Holbein’s Sir Thomas More by Hilary Mantel and Xavier F. Salomon; Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid by Margaret Iacono and James Ivory; Gouthière’s Candelabras by Edmund de Waal and Charlotte Vignon; Rembrandt’s Polish Rider by Maira Kalman and Xavier F. Salomon; Constable’s White Horse by William Kentridge and Aimee Ng; Titian’s Pietro Aretino by Francine Prose and Xavier F. Salomon.
Review by David Starkey
Looking at pictures in the Frick Collection’s temporary home in the Breuer Building (the old Whitney Museum), with its high gray walls and concrete coffered ceilings, can be a bit intimidating, but the Frick Diptych series, which currently consists of six books, makes the selected works feel both familiar and even—dare one say this about serious tomes on art?—quite a bit of fun.
The volumes, published by D Giles, are bound in different colors of cloth, with the titles and authors’ names engraved on the cover; a highlight from each work is pasted in the center. They make an elegant group on a shelf, and the interiors are equally deluxe, with a well-designed layout illustrated by high quality full-color images that reproduce other works by the artist, and those associated with him (so far, it is always him), as well as drawings, engravings, photographs and documents relevant to the work under discussion. Five of the books focus on paintings; the sixth examines, to quote Frick Director Ian Wardropper, “an extraordinary pair of candelabras with gilt-bronze mounts.”
The most notable feature of the series is that each book contains writing by one of the Frick’s curators paired with text by a “creative” (thus, the “diptych” of the series’ title). In order of their appearance in the series, these non-scholars are historical novelist Hilary Mantel, film director James Ivory, artist and author Edmund de Waal, cartoonist and illustrator Maira Kalman, artist William Kentridge, and novelist Francine Prose. It’s a diverse, even quirky crew of commentators, and they are responsible for making the series feel as though it wants to reach beyond the typical reader of scholarly treatises.
That’s not to say that the artists and writers don’t take their tasks seriously. Edmund de Waal begins his commentary on Gouthière’s candelabras in literary memoir mode: “You start to make a list of all the gold things in the world. You start with your earliest memory—an apple handed to you by your grandmother. There is a particular evening light in childhood in the low hills and beech woods near Troyes in Champagne. This also matters.” He goes on to discuss Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the alchemist Johann Böttger, Proust’s opinions of Chardin and a Song dynasty bowl; de Waal’s commentary ends with an original poem. And here’s William Kentridge on Constable: “I knew the struggle he had to hold out against the demands for the Italianate, for the sublime, for the dramatic landscape. And his struggle—to make portraits of trees as significant as the portraits of generals or dukes—was heroic.” Hilary Mantel’s contribution is a nuanced letter addressed to Thomas More, one of the chief antagonists of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. Francine Prose gives a valiant, if occasionally strained, defense of Titian’s scoundrel friend Pietro Aretino. James Ivory’s short story imagining the circumstances surrounding the correspondence depicted in Vermeer’s painting is maybe a tad corny, and Maira Kalman’s charming drawings don’t shed a whole lot of light on Rembrandt’s Polish Rider, but overall this element of the series is resoundingly successful, and certainly good reason for us to look forward to future volumes (next up, in February 2022, is novelist Alan Hollinghurst on Fragonard’s Progress of Love).
Of course, if the creatives are free to wander where their imagination takes them, that’s all the more reason for the curators to ground their discussions in solid scholarship. Fortunately, this is mostly scholarship with a light touch. Margaret Iacono, for instance, provides just the right amount of information on Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid. In concise, jargon-free prose, she covers the figure of the maid and the epistolary theme in Dutch Golden Age pictures and offers an interesting exploration of how infrared reflectography sheds light on the modifications Vermeer made while painting. Three of the books—on Holbein, Rembrandt and Titian—are co-authored by chief curator Xavier F. Salomon. He’s a strong writer, with a good eye for the telling detail, as are Aimee Ng (on Constable), who brings the Frick to YouTube, and Charlotte Vignon (writing about Gouthière).
Do the books sometimes contain more particulars than you would care to know about each work? Well, yes, certainly—unless you are an art historian yourself. For me, the least exciting element in the series is the section that traces the movement of the painting (or candelabra) from the artist’s easel (or workshop) to its current home in the Frick Collection. Granted, we do learn the role wealth, privilege, intrigue and sheer luck play in acquiring a masterpiece, but I found the lists of dates and dukes and art dealers a bit deadening.
Nevertheless, the authors of the Frick Diptych series seem generally aware that their audience is more likely to consist of the curious than the fervent, and there’s a real sense of balance and grace in all the books. Next year, after Fragonard, it’s Veneziano and Monet. I can’t wait to find out who will be paired with whom, what they will have to say, and what form their commentary will take.