating dialog of steps and planes with the artwork.

“Still Life With A Guitar” o/c, dated 1919, Gino Severini (Italian, 1883-1966) 

Detail, Severini: note the extra small step of the silver-grey part of the profile as well as how the back edge where the frame meets the wall has been colored in the same manner.

A third example on “Playing Cards and Siphon” of 1916 by Juan Gris (1887-1927) demonstrates the power of a color scheme that speaks directly to the image. The profile slopes in toward the canvas: the top-most outer edge in black gives way to the primary center panel in grey, followed by an inner liner at the sight edge that is painted the same deep ochre of the table. The transition from the grey panel to the ochre liner is bridged by a narrow band of dark grey-black and adds to the sense of contrast in Gris’ dramatic composition while the matte quality of the frame surface further supports the lush darkness of the composition.

All three are excellent examples of how a sensitively painted surround can be an effective alternative to a gilded or natural wood surface.

“Playing Cards and Siphon” o/c, dated 1916, Juan Gris (Spanish, 1887-1927). A sophisticated color scheme in matte paint surrounds the dramatic tones of Gris’ composition.

The progression in both shape and color leads the eye inward and adds visual interest by emphasizing key colors from the image.

Note how the inner ochre liner has been painted with a grey-black to provide a transition where it meets the grey panel. Also, how a black fillet between the frame and the canvas adds subtle visual interest.