Gilding has come up a few times this week in Tadporters, which is to say, a few more times than it has since I started working here. You can check our facebook page to see a couple of the videos we’ve posted.
Gilding is the process of applying a thin layer of gold, silver, or metal leaf to a frame. Gold leaf is 24-karat gold pounded into an extremely thin sheet.
Gilding is a fascinating, labor intensive, time-honored craft. It’s remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years, and to learn the craft, a potential gilder undertakes a five year apprenticeship. It’s basically as much of an education as a double major in undergrad.
Typically, a person would only gild if they make or repair moulding, so in a frame shop it’s merely a peripheral interest for us, like glass-making or wood-carving. It would normally only come up when some annoying little flake of leaf weasels its way onto the surface of a picture. Nonetheless, as far as peripheral interests, it’s a particularly bewitching one.
I suspect this is due to the gold involved, the material Black Elk called “the yellow metal that drives white men crazy.” It certainly has hypnotized the Western world for millennia. Minus teeth, most people would happily accept gold anything. And most people would probably accept gold teeth, too.
Gold usually connotes weight: gold bricks, rings, jewelry, etc. By contrast, gold leaf is fragile, ethereal. Metal drifting off like a feather seems more magic trick than reality. And since gilding has existed for thousands of years it also conjures images of alchemy, pharaohs, and royalty. It’s a mesmerizing material.
Gilding and gold leaf also call to my mind one of my favorite art pieces, Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility) by Yves Klein. Essentially, Klein sold empty space (nothing) to collectors in exchange for the empty space’s value in gold leaf. They were given a receipt for their purchase, although Klein encouraged them to burn it.
Half the gold was then thrown into a river, and the other half went into paintings. Of note, one of his gold monochromes has since sold for $21,000,000. The project was tongue in cheek in a lot of ways, but it was also entirely blissed-out. It was also, along with much of Klein’s other work, foretelling of art’s direction in the subsequent years.
To bring that back around, Klein’s original inspiration to work with gold leaf spurred from his time working in a frame shop.
“And the gold, it was something! These leaves that literally fluttered with the least current of air on the flat cushion that one held in one hand, while the other hand caught them in the wind with a knife…. What a material! The illumination of matter in its deep physical quality, I came to embrace it during that year at the ‘Savage’ frame shop.” – Yves Klein