The Frick’s New Bronzes Show Full of Pleasant Surprises

February 4, 2014 Updated: February 4, 2014

NEW YORK—The Frick Collection has tried something different with its presentation of Renaissance and Baroque bronzes from the collection of Blackstone Vice Chairman J. Tomilson Hill and his wife Janine. Curators, taking a cue from the way the couple decorate their home, has paired classically themed bronze statuettes with paintings by contemporary and modern artists.

This sort of cross-genre display may seem like a stretch to some and a daring commentary to others. Turns out—for this exhibition at least—it’s neither. While the decision to place classic and modern pieces together perks up some ears, at its heart this is still a show about bronzes. 

Curator Denise Allen intends to reflect the Hills’s wide range of collecting while also drawing visitors to unexpected ideas that can be sparked by comparing disparate art.

Pleasant Surprise 1: Objects Converse 

Curators have created a separate room focusing on some of the Hills’s religious art. The Cabinet Gallery (a niche, really) on the main floor houses pairs of artworks depicting the same subject matter. 

The assumption of the Virgin is narrated in a bronze multifigure relief by an unknown French artist. (More on unknown artists later.) The relief hangs adjacent to a Peter Paul Rubens oil painting of the same name. In both, a confusion of people discover that the Virgin Mary is no longer in her coffin while another realizes that she’s being taken up to heaven. 

The Rubens glows with ethereal light in the way only a painting can, but the relief was cast with such great depth of field (to borrow a photography term) that the viewer feels part of the jumble. 

A figure of Christ on the cross by Italian artist Alessandro Algardi hangs next to a glazed terracotta object twisted like a wave-battered whalebone. Its title, “Crocifisso (Christ on the Cross),” may be the only thing that conceptually ties it to its neighbor.

The various depictions of Christ in this room vary in the degree to which each exhibits a fascination with the grotesque pain of his torture and crucifixion. A small painting of Christ as the man of sorrows—emaciated and ghastly—contrasts with the graceful and almost serene sculpture “Cristo Morto” by Florentine Antonio Susini. 

Pleasant Surprise 2: A Small Eye Opener

In the basement are the two main galleries. Before exploring those, though, it is highly recommended to watch a five-minute video playing in the foyer demonstrating the technique of lost wax casting. Visitors will appreciate how much craftsmanship and attentiveness is required at each of the many steps. Each sculpture is a little miracle. 

Pleasant Surprise 3: Up Close and Personal

To anyone familiar with the fact that the museum is housed in the private home of Henry Clay Frick it is not really a surprise, (but it never stops to delight nonetheless): No vitrines separate the viewer from the sculptures. This allows us to enjoy them as the original collector might, short of handling them. 

You can walk around them, peek from below, get on your tiptoes, and appreciate fully the three-dimensionality of the objects and the creative problem solving that makes each one compositionally pleasing from every possible angle.

One small criticism: Giuseppe Piamontini’s “Hercules and Iolaus Slaying the Hydra,” with its tangle of limbs both monster and human, is such a complex scene that it really should have been placed on a freestanding pedestal rather than on a wall shelf. As it is, we are sadly prevented from circling the sculpture to see the two heroes encircle their victim. 

Pleasant Surprise 4: Tasteful Juxtapositions

Of all the modern paintings Allen could have selected from the Hill collection, she chose three (two by Cy Twombly and one by Ed Ruscha) for their subdued colors so that they wouldn’t detract from our viewing of the bronzes. Rather, they are meant to echo aspects of the sculptures. 

Like a background singer, Ed Ruscha’s 1988 acrylic painting “Seventeenth Century,” hangs behind Giuseppe Piamontini’s regal and pompous portrait of the bewigged Prince Ferdinando di Cosimo III.

“War!” “Plague!” “Taxes!” the huge canvas exclaims. These and other words are superimposed on an image of a ship sailing under stormy skies.

Scream though it tries to, “Seventeenth Century” can’t seem to drown out the bronzes. Though many of them stand only a couple hands high, they all sing out with the nuances of human emotion.

Aside from a few references in the wall text that draw loose comparisons between the paintings and bronzes, the modern art serves as unobtrusive backdrops. They don’t narrate myths and legends like the bronzes can, but their very presence highlights the cultural richness the sculptures represent.

Pleasant Surprise 5: Inspired Collecting

The Hills often collect objects purely because the art speaks to them. They might not even be sure of the artist’s identity, his reputation, or even in what country he worked. But their sharing of these artworks with an institution like the Frick allows researchers and curators to dig deeper into artists’ bodies of work and techniques not well understood before. 

Research into these artworks is still new, said exhibition catalogue editor Patricia Wengraf. Further studies of these bronzes, I hope, will grant art lovers more pleasant surprises in the future.

Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Hill Collection
Jan. 28–June 15

The Frick Collection
1 E. 70th St.
Admission $10–$20