It has to be a uniquely Australian experience to find oneself bush-bashing at midnight through subtropical rainforest with a single iPhone torch to light the way. That’s where 150-odd international (and a few local) delegates found themselves after a long but exquisite evening of wining and dining at the historic sandstone Athol Hall in Mosman. The truth be told, there were a few wrong turns on the way down … it was a case of the blind leading the blind …
It was a time to break bread after two days buried in the subterranean auditorium of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) attending the second symposium presented by the Frame Special Interest Group, FRAME: Concept, History and Conservation, which took place in April 2019.
Speakers from all points of the globe gathered at the AGNSW to hear the keynote presentations of luminaries, pioneers and innovators in the discipline of frame conservation, such as George Bisacca from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, John Payne, formerly of NGV, and organiser Dr Malgorzata Sawicki from the AGNSW.
George Bisacca co-authored with frame-maker Timothy Newbery and curator Laurence Kanter the seminal and influential catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Italian Renaissance Frames held at the Met in 1990. The catalogue was one of the first scholarly publications to elevate the ‘frame’ to a status equal to other disciplines of conservation. George Bisacca spoke on the evolution of style of the highly ornamented auricular frame in Renaissance Florence, and of the originality of Bernardo Buontalenti, who (when he was not inventing military missiles or new recipes for gelato) may have been responsible for the emergence of this style of frame in the Palazzo Pitti in the 15th century. While discussion of mid-15th-century Italian frames may appear to be incongruous to our concerns in Australia, Bisacca’s presentation was fortuitous, since at my workplace in Melbourne a very fine 19th-century version of the auricular frame was in the laboratory for treatment, having been brought to Australia from Florence by the first Catholic archbishop of Melbourne!
International speakers brought expertise from the United Kingdom, Europe and the Americas. Werner Murrer Rahman from Munich described how Emile Nolde and his peers rejected the ornate gilded surfaces of the traditional frame. This group of artists considered the frame integral to the painting, and it was often tinted to match the colours of the painting. Werner also described the development of a hidden interior framing system using magnet technology for the Munch collection housed in the Munch Museum in Oslo. With this system, the painting is housed in a hermetically sealed unit behind the visible and removable outer frame, permitting paintings previously deemed too fragile to travel to be displayed in environmental conditions that might not normally allow display of such valuable artworks.
Dr Auffret from the Getty discussed adaptation of Wolbers’ cleaning systems for acrylic paint for use on gilt surfaces, a similarly water-sensitive material. Dr Jennifer Booth from Tru Vue explained the manufacture of Tru Vue Optium acrylic glazing and how options for glazing are available without compromising viewing. She also noted that, unlike glass, acrylic glazing does respond to environmental conditions, and particularly to changes in humidity, requiring framers to accommodate these changes.
Local frame conservators from the institutional and private sector discussed multiple issues pertaining to the presentation of artworks in the Australian context. Rob Murdoch illustrated how the scale and geometry of a lost late c. 14th-century picture frame might be revealed by a deep understanding of the messages hidden in the painting, and knowledge of trades and craft practices of the time. Barbara Dabrowa of AGNSW described the logistics of a huge reframing program undertaken for the Mitchell Library, while maintaining historic integrity and visual cohesion, minimal resources and staff, conserving older frames and commissioning new frames in a tight time frame. The outcome of this project was reinforced by a site visit to the newly renovated Mitchell Library galleries providing a much-needed opportunity to discuss decision making when undertaking such a historically demanding project.
The second keynote speaker, Dr Malgorzata Sawicki is legendary in the Australian conservation community as an advocate for the conservation of frames, working in the Frame Conservation Laboratory at AGNSW for over 30 years. She spoke passionately about her concerns for frame conservation in a gallery environment that gives priority to revenue, high attendances and the so-called blockbuster exhibition. Dr Sawicki described recent innovations at AGNSW where significant frames now have independent long form didactic labels, elevating the status of the frame to that equal to other heritage items in the collection, and drawing public attention to what was previously considered an adjunct craft, subordinate to the primacy of the artwork it surrounds. Dr Sawicki aired her fears about a loss of high-level hands-on skills in a craft-based industry and a gallery environment that has not provided sufficient resources, opportunity nor funding to anticipate the time when the current older generation of skilled frame makers and conservators retire. It is important to note and champion the efforts of institutions such as the AGNSW and NGV, who have recently reacted to this imminent crisis with the establishment of a proper hand-over and created training positions and acknowledgement that the level of skill development in this complex craft must be transmitted over a period of years, under supervision of a master framer/gilder.
As a painting conservator I concur with Dr Sawicki’s fears about the looming deficit of skilled framers who can custom build a frame for a unique and historically significant painting. Craft skills such as frame making, gilding and furniture repairs are being lost as a generation retires. These skills are not those that are taught in an academic environment at tertiary level or post graduate level (although there is some overlap with respect to knowledge of conservation skills and ethics) but those that are handed over in a structured, intense, specific and supervised craft-based artisanal or apprenticeship-style learning environment, under the guidance of a master craftsman or woman.
Again, while the larger institutions should be acknowledged for their commitment to hand-over of skills, the issue is larger than each institution. When investing in the resources and time required to train one person, why not train two or three? The concept of ‘an heir and a spare’ comes to mind? Australia in the past has been the beneficiary of high-level resources and skills brought to this country from overseas but now we have an urgent need to invest in our own home-grown talent. The message from the Frame Symposium brings a new urgency to this need.