Friday, May 19, 2006

Puttin' on the Frick

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I was in New York City for several days to witness my daughter's graduation. Why she needed a witness is not clear to me, but there are some thing one does simply because others want one to. So I did.

Kate had arranged a room for me at one of the Teachers' College residence halls. She warned me not to expect much, which was good because the room had no toilet paper, hangers or blankets. It did have a couple of towels, a pillow with no case, and two sheets. The single mattress was encased in what looked like a body bag. When the fitted bottom sheet was stretched to the breaking point to cover the corners of the mattress, it found no purchase on the slippery vinyl and promptly popped off when I sat down on the bed. I needed both sheets on top for warmth, anyway. Plus my overcoat, my light jacket and my heavy sweater.

Just before leaving Alaska I had stumbled across the fact that an exhibition of Goya's late works was running at the Frick. I would have just one day to see it before it closed. Goya, like Kate's graduation, was nonnegotiable. We had agreed to go the day after I arrived.

Columbia is on the upper West Side, around 120th, and the Frick is on the middle East Side, on 70th, so we had a fairly good walk. We meandered in the direction of Spanish Harlem, then dropped into Central Park. Although I had visited New York over the years for professional things, I had not been footloose in the park since 1970. At that time it was filthy, vandalized, dangerous. Now it looked like something by Seurat, ...more »with verdant vistas defined by neat walks and manicured groves and promenaded by ladies and gentlemen leading perfect children by the hand. Wheelchairs, Dominicans, yarmulkas, castles, poodles, frisbees, wrought iron fences, baseball diamonds, street magicians, sparkling water. Did I say it was a sunny day?

We came out of the park around 90th and walked south along 5th Avenue. Every building had a covered entrance and a doorman. Between the main entrances there were many small plain doors with brass plates: Avram Einkorn, M.D., Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery. William Blassingame, D.Ent., Endodontics. Chudabir P. Ramsinghwallah, M.D., Radiation Oncology. We stopped at a snack wagon to get coffee. The lady said something I couldn't understand. Kate answered her in Arabic. Later she told me, "This side of the park, a lot of the vendors are Arabs."

At the Frick, we found a line presided over by a wizened security guard. I had a sinking feeling that maybe we wouldn't get in; after all, the Goya exhibit was ending the next day. It turned out that a limited number of tickets were being sold for each two-hour block, and that the only block for which tickets remained was the final one of the day, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. It was now 11 a.m. Kate groaned. "What are we gonna do over here for five hours?"

I told her I was staying to see Goya, but if she wanted to go back to her place I'd get her a cab. She hemmed and hawed and finally said there was stuff she had to do. So I put her in a cab back to Morningside. To tell the truth, I was relieved. Kate does not share my passion for painting and was accompanying me only out of duty. I could prospect Goya much more profitably on my own.

When I paid for my ticket, they gave me two. One was for the Goya. The other was a general admission to the permanent collection, which I was free to see right away. This was a possibility that had not occurred to me up to then. I had never visited the Frick. I knew one or two items in the collection from reading, but that was all. Now I had five hours to explore one of the most famous collections in America--before being admitted to see work of the artist who fascinates me more than any other.

I should explain, for those unfamiliar: Henry Clay Frick was a Gilded Age robber baron, originally a partner of Andrew Carnegie. He was rabidly anti-labor. His Pinkertons gunned down several strikers and sympathizers during the Homestead Steel strike. The radical Alexander Berkman tried to settle that score by shooting Frick three times and stabbing him twice. Berkman evidently was not cut out to be an assassin. Frick not only fought him off, but was back at work within a week. Berkman spent 14 years in prison.

Eventually Frick migrated to New York City, where he built a gloomy but impressive Italianate mansion on 5th Avenue. This is where the Frick Collection is housed today. The collection's number of paintings is relatively small for a major collection, but it also owns a huge assortment of small bronzes and marbles, furniture, carpets and tapestries, clocks, porcelains, enamels, and gold and silver artefacts. This allows the collection to be displayed in an unusually natural fashion for a museum; there is an effort to make it all look as if the old fucker himself might still live there. If so, he really ought to do something about the restrooms in the basement. I mean, we only have to use them once. He has to go down in that smelly little hole all the time.

I can't give--and you surely aren't interested in--my work-by-work itinerary through the collection. Here are a few highlights and generalities.

One of the great things about the Frick Collection is its almost complete freedom from Impressionism. Since there was plenty of Impressionist painting on the market when Frick was buying, I have to assume that he simply didn't care for it. So he wasn't entirely bad. The collection is concentrated primarily in Northern Renaissance, Flemish, Baroque and the eighteenth century English school. It has a respectable medieval component. The latest works (other than a fawning portrait of Frick himself) are by Whistler (and not particularly good ones).

The Frick, like most museums, provides those walkie-talkie guide things. How stupid. How can you grasp anything an artist hoped to accomplish if you approach his painting only after listening to a lecture about it--or, worse, while listening to the lecture? What is it some modern artist said about painting? "I want to make you look until you see." That's all you need to know about a painting at first. If you see something, however small or transient, the painting is working for you; after that consult reference works. Never before.

That is especially true of portraits, and the Frick Collection is especially strong in portraiture. Portraits are the pinnacle of painting. There simply is no bottom to what a great artist can convey about character. You lose all track of time standing before such a portrait. It is like meeting the person, only much better because he or she doesn't distract you with words and movement, and you need not be distracted by any social obligations of your own. (Well--that's almost true. Twice I was reprimanded by guards for putting my face too close to portraits. Once a guard came over and stood right next to me, apparently alarmed by my excitement.)

I learned various things about portraitists that I had not realized before. For example, Van Dyke is a painter of dresses, not character. Bellini is more interested in geology than in saints. And nothing is as phony as the faces in portentious allegory, where the painter has not the wit to seek actual character.

But for a sampling of genius, try Vermeer or Rembrandt or Franz Hals. How do we know that Vermeer's maid holds the upper hand over her mistress? That Rembrandt finds life a burden? That Hals' burgher-lady had lower-class origins and knows exactly how fortunate she is? The Hals was the painting in the collection that I returned to most often. This woman is as individual as anyone I've ever met, yet as familiar to me as my own mother.

Two other great portraits in the collection are Holbein the Younger's Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. They are displayed on opposite sides of a fireplace, with Cromwell looking in More's direction. More gazes into the middle distance, between man and eternity. His posture suggests alertness and readiness. His look is settled but not without a hint of spiritual anxiety; he does not take virtue for granted. Cromwell peers suspiciously, almost sourly, at More (and hence at humanity). The clutter on his desk reflects both his preoccupation with power and the restlessness of his scheming mind. These two Holbein portraits match perfectly the characters of these men as presented in Fred Zinnemann's masterful movie A Man for All Seasons, in which Cromwell is the principal agent of More's destruction. Perhaps Robert Bolt, on whose play the movie was based, got the idea for his characters from Holbein.

The Frick has an extensive collection of Gainsboroughs, Constables and Turners. This is a segment of painting history I've never paid much attention to, assuming that it would be heavily conventional. Quite a pleasant surprise to find that I like Gainsborough very much. This man liked women. You can just feel him itching to paint them unclothed. I have no idea if he ever slept with the various wives he painted, but I am quite sure that he wanted to. Turner, too, was a pleasant surprise--a good eye for the scabby detail. In the foreground of Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet Boat: Evening you can see a pipe discharging sewage onto the beach.

Another curious find: Georges de la Tour's The Education of the Virgin. I find this painting enigmatic. If it had been painted in the last eighty years, no one would call it anything but kitsch. Why do we hesitate to judge it so simply because it comes from the time of the Thirty Years' War? Without the title, there would be nothing in the least religious about the work. I wonder if it doesn't say more about the education of women than it does about the Mother of Christ.

Some of the Frick's greatest names are poorly represented. Breughel the Elder is present only in the undistinguished Three Soldiers. This is especially disappointing in a collection whose greatest strength is the Northern Renaissance. On the other hand, the Frick has only nine Spanish paintings, and every single one is a masterpiece. Note especially Goya's An Officer. Whoever this unknown subaltern was, he made a mistake by sitting for The Man With the X-Ray Eyes.

The Frick has only three permanent Goyas, but of course I was there because of the special Goya exhibition. At 4:00 I was admitted to . . . the basement, where the Frick saw fit to show Goya. I realize that the museum is not the most spacious in the world, but the inheritors of the pretensions of Henry Clay Frick ought to be able to do better than that.

Goya is the Shakespeare of painting. He had a million characters inside him and he got a good percentage of them on canvas, paper, enamel or ivory during his long career. Like Shakespeare, Goya was also something of a social paradox, a much-decorated court painter very concerned about his orders and awards, who yet entertained liberal opinions in a dangerous time and who even openly sneered at his royal patron. (Of this painting, Hemingway said, "See how he has painted his spittle into their faces.")

But Goya's daring cost him in the end. The Bourbons, driven out by Napoleon in 1808, returned in 1813 in the person of Ferdinand VII. Ferdinand was not just a reactionary but a coward and a bully. There could never be good relations between Goya and this man, especially since Goya kept up his friendships with all sorts of liberals who were persecuted by the court. (Ferdinand was so obsessed with eliminating political dissidents that he personally often accompanied the arresting officers and oversaw the commitment of the accused to prison, gloating at their powerlessness.) Goya's position became untenable when, in 1820, a liberal revolt against Ferdinand's tyranny temporarily drove the king from power. When Ferdinand regained the throne his vengeance was sweeping, and Goya (who had not been involved in the revolt) realized that he would not be spared. Then 74 years old, he abandoned his home and slipped into France on the pretext of seeking medical treatment. He did return to Madrid once, briefly, but otherwise lived the last four years of his life in Bordeaux, where he remained as active as ever until his death in 1828.

The works in the Frick's Goya exhibit all date from the last eight years of his life, the majority from Bordeaux. They don't include any of Goya's greatest and best-known works, such as the paintings shown here, or the Caprichos or Los Desastres de la Guerra.

But they include works reminiscent of these. Probably the most famous is Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta, a pieta-like portrayal of a desperately ill Goya languishing in the arms of the young physician whom he credited with saving his life. Compare this piece with the two earlier self-portraits, from 1780-92, and 1792. The earlier portraits make clear that Goya saw himself as a strong, energetic man focused on a vision. The Dr. Arrieta portrait shows Goya paradoxically using the same power to "see" himself (of course the scene had to be imagined--Goya is portraying himself as at best semiconscious) as helpless. Yet, in spite of deafness, ill health and exile, the accounts we have of the elderly Goya portray him as anything but self-pitying.

It is unfortunate that you cannot enlarge the portrait of Javier Goya, the artist's only child to survive to adulthood. In the original, the character of this dissipated young man is very clear. Javier called himself a painter, but no known works of his survive. His big interest was money. He was not above selling his own work as his much more famous father's. His father obviously did not hold him in much admiration.

The next seven portraits are as powerful a collection of character studies as Goya ever did. Every single one of them repays long contemplation. Together they form an excellent example of why you should study portraiture first without knowing anything about the subject, or even the artist.

The final painting, Milkmaid of Bordeaux, is a disappointment. To me it was, anyway. The woman's blank/disturbed gaze, throwing off the viewer's initial perception of her beauty, is classic Goya. But the composition is primitive, even crude. The character is incomplete. It reads more as an idea for a painting than a polished work.

The exhibit also contains a long suite of, cartoons in effect, on a variety of subjects, usually bizarre. Scroll down to El perro volante, for example: "The Flying Dog," which shows a winged dog seemingly crashing from the sky onto the earth. Yet, not far above that, is Woman with two children, a young mother plainly enjoying her two young children. There are pictures of raving lunatics, a monk being strangled, and a man defecating. But right alongside them is Enredos de sus vidas, "Entanglement of their lives," seeming to show two young women in an amorous embrace.

To me the most interesting of the Goya works were the dozen or so ivory miniatures. These are seldom seen. It was a form Goya learned only in Bordeaux. Each began as an ivory plate, approximately 2 inches by 2 inches, coated with carbon black (i.e., extremely fine soot). Onto the carbon Goya would drop a single drop of water, sometimes plain, sometimes colored. The water would dilute and displace some of the carbon, creating shape and shade. From this chance beginning Goya would let his imagination take over to create a scene by means of watercolor, ink and some engraving. Again there is Goya's characteristic mixture of macabre and sensual.

I spent my whole two hours in these two small basement rooms. The guards didn't exactly round us up, but a whole bunch of them filtered into the basement at about 5:45 and started eyeing us expectantly. That was enough to drive out most of the people who remained. Out of respect for Goya, I was determined to make them throw me out. I was the fourth from the last to leave.

Back on 70th, my knees felt like buckling. I hadn't eaten since morning, and the energy I expended in those seven hours easily exceeded that of several of the walks Kate and I had taken that morning. Mental intensity takes glucose, too. Suddenly I wanted a hot dog more than anything else in the world.

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