March 14, 2022
At Frick Madison, highlights from the collection are in conversation across media, geography, and time—often in unexpected ways. Middle Ground investigates surprising dialogues between pairs of works of art on view, speaking to the connections waiting to be discovered at our temporary home.
Foreground: “Art, Myth, and Reality”
On the third floor of Frick Madison, Francisco de Goya’s large canvas The Forge depicts three blacksmiths toiling around an anvil. One room away, in the bronze gallery, Pietro Tacca’s Nessus and Deianira is a beautifully poised depiction of monstrous violence, made of the same kind of material glowing at the center of Goya’s painting. Created respectively in the early nineteenth and late sixteenth/early seventeenth centuries, and apparently so different on the surface, both of these objects employ metal as a powerful storytelling device to prompt deep reflection on the part of the viewer.
Utilizing metal as either medium or subject, both works are steeped in mythological narrative. Tacca’s arresting sculpture depicts the moment from Greek mythology when, as the centaur Nessus is ferrying Deianira, the wife of Hercules, across the river Euenos, he attempts to abduct her. She is later rescued by Hercules, who shoots the centaur with a poisoned arrow. Tacca focuses on the moment right before Hercules’s arrow hits the centaur, as Nessus rears up dramatically on his hind legs, with Deianira on his back desperately trying to wriggle out of his grip. In an almost cinematic style, the undetermined fates of the figures physically hang in the balance, frozen at the apex of the drama in Tacca’s gravity-defying composition.
Goya’s Forge, for its part, does not tell a story, but it has almost as much to do with Greek myth as Tacca’s sculpture. Showing three blacksmiths against a plain gray background in youth, maturity, and old age, Goya adopts a common motif of ancient mythology: the three stages of life. The image of these men clustered around an anvil is likewise indebted to traditional depictions of the forge of Vulcan, the metalworker of the Olympian gods. Goya has thus turned three anonymous laborers in working clothes into the subjects of a dignified, monumental painting, a format usually reserved for grand mythological or historical scenes. Or, conversely, he has boldly disguised Vulcan and his assistants in modern costume, a role reversal in either case that challenges the confines of art, myth, and reality.
Strengthening their narrative power, both works evoke metal as a material inseparable from the body, both fictional and real. Deianira’s sky-reaching arm visually mirrors the arm of one of Goya’s workers, lifted in the air with a hammer poised to strike the molten metal. Tacca’s sculpture, too, represents a monumental artistic achievement of the type of labor depicted in Goya’s canvas, which portrays a forge very much like the one where Tacca’s work would have been produced, albeit centuries earlier.
Considering how physical the bronze casting process is, the prominence of the body in these two works is apt. The liquefying, pouring, molding, and cold-working of a bronze statue like Tacca’s Nessus and Deianira require an incredible amount of elbow grease, and the undertaking is fundamentally collaborative. Highly trained, toiling bodies are needed to cast bronze statues, and contorting bodies, in turn, are also the subject of many bronze works. Because of its tensile strength, bronze is the only sculptural medium flexible enough to describe movements as complex and precarious as Nessus’s and Deianira’s—poses that would be structurally impossible to achieve in marble.
Because of this inextricable link between bronze and the body, casting has often been understood as a generative process, an almost literal bringing to life. In Italian, for example, the clay core of a bronze statue that is sometimes left inside the final cast is called the anima (soul). This life-infused conception of bronze casting illuminates how the physical toil of bodies—the souls and labor of individual artisans—is inherent to casting scenes of great bodily effort.
Middle Ground: “Beyond Frame and Form”
Rooted in mythology and bringing the body of the maker and the subject to the fore, both works prompt the viewer to consider the narrative beyond the frame or the sculpted form. Violence—whether in the centaur’s fierce grasp of a mortal woman against her will, in the momentum of a hammer ready to strike, or implicit in the exploitation of physical labor—suspends both works in dramatic uncertainty. But the implied movement of the body also introduces temporality to the viewer’s experience, pushing us to consider the past, present, and future of the figures caught in motion.
Sixteenth-century art patrons and learned classical enthusiasts would have known Deianira’s mythological story well, and small- and medium-scale statues like Tacca’s were used as “conversation pieces” to trigger meditations on various aspects of life and culture. Fast-forwarding beyond this moment of Deianira’s lonely terror, she is the one who survives, but she later unintentionally causes the prophesied death of Hercules, her savior. Tacca’s Nessus and Deianira thus serves as a stark memento of the difficult relationship between violence, morality, and the vagaries of fortune, epitomizing Greek tragedy’s uneasy balance between guilt and innocence, fate and choice.
By contrast, Goya’s Forge challenges the viewer to identify or interpret its message, absent of any narrative or mythology to saturate it with meaning. We know nothing of the lives of the three men; they are identified only by their labor. Goya rejects a direct interaction with the viewer by turning the figure in the foreground away from us. The painting and its shifting themes of anonymity and identity thus call for the viewer to contend with a morally discomforting scene—one implying an endless cycle of sons destined to live and die as blacksmiths like their fathers before them—and with the fraught nature of labor in art and artisanship.
Both works make striking use of the process of metalwork to create meaning, asking the viewer to interrogate the complexities of violence, the nuances of storytelling, and the role of artworks both as objects and narrative devices. Comparing these two works anew in the galleries at Frick Madison, we are left to wonder what industrialist Henry Clay Frick thought of the laboring figures in Goya’s Forge, quite unlike any other work in his collection. Reflecting on these themes of morality and on the group of bronze sculptures at the museum, we might be reminded of Deianira’s remark in Sophocles’s tragedy Women of Trachis: “Wise words may fall...from humble lips.”