Art, taste, and history come together in “The Pursuit of Immortality: Masterpieces from the Scher Collection of Portrait Medals,” on view at the Frick Collection through September 10. The show, drawn from a gift last year by Stephen K. Scher and his wife Janie Woo Scher, presents around one hundred examples of a too-little-known art form that originated in the Renaissance. The exhibition, however, isn’t limited to Italian examples or even the Renaissance: the geographical spread includes Germany, France, the Netherlands, England, and elsewhere, and the timespan covers four centuries, with a 1911 portrait of Leo Tolstoy being the most recent artifact in the assembly.
Portrait medals are small (little more than an inch or two in diameter) objects conceived to commemorate or celebrate their subjects, typically bearing, on one side, a relief portrait seen in profile, and on the other, some sort of identifying attribute, such as a coat of arms. That bare-bones description sells them rather short, however. Their full aesthetic import is vividly conveyed in the opening paragraph of the catalogue essay by the Frick associate curator and the show’s organizer Aimee Ng—a passage that will make anyone despairing of the current state of art writing take heart. These medals, she writes,
make the absent present, evoking the fullness of the individuals they represent through the likeness, imagery and text they carry. . . . [They] were intended to be seen and felt, to be turned to catch the light and scrutinized from every angle, claiming attention from both the eyes and the hands. One of their most compelling attributes is their tactility, experienced on feeling the weight of a medal in the hand, on rubbing the metallic ridge of a tiny nose, or with a twist of the wrist revealing the other side. Most bear images and text on both sides, and some even carry messages along the edge. . . . demanding to be moved in space to reveal all of their surfaces to the beholder.
The Frick has installed the show in a way that brings out those very qualities of tactility and three-dimensionality that Ng so eloquently describes. Thus most of the medals are displayed in cases that allow you to see both front and back. Besides giving you the fullest sense of the object possible, this arrangement makes for an entertaining guessing game—what, for example, is the significance of the elephant on the back of Matteo de’ Pasti’s 1446 portrait of Isotta degli Atti of Rimini, mistress and third wife of Sigismondo Malatesta (“the Wolf of Rimini”), to whom we owe the existence of Alberti’s Tempio Malatestiano. One item on display is on a spindle inside a Lucite box, where the viewer is invited to turn the object over as if holding it in your hand. And out in the open there is even a full-size reproduction of one of the medals, Pisanello’s 1447 portrait of Cecilia Gonzaga, that invites the visitor to experience the very physical qualities of mass, weight, and texture—so different from the coins we carry in our pockets.
We learn from the exhibition that it has long been Scher’s desire to have these objects received as works of sculpture, not just as “numismatic objects.” Again, thanks to the thoughtful display and lighting at the Frick, Scher’s desire is realized. Guillaume Dupré’s 1618 portrait of the Burgundian jurist Pierre Jeannin is not only a tour de force of characterization—the subject’s powerful intellect captured in his steely gaze and stern countenance. It is also a masterpiece of physical description. Dupré captures his subject’s tousled hair and flowing beard, contrasting these with the flowing, broadly modeled architecture of his judicial robes.
Speaking of Scher, there’s another noteworthy aspect of this exhibition, one that might be expressed as, “Yes, Virginia, there still are real collectors.” We’ve just gone through the spring modern and contemporary art auctions, those seasonal free-for-alls where speculators vie for high-end artworks purely for their prestige and trade-in value—individuals who are, for the most part, incapable of answering five simple questions about the form or content of what they have acquired.
But Scher is the old style of collector. His acquisitive habit grew out of an aesthetic coup de foudre—he was set on his path when shown a Renaissance medal in an antique store in Florence while an undergraduate—and was subsequently governed by study and discipline. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the legacy of this show, besides increasing our knowledge of portrait medals, were to be a revised understanding of what it means to be a collector?