Framing Modern Masters: A conversation with Heinz Berggruen

‘I have been interested in frames as long as I have been interested in pictures’ 
— Heinz Berggruen

Heinz Berggruen

Heinz Berggruen

I flew to Paris, in 1991, you flew in those pre Eurostar days, with the art journalist Susan Moore, to talk with Heinz Berggruen, the noted dealer and collector, about his taste in antique frames for framing his pictures. The Berggruen Collection of classical modern art, including works by Picasso, Braque, Cézanne, Seurat, and Van Gogh, described by the then Director, Neil MacGregor, as ‘a collection of heroes’ was temporarily exhibited in newly refurbished rooms in London’s National Gallery and had just opened.  The collection was noted for its taste and consistently high quality. The same uncompromising eye that shaped his selection of works of art, as a dealer and as a collector, also concerned itself with their presentation and I wanted to ask him about his personal choice of frames. ‘I have been interested in frames as long as I have been interested in pictures’ said Berggruen.

There is no consensus for the framing of modern paintings. Whilst Old Master paintings are usually given a frame appropriate for the country and period there are no guidelines for the collector of modern pictures to follow. Museums such as MOMA and the Guggenheim experimented with ‘down framing’ and ‘de framing’ in the 1970’s and 1980’s, controversially removing the period gilded frames which William Rubin, MOMA’s former Director of Paintings and Sculpture, described as ‘eye catching fluff’ and surrounding works by, amongst others, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat, with simple narrow strip frames which critics say, give the pictures the appearance of reproductions. 

Berggruen’s opinion on framing was characteristically robust ‘The directors of the Guggenheim and the Met may feel that the frame has no function, but it is important and meaningful to marry a picture to frame that corresponds to it’ It is a marriage that Berggruen regards as essential. He uses the frame to ‘heighten…the spirit of the painting’ and to ‘bring out the mood of the painting or the mood of the artist’ stating that ‘there is a soul in a frame that reflects on the painting’.


Pablo Picasso The Yellow Sweater, 1939, in a Spanish 17th-century frame

Pablo Picasso Harlequin with guitar, 1918, in an Italian 17th-century frame


Berggruen has a preference for 16th and 17th century Italian and Spanish frames which have a particular rapport with the works of Picasso and ‘reflect the spirit of the painting-if you like the spirit of the artist’ He is particularly pleased with the framing of his portrait of Dora Maar – The Yellow Sweater in its Spanish 17th century carved and gilded frame with acanthus leaf and pearl ornament. ‘For me the intensity of expression is heightened by this very bold and even aggressive frame’.

The success of the framing of what he describes as his ‘almost Baroque’ Harlequin and guitar lies in the complex carved surface and the tonality of the gilding of the Baroque Italian frame.


Paul Cézanne Path in Chantilly in a 17th century Neapolitan frame


Berggruen has reframed most of his collection. It is rare that a newly acquired painting is framed to his taste. He tries to find words that convey the extraordinary transformation that takes place when a picture is reframed. ‘When I bought Cézanne’s Path in Chantilly it was in a frame which did not give me satisfaction, so I changed it.’ The difference he found amazing ‘a metamorphosis’. The Neapolitan 17th century frame he chose gave the painting ‘an entirely new feeling.’ It was a change he described as ‘a mystery’ saying ‘everything that I thought was wonderful in the picture was brought out by this frame’.


Vincent Van Gogh Public Gardens at Arles in an Italian, early 17th century ‘cassetta’ frame


But not all of his contemporaries, collectors or artists, have taken so much trouble over framing. ‘Acquiring a frame’ said Berggruen ‘takes patience and setting aside time’ Patience which paid off in the instance of framing his Van Gogh Public gardens in Arles for which he found with Wiggins an exceptional ‘cassetta’ frame which fitted the painting perfectly.

One has a sense from talking to Mr Berggruen that the framing of a new acquisition heightens and expands the pleasure of possession. The search for the perfect frame, the trials and false starts, are to be savoured and ones which he ‘would not forgo… for anything’.

This Frame Note is based on the booklet
FRAMING MODERN MASTERS A conversation with Heinz Berggruen
written by Journalist and Art Critic Susan Moore and published by Wiggins. 
© 1991 Arnold Wiggins & Sons Ltd. ISBN 0 951 2135 3 9

Copies available, contact us for more information.

The Berggruen collection is now exhibited in Museum Berggruen, Berlin

Frame Notebgsd studio