R&D 6 | The frame as a device in art

The frame as a device in art

A cube, seen as a room or cage or frame surrounding or containing something is a common device in art.

1. As a means to imagine a miracle.

Perhaps originally it stems from a desire for control over chaos. A frame is an ultimate series of straight lines. Nature ‘framed’ is nature contained, and perhaps generally more appealing than wilderness. The parts within that frame are isolated, emphasised and seen without distraction.

A frame can also be a window, a doorway or a portal to another place. Typically, in art history that place might be to somewhere divine and otherworldly, as in Giotto’s early renaissance painting – Annunciation to St. Anne.

Giotto, Annunciation to St. Anne, Scrovegni Chapel. 1305

In this painting the artist has opened up one side of a building to enable us to witness the miracle of an angel speaking with Christ’s grandmother. The fact that the act is contained in a managed virtual-reality emboldens the viewer with a temporary leap of faith. The message being that this artists vision is a safe way to confront and deal with the supernatural and great unknown.

The device is similar to that of watching television today.

2. The Subconscious box.

All of us spend a great deal of time within a box shape like room of some sort, and ultimately within the metaphorical box of our own minds. Surrealist artists such as as Max Ernst explored this subconscious place through visual metaphor. He often utilised the same device as Giotto of illustrating something otherworldly through placing it in a normal space.

Collage by Max Ernst

Surrealists were mostly about encapsulating the Victorian fascination with the subconscious. Typically a trend of the time was to have a dolls house for children, but they also represent that period’s obsession with private, inner worlds. They loved rooms and houses, formality, patriarchy and control.

Victorian doll’s house

3. The feminine as caged beast.

In many ways Surrealism’s wonderful weirdness stems directly from the strangeness of the Victorian society. Surrealism’s visions, odd juxtapositions and freaks drew heavily on Victorian weirdness and phobias such as is fictionalised through books such as The Yellow Wallpaper.

The surrealists realised visually what books like this this suggest. Often this required combining themes of claustrophobic spaces in large houses along with male domination of female energy.

Victorian society thought that the feminine identity, along-with wild nature was best if controlled, framed, caged in. At the time words such as histrionic were synonymous with nature, femininity and chaos. Sanity as they saw it, was for correct, rational  maleness.

4. Non religious visions

Artists such as Ernst enabled an expression of our new understanding of visionary phenomena as being a personal rather than religious right.


more Max Ernst

At the same time artists such as Joseph Cornell focused on a pagan nature as being the weirdness which represents our our minds fears and lusts etc.

The frame device he utilises enables a civilised window into that strangeness. Horror is scary, but exciting.

Triple Canopy – Joseph Cornell

5. Artists spend too much time in small rooms

Later, Modernists such as Francis Bacon borrowed the frame device directly from surrealism. His paintings, says Matthew Collings in This is Modern Art, are mostly ‘something nasty inside something geometric’. The artists own life seemed to avoid the light and open in favour of the seedy, dingy and dark. Great imagination can come from limiting personal experience.

In a way his gold framed visions and nightmares are a twisted take on the religious painting of the renaissance – Lovely colours, geometry & people being weird.

Francis Bacon

6. A room as a place for birth, sex and death.

It is hard not to see the idea of a frame or room as visual metaphor for the subconscious. Truly intuitive and imagined realities rely on base, guttural human facts such as fear, horror, sex, madness and other acts of the the bedroom.

The artist Marcel Duchamp’s last act was to leave a work of art that juxtaposes these ideas with his own legacy as a man and artist. He was apparently equally afraid and obsessed with themes of creation and death. ‘These days’, he says ‘we may still be born from wilderness, but now we enter into a box, we live in a box, we leave in a box’.

This artwork makes comment on that fact, both through its content, but also through the act and method of its seeing. To view the work requires a one at a time peep-show like voyeurism. “It is the viewer who makes the painting 5.” said Albrecht Durer. Duchamp’s point being that in peeping through the hole, the viewer is forced to be seen to confront an unexpected thing. The artists uses the hole in the box to publicly personalise the experience of viewing the work.

The performance of its seeing requires an admission and a humbling – the box may contain the dreams, chaos, feminine, magic, weirdness etc., but only momentarily.

Marcle Duchamp | Étant donnés. Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas 1946 – 1966

This discussion continues on the Blog by Ben Lloyd here


This blog-post forms a part of an Arts council funded ‘Research and Development’ project.

The artists involved are Daniel May, working in collaboration with the artist Ben Lloyd


This project is sponsored by The Arts Council of Wales

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