Through the Looking Glass – It is difficult to rank any art museum over another in New York City where museums like people are ubiquitous. There is the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), or the Guggenheim just to name a few. However, mass collections of fine art, curated and exhibited for public consumption is not the same as viewing a private collection. The Frick is worthy of a visit because it gives us a glimpse “through the looking glass” into the personality of its collector and the time he lived in.
Space: The Frick, as it is known, is conveniently located just across the street from New York’s Central Park in the industrialist’s former mansion. The building is prototypically Neo-Classical in style on the outside and conservatively decorated inside. There is an outdoor reflection pool, a beautiful foyer at the entrance, and a tranquil fountain at the center of the museum. When assessing any space, be it a small room or an entire city, I first ask myself if I feel comfortable. In the relaxing Frick, I can answer in the affirmative.
The Frick museum has retained much of its feel as a grand but not necessarily grandiose private residence. There are several rooms, hallways, and stairways as well as open spaces to reflect and contemplate. Nothing is visually or emotionally daunting, as is often the case in larger museums, plus the crowds are smaller. To use a few modifying words, it is digestible, tasteful, and well-balanced. The décor is appropriately elegant; there is a nice melding of periods, styles, and artistic modes (sculptures, furniture, and paintings).
When evaluating art there are 3 categories that formulate sequentially in my mind: feelings, ideas, and composition. I first assess how the piece makes me feel, if it does at all. Scenes of serenity, conflict, or ambiguity resonate when something tingles in my soul. Gustav Klimt’s “Goldfish” always tempted my imagination with its bizarreness. Ideas run the gamut, from the heroic and humanistic of Jacques Louis David’s Neo-Classical style to the trauma and isolation of Picasso’s deformed bodies. Finally, there is the composition, the brush stroke, or material construction. Dutch “Genre” paintings immediately come to mind as wondrous technical specimens.
Standout Pieces: Below are samples that struck me:
El Greco – “Purification of the Temple” – This piece jumped out at me if for no other reason than my passion for its author, El Greco. It was completed at the end of El Greco’s tutelage under Titian, another giant of the Renaissance. Stirring is the word that comes to mind based on the rich color palette, impassioned figures and religious themes. The way Jesus separates the saved from the damned in a holy act of purification convinces me that justice will be done.
Style: El Greco used a style called Contrapposto, a reorientation of the human body in which arms and shoulders are asymmetrical with hips and legs. It projects dynamism and exaggeration. Pay special attention to Jesus along these lines.
Homage: Greatness often recognizes greatness, and so in the bottom right corner of the work are depictions of the masters who heavily influenced El Greco: Titian, Michelangelo, Clovis, and Raphael. El Greco fused their technical trademarks with his own in “Purification.”
Vermeer – “Officer and Girl” – What is so impressive about Vermeer and other Dutch masters is how they can take the unremarkable and make it extraordinary. Vermeer paints with such depth that the ordinary setting of his scenes entraps my mind, blurring the lines between our world and his. Contrast is the concept here, soldierly rectitude and light-hearted youth appropriately highlighted by shades of dark and light.
Camera Obscura – Some theorize that Vermeer used a primitive camera equipped with mirrors to frame his work. The outsized and disproportionate comparison between the size of the soldier’s head and body in the foreground compared to the diminutive girl in the background provide evidence of the same.
Genre Paintings – So much of art history is devoted to “Grand Genre,” the depiction of historical figures, that the focus on regular life is often lost. Not so in Holland, which makes Vermeer’s work the vlog of his day. Genre painting focused on the mundane but glorious lives of everyday people.
George Washington Sculpture – Years ago I was lucky enough to see Michelangelo’s Museum in Florence. It was a transcendent experience that changed the way I looked at art and no doubt the world. Sculptures hold a special place for me because of the discipline, talent, skill and patience required to create larger than life representations. Antonio Canova was commissioned to render George Washington as Cincinnatus reborn in Roman garb, a truly inspirational sight.
Washington’s Likeness – When sculpting the replica, Canova had little to reference since Washington had been dead for sixteen years at that point. Therefore, he based the likeness on a bust by Guiseppe Cerrachi at the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson. In the sculpture, Washington is drafting his farewell address while dawning a Roman suit of armor.
Tragic Legacy – Canova’s marble statue was commissioned and originally displayed in North Carolina’s State House. Unfortunately, a fire erupted that reduced the marble statue to rubble a decade after Canova finished the work. A model of Canova’s “Washington” and the story of its creation are temporarily on display at the Frick. (It returned to Italy at the Gypsotheca e Museo Antonio Canova in Possagno in fall 2018.)
Edouard Manet – “The Bullfight” – Impressionism is my favorite artistic movement and one that Manet helped bring about. Manet is vibrant and bold; his colors explode from the canvass in dramatic fashion. The raucous ambience of Spain’s famous bullfights was an appropriate and recurring theme. Having seen a bullfight in La Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid, Manet’s work accurately conveys its bloody theatre.
Conflict – Manet’s bullfighting hues to the red, certainly foreshadowing the looming violence ahead. Two of the matadors are standing straight, calmly facing their foe. The body of the bull is largely concealed from view except the head and horns, which emerge from the base of the painting like the fins of a shark lurking just beneath the water.
Iconoclast – Manet was unafraid to challenge what was acceptable to the public and critics alike in 19th century Paris. He frequently portrayed sexuality and nudity, though his brash subjects were interpreted by the French public as lewd and offensive.
JMW Turner – “Dieppe Harbor” / “Cologne” – Another master featured at the Frick is Joseph Mallord William (JMW) Turner. Turner’s brush was revolutionary because he pushed the boundaries of realism into impressionism and moved away from people in favor of landscapes as subjects. His work is emotional, tumultuous, and often radiates a golden aura. Turner’s depictions of Europe’s bustling city ports stimulate the travel aficionado in me.
Centerpieces: Both “Dieppe” and “Cologne” are positioned across from one another in the showcase room of the exhibit. Sometimes they are displayed as book ends to additional Turner’s on loan from the Tate Britain. Wherever positioned, the eyes naturally fixate on them.
Arch-Rival: John Constable competed with Turner the way Ali and Frasier collided in the boxing ring. Both Englishmen have been heralded as the pre-eminent landscape painters of their day. Choosing between them is an emotional choice, quite literally. Are you moved by a hurricane of colors, churning almost violently like a hail storm pulverizing the ground (Turner)? Or, are you charmed by the discerning calm of heavenly pastoral landscapes (Constable)?
The Man – Who was Henry Clay Frick? The self-portrait of him is not very flattering. He appears to scowl at you from a rigid posture. Frick made his wealth in the rugged steel industry, turning coke into coal. He was ambitious from the start and vowed to be rich by the time he was thirty. He collided with Andrew Carnegie the way many titans of industry did in those cut-throat times. Frick’s harsh treatment of workers led to a vicious assassination attempt that left him bleeding profusely from gun shot wounds to his neck. Undaunted, he returned to work the next week.
Frick was very much a man of his time. He was self-made, ruthlessly ambitious, uncompromising, and politicking like the giants of the era (JP Morgan, Thomas Edison, JD Rockefeller). His best friend was Andrew Mellon, the eventual Treasury Secretary of the United States. He became wildly wealthy from his myriad businesses and exploits, which eventually financed his interest in art.
Philanthropy – Henry Clay Frick could not be more different from the rich men or “tech billionaires” of today. Men like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, even Donald Trump are far too thin skinned “special snow- flakes” to stand up to Frick (After being shot and stabbed, Frick tackled the would-be assassin to the ground!). Indeed, his beautiful art collection represents a kind of philanthropy almost unrecognized today. It was intended for a more daring, unapologetic society. Frick envisioned his collection becoming a museum and some paintings remain sorted according to his design. Clearly, he wanted others to share in his love for them.
Higher Culture – There are many roles in society people are naturally suited to: the lawyer, dentist, engineer, consultant or salesman for example. However, the life of an artist is often one of conflict and isolation. Artists – be they writers, composers, or painters often struggle to accept the monotony of ordinary life. For them, they must invent a world to “fit” into it. Otto Rank calls attention to this maladjustment in his work Art and Artists. For the artist, “Existence becomes a problem that needs an ideal answer; but when you no longer accept the collective solution to the problem of existence, then you must fashion your own.” Clearly, the trauma of this experience can spur creativity.
It is an uneasiness with the world that underlies the higher culture of the artist. It is possible that the unwillingness to accept the world as it is fuels not just great artists but the lot of men who challenge the world, for better or worse. Whatever the case, great art becomes imprinted in the world as a transcendent symbol. Symbols stick in our minds because they are visible legacies of higher culture, even if we cannot fully understand their meaning. Perhaps that is what men like Henry Clay Frick were after all along?