One by one canvases by Picasso, Manet, van Gogh, and Gauguin in the Guggenheim Museum’s Thannhauser Collection are coming to life in new frames more like those the artists themselves might have chosen, thanks to the collective efforts of a team of Guggenheim curators and conservators.
The Thannhauser pictures have been reframed many times. Justin K. Thannhauser, the German art dealer who gave the Guggenheim the collection of some 75 early modernist paintings, preferred heavy, ornate frames, which can be seen in photographs taken at the opening, in 1965, of the museum’s Thannhauser gallery.
By 1978, two years after Thannhauser’s death, those frames had been replaced with the white shadow frames favored by Thomas M. Messer, the Guggenheim’s director at the time. (They are still used for the museum’s late modern and contemporary works.) Another shift took place before the 1992 opening of the Gwathmey Siegel building. At that time the Thannhauser paintings were returned to a variety of period frames found in storage.
In 2006, when the cleaning and restoration of important Thannhauser paintings, including Pissarro’s The Hermitage at Pontoise (ca.1867), underscored the bad condition or the unsuitability of their frames, a committee was formed to choose the most historically and esthetically appropriate frames for the pictures.
“For the most part, we’ve decided to go back to something that would have felt comfortable for the artist or the way the work was shown during the artist’s lifetime,” says Tracey Bashkoff, curator of collections and exhibitions. Other members of the ten-person team are Carol Stringari, deputy director and chief conservator, and Susan Davidson, senior curator of collections and exhibitions.
“One approach would have been to reproduce the look of Thannhauser’s frame decisions,” Bashkoff says. But the group decided against that because Thannhauser often used reproduction frames rather than old ones and frequently reframed his pictures. A 1927 photograph of the Pissarro in Thannhauser’s Berlin gallery shows a different lavish frame from the one visible in a 1957 photograph of his apartment in New York.
After rejecting several possibilities for Pissarro’s landscape featuring a path leading upward into the hills, the committee settled on a frame they found at Eli Wilner & Company, a prominent framer in New York. A 19th-century French cove suitable for Barbizon School works, it has a simple concave profile that emphasizes the picture’s depth.
Sometimes the committee didn’t have to look far for a good antique frame. Picasso’s Le Moulin de la Galette (1900) was hanging in a thin 20th-century reproduction frame in 2006, but photographs of Thannhauser’s apartment revealed that it had once had a deeply carved 17th-century Florentine Baroque frame.
This older frame was unearthed in the recesses of the Guggenheim’s storage room, and the committee liked the way its swirling surface echoed the movements of the dancers in the painting. But at some point it had been grayed and scuffed in a style known as decappé, which was fashionable when Thannhauser was building his collection. The group decided to have frame conservator Richard Ford, of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., regild the frame to restore its original golden luster. Now it makes all the glowing lights in the painting pop as they didn’t before.
“Picasso was an artist known for going to the Paris flea markets and picking up frames and putting them on his works, so it’s not out of character for a Picasso painting to have this older-style frame on it,” says Bashkoff. “Also, we know Thannhauser had a personal relationship with Picasso. We don’t know exactly when this frame first went on the canvas, but there could be a chance that Picasso put it in this frame. It also allowed us to embrace the Thannhauser history of the work and use what we had.”
Trying to determine the best framing solution has often involved following historical bread crumbs. Degas’s fondness for bowed cushion frames is well documented, and Toulouse-Lautrec used the same framer as Degas. That guided the committee in their selection of a fluted cushion frame for Toulouse-Lautrec’s In the Salon (1893), which brings out the linear quality of his pastel. For Braque’s colorful Landscape near Antwerp (1906), the group commissioned New York framer Gill & Lagodich to custom-make a replica in honey-colored maple of a simple flat frame designed by French Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac, which graces a Fauvist painting by Matisse in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
A database of photographs collected by the committee members during their travels has guided other decisions. Van Gogh’s Mountains at Saint-Rémy (1889) received a 17th-century Italian flat black cassetta frame that doesn’t compete with the work’s roiling brushstrokes the way its previous frame had. The group was swayed after seeing successful examples of rustic cassettas on other works by van Gogh at the Musée d’Orsay, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The Guggenheim’s cassetta had come into the museum’s collection years earlier on a Miró painting, which now has a white shadow frame.
While Bashkoff doesn’t anticipate reframing the entire Thannhauser collection, she says that the committee—in which, she notes, there is remarkable consensus—will continue as the budget allows.
“We’re documenting everything”, Bashkoff says, “so later down the road the next group of ten people can reverse our decisions.”
Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.