The Frick Collection is breaking all rules with its new installation of Edmund de Waal’s works in the museum. In a bold move, the curators of the museum superimpose de Waal’s intricate sculptures in front of traditional paintings from its collection. Ingres, Vermeer, and Rembrandt can now be seen behind, through, and in a relationship to de Waal’s sculptures made of porcelain, steel, gold and marble in a thought-provoking Effective Affinities exhibition that is on display from May through November.
Not only does the permanent collection of the Frick provide a stunning backdrop to de Waal’s works, more interestingly, the sculptures encourage visitors to take a new look at the well-known paintings and heritage furniture, and re-present them through a modernist lens, creating great new connections and raising new questions about how the presentation of art and its environment affects our perceptions of it.
This fresh approach makes us reconsider our responses to the works owned by the Frick Collection and gives them a new lease of life, making them surprisingly relevant again. The unexpected and as such very exciting decision of the Frick Collection to invite de Waal to its steeped-in-history setting is revitalising and inspiring its returning visitors and members, and I applaud their ability to innovate.
I have been curious about de Waal and his work since reading his bestsellers, The Hare with Amber Eyes and The White Road, as these books are stand-out dedications to the art of netsuke and porcelain respectively. The books are highly relatable because they build on de Waal’s personal family history and experiences, and each page is lovingly filled with interesting facts and with de Waal’s obvious passion for the arts. It’s unsurprising that the books brought de Waal the Costa Book Award, the Galaxy New Writer of the Year Book Award, and the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize.
One striking installation in particular instantly captured my heart and my admiration. It was the white porcelain installation in the little side room at the end of the left main wing that hosts works by Piero della Francesca and other Medieval paintings and artefacts. The room is a suitably dark and confined space, which recreates the feeling one must have had when entering Medieval rooms, for which these works were destined. The lucid, all penetrating, pristinely white colour of de Waal’s installation literally illuminates the room, transforming it into a magic, glowing, uniquely lit venue. I thought that it was a great testimony to the importance of color and to material-specific qualities, and this experience brought back some wonderful memories of reading de Waal’s The White Road and admiring the translucency of the white porcelain with him.
Congratulations to the Frick’s curators, and I hope there is more to come. It is very stimulating to see how established museums are able to reinvent themselves, and in turn, a great opportunity for visitors to challenge their thinking and perceptions. I hope that many of you will be able to visit the exhibition, and when you do, let me know what you think!