Despite the famous Old Master paintings and the extravagance of the building itself, the Frick Collection appeared rather dull at first glance. It is, after all, just a rich man’s mansion filled with art, sculpture, and fine furniture. Yet the Frick offers something rare in the world of art museums–a chance to look into the mind of a colossal figure, a genuine robber baron, Henry Clay Frick.
If you’re heading to the Frick and willing to spend some time there, I would suggest checking out the introductory video. The roughly 15-minute-long piece gives a historical overview of the collection, focusing primarily on Frick himself. There are times when the melodrama and earnestness of the art historians make the film ripe for a sketch comedy show. They recount the life of the great benefactor, building an American Dream narrative in which a sickly young Frick develops a tenacious work ethic, eventually building a multi-million dollar coke empire (not the Escobar kind) and forging alliances with the likes of Carnegie and Mellon.
A crucial, yet brief, part of the film touches on the Homestread strike, the infamous battle between steel workers and the Carnegie Steel Company. The latter, with the help of Frick, eventually employed Pinkerton detectives to help quell the strike. Armed with rifles, the Pinkerton detectives surrounded the steel plant and striking workers. A firefight ensued, resulting in the deaths of many steel workers and kicking off a monumental riot that would eventually require the intervention of the state militia. Frick’s rutheless tactics during the Homestead strike earned him the title of “the most hated man in America.”
Despite its definitive role in the collection’s film, the Homestead Strike wasn’t the only blackspot in Frick’s life. He and his fellow Pennsylvania industrialists also constructed a dam above Johnstown and, perhaps convienently, ignored the structure until it broke under heavy rains. This resulted in the Johnstown Flood, which killed over 2,000 people and also drowned (literally) Carnegie’s main competitor: the Cambria Iron and Steel Company.
After skipping the Johnstown flood entirely, the film went with its original purpose, ending with the quant picture of Frick walking the halls of his grand Upper East Side estate shortly before his death, marveling at the paintings he had amassed. Now I understand that it would be strange for the staff to create a film the depicts Frick as a amoral robber baron, but I still expected it be less of a eulogy and a little more interrogation of a controversial historical figure. After all, I believe what makes Frick Collection fascinating is the opportunity to connect history to personal psychololgy to the actual collection itself.
Moving through the collection, you begin to recognize how many of the pieces involve strange juxtapositions. Frick loved stately portraits of dainty Eighteenth Century women, soft depictions of young lovers, and other mild pieces. Yet under one such portrait I noticed a scultpture of a lion attacking a horse. Next to a naive-looking youth was a powerful, barrel-chested, stern-looking older man. Across from two tall pink and flesh-colored portraits of young women were two dark, haunting pieces. One in particular showed a gaunt, ghostly characted with an unsteady form. It’s worth mentioning that Frick’s entire collection was European, aside from the these haunting portraits and a few other pieces.
These striking contrasts and the impression of immense effort put forth in creating a wholly European, “civilized” world within the confines of the Upper East Side estate point to a man who was haunted by the events of his past. It seems as though Frick wanted to escape into European high culture, yet still acknoledged his grim past through the contrasts, the subtle hints at violence, and other nods. In a revealing twist, Frick chose a piece by Goya–The Forge–to represent the conditions on which his entire fortune rested. I’m not an art historian, so maybe there’s a circumstancial answer to this choice. Yet one can’t deny the conflicts within the man–wanting to pay reverence to back-breaking industrial work, yet hiding it behind a European curtain.
America offers the unique opportunity to start over, but the cold hard fact is that you can never really escape your past (for more on this theme, see my previous post on Mad Men). Frick eventually escaped the strikes, riots, and dam breaks of Pennsylvania for cosmopolitan New York City, surrounding himself with fine European art. Yet as Frick walked through his home at night, floating through a world of youthful innocence and European aristocracy, the images that really weighed on his psyche may have been the lion devouring the horse, the haunting spectors in the hall, and the strained faces of the foreign, yet frightenly familiar, forge workers.