By Jonathan Kandell
In Barcelona’s clubby art world, everyone knows Ramón Cordoba, and he knows how to make their paintings look their best.
Ramón Cordoba de Dalmases has never taken up a paintbrush, put his collection on display or stamped his name on a gallery or museum.
Yet as Barcelona’s master framer for the last four decades, he has achieved a renown enjoyed by only the most elite painters and gallerists in the thriving world of Catalan art. His frame shop, Astrolabius, has catered to giants like Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies; luminaries like Eduard Arranz-Bravo and Josep María Riera i Arago; scores of other Catalan painters; hundreds of collectors; and several leading museums, including the Prado in Madrid and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Buttressing his professional stature is Cordoba’s reputation as a bon vivant, gourmet and immaculate dresser: “Last night, I dined with Barcelona’s most elegant man,” began a 2005 article on Cordoba by a columnist in a leading local newspaper, Avui. A hyperactive social life is a prerequisite for his continued success, says the 73-year-old framer, who always wears a tailored suit, white shirt and silk tie. “Whenever I go to the opera, I can count on meeting up with three or four clients who remember they have paintings they want framed—and they will show up at my store over the next couple of days,” he says. In addition, his vast social network is a great advantage to younger artists, whom he tirelessly promotes with collectors.
But the foundations of Cordoba’s business are his lifelong passion for painting and his deep affinity for artists. In secondary school, he was the only student who was in the habit of visiting art galleries and museums.
Lacking the talent or inclination to paint, he went off to Zurich, Switzerland to study architecture, a career he never practiced upon his return to Barcelona. Instead, he gravitated toward a group of young, rising Catalan artists—Jordi Alumà, Francesc Artigau and Ramón Aguilar Moré, among them—and decided to open a small workshop for framing. “We were all so poor that they would help by cutting wood for the frames, and of course I would then give them a discount—or accept paintings and drawings as payment,” says Cordoba. This was the late Franco era, when collectors were few in number and too conservative to embrace the more contemporary, abstract styles of Cordoba’s friends.
Within three years, Cordoba established himself as the preferred craftsman of the new wave of Catalan painters, who initially represented 90 percent of his clients. Not only were the quality of his frames noticeably better than those of his competitors in Barcelona, but he was one of the first local framers to use mat and adhesives with a neutral pH to avoid acid corrosion of the artworks. “I knew from my Zurich university days that these materials existed, and I would bring them back from trips to Switzerland,” says Cordoba.
At age 33, he opened Astrolabius, the frame store that has become a mecca for local collectors. They were increasingly replacing painters as Cordoba’s main clients, and were reluctant to visit his workshop in a remote working-class neighborhood. The name Astrolabius—or in English, Astrolabe, referring to the navigational instrument that calculates the locations of celestial bodies—was suggested by an artist friend who was also a practicing astrologer and used the device to draw his charts. “I liked the idea that it was a name not directly linked to framing or painting,” says Cordoba. “Clients are more likely to remember Astrolabius than Art-Mart or Wood-Art or some other inane store name.”
Cordoba launched his career in a Catalan art world that viewed itself as equal to that of any European country and a rung above the rest of Spain. Picasso spent his formative years in Barcelona before moving on to Paris. And of course, Miró, Dalí and Tàpies pulled the center of gravity towards Catalonia. But who you know has always been essential in the chummy Barcelona art scene, especially decades ago when Cordoba was just getting started.
He wasn’t quite 30 when he was introduced to Miró at the home and studio of Josep Llorens Artigas, a famed ceramicist, in the village of Gallifa, some 30 miles northwest of Barcelona. Miró often fired his own ceramics with Llorens i Artigas and his son, Joan Gardy-Artigas, a painter and sculptor and a former schoolmate of Cordoba’s. Both men suggested that Miró make use of the rising, though still little-known, framer. Beginning in 1967, Cordoba made scores of frames for Miró. “He would always call me el noi dels marcs (the kid of the frames),” says Cordoba, who soon added a number of Mirós, some of them personal gifts from the artist, to his growing art collection.
A few years after meeting Miró, Cordoba used another personal go-between—Eudaldo Serra, his then father-in-law and a prolific collector of Polynesian art—to become the framer for Tàpies, as well. Over the last three decades, many, if not most, of the artist’s works on display in Barcelona galleries, including the Maeght (a branch of the famous Paris gallery), were framed by Cordoba.
Over a half century of framing, Cordoba has developed a deep historical appreciation of his craft, and during a visit to the National Museum of Catalan Art he offers me a crash course in the evolution of frames. The museum, which includes many non-Catalans in its extensive collection, is housed in the Palau Nacional, a pompous neo-Baroque-style edifice built for the 1929 World’s Fair on Montjuïc, a hill overlooking the harbor. After an extensive renovation, the museum reopened at the beginning of the year. This is Cordoba’s first visit to the newly refurbished galleries, which contain collections that cover Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, 19th- and 20th-century art.
Singling out paintings for their frames rather than their artistry, Cordoba begins the tour in the Baroque galleries in front of an undated still life of three ceramic vases and a metal chalice by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) who is far better known for his haunting religious portraits.
“This is a perfect example of a marco directo,” he says, “a frame that is placed directly on the edge of the canvas, in order to keep it in place and to protect it.” The frame, he surmises, was the original one or was crafted in the second half of the 17th century soon after the canvas was completed. He describes it as carved and polished wood, layered with gesso and rabbit collagen, then rubbed with ocher-red soil, and finally layered with gold leaf.
Hanging nearby is a Claudio Coello (1642–93) portrait of Charles II, circa 1683, showing the Spanish monarch with the typically elongated jaw and prominent lower lip of the Hapsburg family. Pointing out a green gap separating the frame’s two moldings, Cordoba dismisses its craftsmanship by calling it “a modern frame meant to look old.”
In the modern-art wing of the museum, we stop in front of a large painting from 1898, Corpus Christi Procession from the Church of St. Mary of the Sea, by Ramón Casas (1866–1932). The left and right sides of the frame have a half-dozen vertical grooves and then at each corner a diagonal band or fast covered in gold leaf that breaks the verticality and binds the joints attractively. “This is a frame that wants to be more modern than the painting,” says Cordoba.
He picks out two more frames of special interest. There is Portrait of My Father (1925) by Salvador Dalí (1904–89), for which the artist chose a mediocre frame covered with false gold leaf and polished with a liquid that gives it an old-looking luster. “Dalí hated his father—and it shows,” says Cordoba, noting the frame’s defects. Finally, we view Port by Night (1900), a beautifully eerie depiction of mist-shrouded boats at harbor by Lluís Graner (1863–1929), but marred by a bulky, blotchy silver-gray frame. “A horrible frame,” says Cordoba. “It wants to be more important than the painting and unfortunately succeeds in calling attention to itself.”
Cordoba’s residence, a townhouse less than a block from his store, is a virtual advertisement for his own craftsmanship. Almost every inch of wall space is covered by paintings, most of them framed by Cordoba. He selects several that display different techniques.
A painting by the Catalan artist Jordi Alumà (born 1924) of two tugboats bobbing in Amsterdam harbor seems an apt subject for a “floating” frame; the artwork is recessed below two polished oak wood moldings, one pale and the other dyed dark. An abstract oil by the Catalan-Uruguayan modernist Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949) has an olive-wood frame with a carved woven inner molding that echoes the painting’s own abstract woven pattern; moreover, Cordoba has deliberately chosen an outsized frame—5 inches wide on each of the painting’s four sides—for an artwork that is only 22 inches long and 18 inches wide. And for a circa 1910 portrait of a lady by Laureà Barrau, Cordoba crafted a frame in the style of that period by painting its oak wood in red, then in black, and rubbing it with a rag before it dried to expose some of the red.
He can make the simplest frame in three hours, while a triple-molding frame will take more than five(that doesn’t include the time it takes for the various parts to dry). “First I draw a molding, then saw the piece and sand it down to just the right specifications,” says Cordoba. “This is the work I most love doing.”
While Cordoba launched his career by selling most of his frames to young, still-unknown artists, nowadays more than 9 out of 10 clients are collectors. Many are referred to him by artists whose paintings they have purchased. “The moment somebody walks into my shop, I can usually tell from the wrapping paper who the artist is,” he says. “And it always shocks clients when I guess right before they even show me the work.”
With about 1,200 moldings on display at Astrolabius, clients are all too happy to defer to Cordoba’s judgment on the most appropriate frame for their paintings. He inquires whether their homes are decorated in traditional, contemporary or eclectic styles. “If it is a house with a very contemporary design, I will use a minimalist frame even for an El Greco,” he says.
We spend a rainy Friday visiting several artists who often commission Cordoba to frame their paintings. Our first destination is north of the Gothic Quarter, in the upscale commercial Sarrià neighborhood, the location of dozens of art galleries. We are meeting up with Santi Moix, 50, a New York-based painter and sculptor whose style is usually abstract. But he is back in his native Barcelona for a gallery exhibition of 60 watercolors he did to illustrate a Catalan edition of Huckleberry Finn timed for the centennial of Mark Twain’s death.
“I always use Ramón here in Barcelona because he is the ‘mayor’ of framers,” says Moix. Cordoba did the wood frames in simple white.
It was personal tragedy that accounts in part for the artist’s enthusiasm for Huck Finn and the Mississippi River theme in this show. When he was two years old, Moix’s parents—Gypsies living in a slum on Barcelona’s outskirts—were swept away by a river during a flood that destroyed their community. The orphaned Santi was raised by a well-known physician and took his last name. Some of his watercolors in the gallery do not directly refer to scenes in Twain’s masterpiece. There is, for example, a vignette of Huck on a driftwood platform wedged between two trees above the swollen Mississippi.
“I got the idea from a newspaper photograph of a man who survived a flood in the Philippines by climbing on top of a similar driftwood platform,” says Moix. “In my watercolor, the danger is absent, and instead it conveys Huck’s freedom—he can dive from the platform into the waters and swim away.”
We next head to the medieval El Born district, where the streets are so narrow that only pedestrians and cyclists can get through. The Santa María del Mar Church, begun in Romanesque style in the 13th century and finished in the Gothic style 200 years later, is still the dominant landmark in the neighborhood. We climb four stories to the top of an 18th-century building where Ángeles Muntadas-Prim lives and works. Her technique is mixed media, mainly mineral pigments and acrylic. She paints while kneeling on the floor. Intense reds and blues are the most prominent colors. She traces nerve-like patterns as well as human silhouettes, especially Asian figures.
“I traveled through Asia and it shows,” says the 44-year-old artist, who is writing a doctoral thesis on the cobalt-blue dye trade between China and the early Islamic world. “It is my favorite color.”
There are a dozen paintings ready for framing. “Ángeles paints very anarchically, so I can choose any sort of frame style—Renaissance, Baroque, contemporary—and they all work well,” says Cordoba. Muntadas-Prim never argues. “Ramón is as much an artist as I am, so I just let him do as he wishes,” she says.
Cordoba’s enthusiasm for artists who haven’t yet gained full recognition was on display on a visit to Julio Barrionuevo, 46, a painter whom the framer has given studio space above his vast workshop in L’Hospitalet, a blue-collar suburb southwest of Barcelona. On the 3,000-square-foot ground floor below, five longtime Cordoba assistants labor over back orders for frames and repair torn canvasses that date back a century or more.
Barrionuevo first gained a following for his paintings of cigars floating disembodied on the canvas in all sizes and angles. His more recent works superimpose thickly applied black acrylic drawings of labyrinths or nets on blow-ups of Google satellite maps of New York, Paris, London and Vienna that are painted in basic mineral pigments of red, yellow and black. “I like basic colors—they make the paintings more sober,” says Barrionuevo. Not only does he allow Cordoba complete freedom to pick out the frames but accepts his suggestions that some paintings—especially the largest ones, which are 7 feet by 6 feet—are better without a frame.
The last artist we visit, Eduard Arranz-Bravo, is the most successful, with paintings that sell for five and six figures on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only has Cordoba framed hundreds of his paintings and drawings, but he also owns more than 80 of his works. Arranz-Bravo, 70, lives and paints in a contemporary three-level house on a hill high above Barcelona, with spectacular views of the city and the Mediterranean and a lush, green, sloping garden surrounding his swimming pool. His studio is bathed in soft, indirect natural light from an angled skylight. His windowless bedroom is a monk’s cell, with just enough space for a bed and bookcases.
Arranz-Bravo gets up at 5 a.m., works until lunch at 2 p.m., and resumes painting until 7 p.m., when he collapses on his bed to watch TV over a light supper and then falls asleep. He complains about upcoming trips abroad to promote his work at gallery shows. “I just want to get back and paint,” says Arranz-Bravo, who nonetheless takes time today for his monthly lunch with Cordoba.
On this occasion, the venue is El Tritón, a posh restaurant popular with upper-crust Catalan families and located in the university district west of the harbor. It is a typical social meal generously hosted by Cordoba for a collector friend, Arranz-Bravo and a younger painter—all of them clients. A mound of crayfish is quickly devoured, then filets of grilled Mediterranean bass, and finally, for some of us, cuajada con miel—milk curds with honey—with a couple of bottles of chilled white Catalan wine. The two artists and the collector pump Cordoba for news about other artists. He regales them with some humorous anecdotes and then a sad one about an aged artist who is going blind yet insists on painting.
Inevitably, talk turns to Spain’s deep recession, and the mystery of why the Barcelona art market has survived relatively unscathed. Fine paintings and gourmet food apparently remain basic necessities for Catalans with disposable income. “Art prices have remained high, and come to think of it, so have restaurant prices,” says Cordoba with a mock expression of pain as he removes a high-denomination euro note from his wallet and watches the waiter sweep it away with the bill. “Goodbye, little one; we barely got to know each other.”