Travis Nygard, Art Historian > Malvina Hoffman Exhibition > Normative Death

Malvina Hoffman,Henry Clay Frick, 1965, Sandstone.
Malvina Hoffman, Henry Clay Frick, 1965, Sandstone.
Relief portrait permanently installed in the façade of the
Frick Fine Arts Building, University of Pittsburgh.
Photograph by Travis Nygard.

Malvina and Mortality

Introduction | Normative Death | Violent Death | Ideal Death

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Normative Death: Henry Clay Frick

First Stage: Denial and Isolation
Second Stage: Anger
Third Stage: Bargaining
Fourth Stage: Depression
Fifth Stage: Acceptance

-Approaches to death, from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s On Death and Dying, (New York: Macmillan) 1969.


Malvina Hoffman's portrait of Henry Clay Frick, commissioned by his daughter Helen as a memorial, would have seemed old-fashioned even when it was new.  Although the portrait invites contemplation on the deceased’s biography, there is scant information presented to the viewer to aid in interpretation.  Such a memorial reflects the norms of the late nineteenth century.  What is particularly interesting about this portrait, however, is that it was created during a later era after the norms for grieving and remembering the dead had changed. Indeed, during the mid 1960s death was rethought in numerous ways by psychologists and the authors of etiquette manuals, such as Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt.  The psychological theory of death and grieving that is most common today comes from this era and was articulated by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.  Her stages of death deeply informed pop-psychology and are familiar to all: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Rather than presenting the viewer with an image that can be interpreted in numerous personal ways, which would coincide with Kübler-Ross’s multifaceted theory, Hoffman created a single, straightforward, dignified, and unengaging representation of this man.  The statement should be viewed as a conscious choice on the part of Hoffman, as she could have imbued the image with personality. Indeed, she knew knew Henry Clay Frick personally, having created an earlier portrait busts of him from life.   

Malvina Hoffman exhibition, hallway display cases.
B. Kenneth Johnstone and Associates, Elevation of the Henry Clay Frick Fine Arts Building.
Reproduction of blueprint in collection of the University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery.

Henry Clay Frick

The evasive dignity of this portrait becomes all the more apparent when juxtaposed with the images that people associated with Henry Clay Frick during his life, such as widely-circulated photographs of his business.  To this day he is best-remembered for his contributions to industry and his poor labor relations.  His industrial contribution was mass-producing coke—a charcoal made from coal rather than wood—as well as managing large steel plants.  He sparked one of the bloodiest disasters in American history when he fired workers at the Homestead Steel Mill who refused to dissolve their labor union.  The conflict, which lasted almost five months, was started when he erected a fence around the mill with small holes in it to shoot at former employees that dared to approach.  By hiring a private military and bringing new workers to the mill by train from a neighboring city he was able to keep the mill operating.  In the aftermath of this strike an assassination attempt was made on Frick by the anarchist Alexander Berkman.  Scenes from this era, including the employees at bay, machine at the mill, military intervention, and the railway are presented in the form of stereoscopic photos here. 

Introduction | Normative Death | Violent Death | Ideal Death

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