SANCTUM IN THE CITY

Authors on Museums: amid the frenzy of New York, the Old Masters of the Frick hang in contemplative calm. The poet Don Paterson revisits his favourites

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012

New York has shaped most of my major life choices. My first serious adult relationship was with a New Yorker; my closest friend was a New Yorker; my partner is a New Yorker. I may never be one, but if “home” is where one relaxes most, the length of my exhalation when I fall out of Penn Station seems to indicate something beyond mere relief.

It’s not too mysterious. First, there’s the way the natives communicate: they speak the way I prefer to be spoken to—nice and quickly, with an overdeveloped sense of irony. Irony is a whole dialect here, within which you can still be funny, moving, open, generous, sincere. Secondly, since I have little by way of an inner life, my resting state is a deep boredom, and New York is the least boring place I know.

New York’s great secret—or rather the truth it cannot openly declare—is that it is the European capital of your dreams. Lord knows, it isn’t really America. I’m always bewildered by friends who visit, and then plan five things to do every day—a gallery, a trip to Katz’s Deli, a show…They’re missing the point. The city is the show. Architecturally, for example, its brutal grid serves only to highlight its insane, principled, obsessive variety. No two adjacent buildings are the same; and no building embodies the beauty and lunacy of the place like the Frick Collection, a jaw-dropping limestone pile taking up a whole block at the corner of 70th Street and Fifth Avenue. It’s never long before I wind up here, as often by blind instinct as design. (For others, it’s not the art that makes it a place of pilgrimage. Every casual geek will tell you that Batman’s Gotham City is “Manhattan below 14th Street at 11 minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November”, but less well known is the fact that the Avengers’ mansion is the Frick: 890 Fifth Avenue is the same address as 1 East 70th.)

Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) was a pretty dreadful piece of work. He made his money in the coke industry—not the one that underwrites the hedge funders who now make up half the Upper West Side, but the black stuff—and his first million before he turned 30. He invested in the railways, became a business partner of Andrew Carnegie, and was soon supremely wealthy. But even the film they play in the Frick’s Music Room can’t entirely avoid mentioning one of a number of shameful events that gave him his reputation for unscrupulous ruthlessness. The movie judiciously skirts round his response to the Johnstown Flood, when an ill-conceived fishing lake designed for Frick, Carnegie and his other cronies burst its banks and flooded the valley below, killing thousands. Although he made some token compensation, Frick ensured that all efforts to hold the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club responsible were foiled (the victims’ failure to secure damages led directly to changes in American law on liability). But it does touch on his breaking of the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, which ended with the death of several steelworkers—and an assassination attempt on Frick shortly after.

When Frick finally left Pittsburgh for New York, it was initially to reside in the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth. The Vanderbilts were not known for their delicate touch with interior decoration, Edith Wharton going so far as to declare them “entrenched in a sort of Thermopylae of bad taste”; but whatever faults Frick had, bad taste was not one of them. He had begun as a collector of modern art, then turned his attention to the Old Masters, and had already amassed a world-class collection by the time he arrived in New York. Presumably further inspired or repulsed by the baroque excess of his temporary digs, he conceived a mansion of starkly contrasting neoclassical simplicity,  to show his art to best advantage. Thomas Hastings, architect of the New York Public Library, was commissioned to design and build it, and the astonishing result was a little Petra seemingly carved from whatever giant lump of unhewn rock had once joined 70th and 71st. (It is said that Frick hoped “to make Carnegie’s place look like a miner’s shack”. He did.)

Frick lived there only a few years before his death, and it was always his intention that the collection would be open to the public. I’d like to think that this was his guilty reparation for a life of unbridled greed, but who knows what he was thinking.

Wandering in off the street—the sirens, the shouting, the car horns used instead of brakes—you discover the architectural equivalent of a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones. The place is so quiet, the effect is less of silence than deafness. How could such a still space be carved from such a noisy city? There are several answers. Most crucially, there are no kids. I love kids, mine especially, but they can ruin things. No child under ten is allowed into the Frick. This would be a horrid rule applied more generally; but shouldn’t there be the occasional designated adult space, beyond bars, bookies and strip clubs?

The second thing keeping the peace is the visitors’ own Trappist silence: this museum attracts a class of folk who do not want their own concentration disturbed, and so will not disturb yours. And the third is plain, old-fashioned awe. The Frick astonishes because there are few surprises; it barely contains a single painting that will not already be familiar to you. The only surprise is that they are all here. Well-spaced, breathing freely, often arranged by no other organising principle than supremely good taste, in uncluttered rooms of perfect classical dimensions.

I first came here about 23 years ago. I was living in Brighton with a girl from Brooklyn, and we were still in love enough to want to impress each other, competitively. I showed her the Scottish Highlands; she showed me the Brooklyn Bridge. I took her to Princes Street Gardens; she took me to the Frick, and won. These days, I’m really here for my half-dozen favourite paintings, and deliberately take the most circuitous route I can towards them. This often involves an aimless half hour in the beautiful Garden Court, all marble and foliage and fountains; it was once an open courtyard, but was covered and enclosed after Frick’s death. The work was accomplished so seamlessly it’s impossible to believe it didn’t form part of the original house. I defy anyone to see it, and not have it form part of their vision of an afterlife.

The day I visit, there’s also a Renoir exhibit, so I go to see that first. Why does anyone like Renoir? Every canvas looks like a ten-foot biscuit tin. I take a sort of refuge in Corot’s “The Lake”. It’s both a terrific painting and an absolute downer, which I return to again and again for reasons I cannot explain. A yellowy-brown monochrome watercolour-in-oils, its light is bleary, blurry, heavy, sodden, purgatorial. The cattle look bewildered and lost. It reminds me intensely of my depressions, which I am largely free of these days. Perhaps I love it because I know I can turn my back on it. I head for the Fragonard Room, confident that if this can’t cheer me up, nothing will.

The Fragonard Room is the clearest piece of evidence that this is a house built with art in mind. Plans for a drawing room were altered to accommodate a series of wonderful, ridiculous panels depicting the Progress of Love. Against the backdrop of an impossibly rococo arcadia, an assortment of beribboned, bewigged, pomaded and pantalooned twerps and nincompoops spoon and sport. Below a statue of Cupid, a woman swoons in a dégagé reverie, her eyes rolled up to the whites. Banksy would have added a hypodermic needle dangling from her arm. You feel deeply protective of these figures. They depict a heaven, of sorts, though not one to which we should aspire.

And then, like an old friend, I see Constable’s “Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds”. This painting is missing the ugly rack of cloud that looms in the V&A version, and I agree with Bishop John Fisher that this approach is a big improvement. The trees have the weird underlight of coming storm, which renders the pale cathedral and its infinite spire perfectly radiant, and straightforwardly mystical. From the other side of the room, I always think I’m approaching a Samuel Palmer. The painting seems to generate more and more natural detail before your eyes, in an almost fractal way, as a result of your own deeper looking: this is still the old, wild, pullulating English countryside, capable of the spontaneous creation of life. The effect is enhanced by Constable’s having painted this more quickly than his first version, so the natural impressionism you see in his watercolours is evident in the more hastily sketched detail. One cow has been painted as glass, with the grass still visible through it. It looks more cow-like than ever.

The Frick also has my least and my second favourite Vermeer. (The one I love most is “The Lacemaker”, which I caught at the Fitzwilliam recently, in a room so busy I saw one guy looking at it through binoculars.) My least favourite is “Bum Handing a Folded Map of the London Underground to Man in Drag”, otherwise known as “Mistress and Maid”. This was the last painting Frick bought, and one of his favourites. Maybe I’m just trying to disagree about something. But the expressions of both women are, to me at least, so open to interpretation as to be not worth troubling over. I ask myself all the questions I have been instructed to ask. Is the note from a lover? How much does the servant know? What does the lady’s chin-hand gesture mean? Who knows? Who cares? I’ve tried to, and failed. The failure is mine alone.

“Officer and Laughing Girl”, on the other hand, is the one I’d leave with under my jacket. How can this be not now? Never has someone looked so convincingly entertained, captivated, alive. Just like the cock-and-bull story he’s telling, the officer looms too large in the foreground. There’s a theory that this might have been a distortion introduced by Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura, but heavens, does it work. Everything lives in that picture. Even the light gathering in the carved scoops of the window frame shouts, “Today!” The upside-down and thoroughly unreliable map of Holland on the wall serves to remind us that everything changes, and nothing changes at all.

Isn’t it odd how you feel the presence of some artists almost before you see them? Frick was a sucker for a strong personality. You know the Ingres by the stare of the Comtesse d’Haussonville on the back of your neck, the Piero della Francesca by the ghostly clump of John the Evangelist’s big, solid feet, the Turners from their focal blaze in the corner of your eye. But one painting seems to work by sheer physical magnetism, and reminds me of the real reason I keep coming back here: Bellini’s “St Francis in the Desert”. And then I remember the reason I keep coming back to the Bellini. 

Michael Donaghy was a poor Irish boy from the Bronx, the product of the kind of household that would have done its kids a lot less damage if it had divorced. But, as his namesake Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) once said in “30 Rock”, “The Irish mate for life. Like swans. Like drunk, angry swans.” His loving, violent upbringing left Michael a neurotic, ethereal, infinitely sweet man, much too sensitive to suffer this bruising planet for the full term. He was a polymath, who read everything and was incapable of forgetting any of it. He would go through periods so book-obsessed he would not watch his dreams but read them. He claimed to have run with a gang called the Bronx Philologists, and bought his drugs from a guy called Schwa. He made a lot of stuff up. He was also one of the finest poets of the age. I loved him dearly, and suffered his death as I would a brother’s.

His head, as they say in Dundee, was full of doors, all banging. The doorless silences of the Frick created a place of asylum for Michael. A keen student of the Italian Renaissance, his poetry is full of references and buried allusions to the masters. “St Francis in the Desert” was his favourite painting, and he would stand entranced before it, hour after hour. The trance was often heavily drug-induced. On one occasion, he told me, he spent the afternoon helplessly frozen in Francis’s own pose—until he was physically removed from the premises, the complaint that he was about to receive the stigmata falling on deaf ears.

The Bellini really is a grand thing to stand in front of for an hour, and the miracle is that you can still actually do this, in New York, at lunchtime, largely without human interruption. Everything in the picture is, you soon notice, turned towards the glory off-stage. The crane, the distant turrets, the skull on Francis’s desk, even the slow dumb donkey: all are helplessly drawn to the unseen source. (I had this as my desktop in the late 1990s—a clickable version on which the saint’s foot opened Word, and so on. My instinct is still to jab at his sandals in order to check my e-mail.) 

Francis’s chest-forward, open-armed pose has more than a touch of Eric Cantona about it—someone basking proudly in the glory as much as humbly before it, accepting as much as he is rendering. It makes me think of what Rilke meant when he described us as “receivers”: less passive recipients of the Word than active listeners for it, less pocket radio than Very Large Array. After half an hour I move out of Donaghy’s shade and leave him standing there, tuned in, at last, to a pure and noiseless signal, and blissfully invisible to the security guards. And I head back out into the chaos and car horns of Fifth Avenue, relieved that I still know where to find him.

Picture: Don Paterson finds Corot's "The Lake" both compulsive and unsettling (Grant Delin)

The Frick Collection is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-6pm, Sunday 11am-5pm; frick.org

Don Paterson is an award-winning poet and the poetry editor at Picador. He is working on a new collection, "Train Songs: An Anthology"