Traditionally, the edge functioned as an unobtrusive guide, leading you to the focal centre of the composition. This confident, focusing use of the framing edge - common to virtually all the devotional art of the Renaissance - is brilliantly apparent in Durer's great Christ and the Elders, in the Thyssen Collection. The heads of the elders, arranged around the picture's edge, form a frame within the frame, pointing your attention to the central detail of Christ's hands, the physical symbol of his divine reason.
Edges can also alert you to what an artist has left out. Degas often cropped his paintings to an almost perverse extent - enigmatically cutting off bodies in mid-anatomy, he used the boundaries of the picture to assert the arbitrariness of vision, to remind you that the image could always have been framed differently. The Curtain Falls is a virtual manifesto for his art; at its top edge a blank expanse marks the curtain that has descended to obscure all but the legs of a troupe of curtsying ballerinas; at its bottom edge, mirroring the curtain's abrupt cropping, Degas has himself included a sliver of the orchestral pit from which musicians' instruments poke up in a curious, almost abstract way. Degas' art signals the breakdown of anything you could describe as a universally recognised method of composition, of relating edge to centre.
A painting's edge is also its most vulnerable point, its soft spot. Frames were originally invented for purely utilitarian reasons; they were there to protect the edges of a painting when it had to be moved. They have subsequently assumed far more importance - "The frame," wrote the French aesthetic theorist Felibien in the 17th century, "is the painting's pimp." The artist Howard Hodgkin, who treats the frame as an integral part of the work and paints it, would go further; in his view
the history of Western art is, to a very great extent, the history of paintings' increased mobility. In modern art the painting has become a truly discrete object, cut off from the kinds of framing contexts and conventions that used to surround it. Once that happens, paintings have to dictate their own relationship to the space that surrounds them. How they are framed has become more and more important.
When I began as a painter I used to think purely in terms of mixed exhibitions, because that was how one got started. There was this strong feeling that you had to protect what you had done. It had to be impervious, to go armoured into the world.
His Small View in Venice is a dense, glowing flood of brushy reds and pinks. Its frame, painted with evenly spaced, soft-edged blobs of green that actually lap on to the central panel, is a soothing presence; its prime function is shelter, softening the abruptness of the encounter between pictorial edge and gallery wall.
Without the frame, that particular central image would be vulnerable in all kinds of ways. One of the reasons that I use frames in the way that I do - and I think it goes back to Romantic artists like Turner, who deliberately chose very sturdy, thick frames for some of his smallest, most evanescent pictures - has to do with my instinct that the more tenuous or fleeting the emotion you want to present the more it's got to be protected from the world.
The edge in modern painting is charged with neurosis; it meets a world that no longer confirms it but which is hostile or at best indifferent. Even the most rigorously framed large paintings are impossible to contain within the edge. Hodgkin says that "it is simply impossible to control a large painting with the edge in the same way that you can control a small one". The edge of a painting marks, in quite a literal way, the point where the artist's vision stops and, correspondingly, where the world resumes. At its edges, a painting makes its surrender to reality. The ways in which it can do so are endlessly revealing, as infinite as the potential forms of painting itself.
From the Arts page of `The Independent', Tuesday 5 April 1988. The Law Report resumes with the Law Term, on 13 AprilReuse content