Automobiles And Art – American Travel

WITHIN the last few years there has come to Detroit a new life. The vast growth of the city, owing to the development of the automobile industry, has brought in many new, active, able business men and their families, whom the old Detroiters have dubbed the “Gasoline Aristocracy.” Thus there are in Detroit two fairly distinct social groups—the Grosse Pointe group, of which the old families form the nucleus, and the North Woodward group, largely made up of newcomers.

The automobile has not only changed Detroit from a quiet old town into a rich, active city, but upon the drowsy romance of the old days it has superimposed a new kind of romance—the romance of modern business. Fiction in its wildest flights hardly rivals the true stories of certain motor moguls of Detroit. Every one can tell you these stories. If you are a novelist all you have to do is go and get them. But, aside from stories which are true, there have developed, in connection with the automobile business, certain fictions more or less picturesque in character. One of these, which has been widely circulated, is that “90 per cent. of the automobile business of Detroit is done in the bar of the Pontchartrain Hotel.” The big men of the business resent that yarn. And, of course, it is preposterously false. Neither 90 per cent.. nor i0 per cent. nor any appreciable per cent. of the automobile business is done there. Indeed, you hardly ever see a really important representative of the business in that place. Such men are not given to hanging around bars.

I do not wish the reader to infer that I hung around the bar myself in order to ascertain this fact. Not at all. I had heard the story and was apprised of its untruth by the president of one of the large motor car companies who was generously showing me about. As we bowled along one of the wide streets which passes through that open place at the center of the city called the Campus Martius, I was struck, as any visitor must be, by the spectacle of hundreds upon hundreds of automobiles parked, nose to the curb, tail to the street, in solid rows.

“You could tell that this was an automobile city,” I remarked.

“Do you know why you see so many of them?” he asked with a smile.

I said I supposed it was because there were so many automobiles owned in Detroit.

“No,” he explained. “In other cities with as many and more cars you will not see this kind of thing. They don’t permit it. But our wide streets lend themselves to it, and our Chief of Police, who believes in the automobile business as much as any of the rest of us, also lends himself to it. He lets us leave our cars about the streets because he thinks it a good advertisement for the town.”

As he spoke he was forced to draw up at a crossing to let a funeral pass. It was an automobile funeral. The hearse, black and terrible as only a hearse can be, was going at a modest pace for a motor, but an exceedingly rapid pace for a hearse. If I am any judge of speed, the departed was being wafted to his final resting place at the somewhat sprightly clip of twelve or fifteen miles an hour. Behind the hearse trailed limousines and touring cars. Two humble taxicabs brought up the rear. There was a grim ridiculousness about the procession’s progress—pleasure cars throttled down, trying to look solemn—chauffeurs continually throwing out their clutches in a commendable effort to keep a respectful rate of speed.

Is there any other thing in the world which epitomizes our times as does an automobile funeral? Yesterday such a thing would have been deemed indecorous ; to-day it is not only decorous, but rather chic, provided that the pace be slow; tomorrow—what will it be then? Will hearses go shooting through the streets at forty miles an hour? Will mourners scorch behind, their horns shrieking signals to the driver of the hearse to get out of the road and let the swiftest pass ahead, where there is n’t all that dust? I am afraid a time is close at hand when, if hearses are to maintain that position in the funeral cortege to which convention has in the past assigned them, they will have to hold it by sheer force of superior horsepower !

Detroit is a young man’s town. I do not think the stand-pat, sit-tight, go-easy kind of business man exists there. The wheel of commerce has wire spokes and rubber tires, and there is no drag upon the brake band. Youth is at the steering wheel—both figuratively and literally. The heads of great Detroit industries drive their own cars; and if the fact seems unimportant, consider : do the leading men of your city drive theirs? Or are they driven by chauffeurs? Have they, in other words, reached a time of life and a frame of mind which prohibit their taking the wheel because it is not safe for them to do so, or worse yet, because it is not dignified? Have they that energy which replaces worn-out tires—and methods—and ideas?

I have said that the president of a large automobile company showed me about Detroit. I don’t know what his age is, but he is under thirty-five. I don’t know what his fortune is, but he is suspected of a million, and whatever he may have, he has made himself. I hope he is a millionaire, for there is in the entire world only one other man who, I feel absolutely certain, deserves a million dollars more than he does—and a native modesty prevents my mentioning this other’s name.

Looking at my friend, the president, I am always struck with fresh amazement.. I want to say to him: “You can’t be the president of that great big company! I know you sit in the president’s office, but—look at your hair; it is n’t even turning gray ! I refuse to believe that you are president until you show me your ticket, or your diploma, or whatever it is that a president has !”

Becoming curious about his exact age, I took up my “Who ‘s Who in America” one evening (“Who ‘s Who” is another valued volume on my one-foot shelf) with a view to finding out. But all I did find out was that his name is not contained therein. That struck me as surprising. I looked up the heads of half a dozen other enormous automobile companies—men of importance, interest, reputation. Of these I discovered the name of but one, and that one was not (as I should have rather expected it to be) Henry Ford. (There is a Henry Ford in my “Who’s Who,” but he is a professor at Princeton and writes for the Atlantic Monthly!)

Now whether this is so because of the newness of the automobile business, or because “Who ‘s Who” turns up its nose at “trade,” in contradistinction to the professions and the arts, I cannot say. Obviously, the compilation of such a work involves tremendous difficulties, and I have always respected the volume for the ability with which it overcomes them; but when a Detroit dentist (who invented, as I recollect, some new kind of filling) is included in “Who ‘s Who,” and when almost every minor poet who squeaks is in it, and almost every illustrator who makes candy-looking girls for magazine covers, and almost every writer—then it seems to me time to include, as well, the names of men who are in charge of that industry which is not only the greatest in Detroit, but which, more than any industry since the inception of the telephone, has transformed our life.

The fact of the matter is, of course, that writers, in particular, are taken too seriously, not merely by “Who ‘s Who” but by all kinds of publications—especially newspapers. Only opera singers and actors can vie with writers in the amount of undeserved publicity which they receive. If I omit professional baseball players it is by intention ; for, as a fan might say, they have to “deliver the goods.”

Baedeker’s United States, a third volume in the condensed library I carried in my trunk, sets forth (in small type!) the following: “The finest private art gallery in Detroit is that of Mr. Charles L. Freer. The gallery contains the largest group of works by Whistler in existence and good examples of Tryon, Dewing, and Abbott Thayer as well as many Oriental paintings and potteries.”

But in the case of the Detroit Museum of Art, Baedeker bursts into black-faced type, and even adds an asterisk, his mark of special commendation. Also a considerable reference is made to various collections contained by the museum : the Scripps collection of old masters, the Stearns collection of Oriental curiosities, a painting by Rubens, drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo, and a great many works attributed to ancient Italian and Dutch masters. “The museum also contains,” says Baedeker, “modern paintings by Gari Melchers, Munkacsy, Tryon, F. D. Millet, and others.”

I have quoted Baedeker as above, because it reveals the bald fact with regard to art in Detroit; also because it reveals the even balder fact that our blessed old friend Baedeker, who has helped us all so much, can, when he cuts loose on art, make himself exquisitely ridiculous.

The truth is, of course, that Mr. Freer’s gallery is not merely the “finest private gallery in Detroit” ; not merely the finest gallery of any kind in Detroit; but that it is one of the exceedingly important collections of the world, just as Mr. Freer is one of the world’s exceedingly important authorities on art. Indeed, any town which contains Mr. Freer—even if he is only stop-ping overnight in a hotel—becomes by grace of his presence an important art center for the time being. His mere presence is sufficient. For in Mr. Freer’s head there is more art than is contained in many a museum. He was the man whom, above all others in Detroit, we wished to see. (And that is no disparagement of Henry Ford.)

Once in a long, long time it is given to the average human being to make contact for a brief space with some other human being far above the average—a man who knows one thing supremely well. I have met six such men : a surgeon, a musician, an author, an actor, a painter, and Mr. Charles L. Freer.

I do not know much of Mr. Freer’s history. He was not born in Detroit, though it was there that he made the fortune which enabled him to retire from business. It is surprising enough to hear of an American business man willing to retire in the prime of life. You expect that in Europe, not here. And it is still more surprising when that American business man begins to devote to art the same energy which made him a success financially. Few would want to do that; fewer could. By the time the average successful man has wrung from the world a few hundred thousand dollars, he is fit for nothing else. He has become a wringer and must remain one always.

Of course rich men collect pictures. I’m not denying that. But they do it, generally, for the same reason they collect butlers and footmen—because tradition says it is the proper thing to do. And I have observed in the course of my meanderings that they are almost invariably better judges of butlers than of paintings. That is because their butlers are really and truly more important to them—excepting as their paintings have financial value. Still, if the world is full of so-called art collectors who don’t know what they ‘re doing, let us not think of them too harshly, for there are also painters who do not know what they are doing, and it is necessary that some one should support them. Otherwise they would starve, and a bad painter should not have to do that—starvation being an honor reserved by tradition for the truly great.

Very keenly I feel the futility of an attempt to tell of Mr. Freer in a few paragraphs. He should be dealt with as Mark Twain was dealt with by that prince of biographers, Albert Bigelow Paine; some one should live with him through the remainder of his life—always sympathetic and appreciative, always ready to draw him out, always with a notebook. It should be some one just like Paine, and as there isn’t some one just like Paine, it should be Paine himself.

Probably as a development of his original interest in Whistler, Mr. Freer has, of late years, devoted himself almost entirely to ancient Oriental art—sculptures, paintings, ceramics, bronzes, textiles, lacquers and jades. The very rumor that in some little town in the interior of China was an old vase finer than any other known vase of the kind, has been enough to set him traveling. Many of his greatest treasures he has unearthed, bargained for and acquired at first hand, in remote parts of the globe. He bearded Whistler in his den—that is a story by itself. He purchased Whistler’s famouse Peacock Room, brought it to this country and set it up in his own house. He traveled on elephant-back through the jungles of India and Java in search of buried temples; to Egypt for Biblical manuscripts and potteries, and to the nearer East, years ago, in quest of the now famous “lustered glazes.” He made many trips to Japan, in early days, to study, in ancient temples and private collections, the fine arts of China, Corea and Japan, and was the first American student to visit the rock-hewn caves of central China, with their thousands of specimens of early sculpture—sculpture ranking, Mr. Freer says, with the best sculpture of the world.

The photographs and rubbings of these objects made under Mr. Freer’s personal supervision have greatly aided students, all over the globe. Every important public library in this country and abroad has been presented by Mr. Freer with facsimiles of the Biblical manuscripts discovered by him in Egypt about seven years ago, so far as these have been published. The original manuscripts will ultimately go to the National Gallery, at Washington.

Mr. Freer’s later life has been one long treasure hunt. Now he will be pursuing a pair of mysterious porcelains around the earth, catching up with them in China, losing them, finding them again in Japan, or in New York, or Paris; now discovering in some unheard-of Chinese town a venerable masterpiece, painted on silk, which has been rolled into a ball for a child’s plaything. The placid pleasures of conventional collecting, through the dealers, is not the thing that Mr. Freer loves. He loves the chase.

You should see him handle his ceramics. You should hear him talk of them ! He knows. And though you do not know, you know he knows. More, he is willing to explain. For, though his intolerance is great, it is not directed so much at honest ignorance as against meretricious art.

The names of ancient Chinese painters, of emperors who practised art centuries ago, of dynasties covering thousands of years, of Biblical periods, flow kindly from his lips :

“This dish is Grecian. It was made five hundred years before the birth of Christ. This is a Chinese marble, but you see it has a Persian scroll in high re-lief. And this bronze urn: it is perhaps the oldest piece I have—about four thousand years—it is Chinese. But do you see this border on it? Perfect Greek ! Where did the Chinese get that? Art is universal. We may call an object Greek, or Roman, or Assyrian, or Chinese, or Japanese, but as we begin to understand, we find that other races had the same thing—identical forms and designs. Take, for example, this painting of Whistler’s, `The Gold Screen.’ You see he uses the Tosa design. The Tosa was used in Japan in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and down to about twenty years ago. But there was n’t a single example of it in Europe in 1864, when Whistler painted `The Gold Screen’ ; and Whistler had not been to the Orient. Then, where did he get the Tosa design? He invented it. It came to him because he was a great artist, and art is universal.”

It was like that—the spirit of it. And you must imagine the words spoken with measured distinctness in a deep, resonant voice, by a man with whom art is a religion and the pursuit of it a passion. He has a nature full of fire. At the mention of the name of the late J. P. Morgan, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or of certain Chinese collectors and painters of the distant past, a sort of holy flame of admiration rose and kindled in him. His contempt is also fire. A minor eruption occurred when the automobile industry was spoken of; a Vesuvian flare which reddened the sky and left the commercialism of the city in smoking ruins. But it was not until I chanced to mention the Detroit Museum of Art—an institution of which Mr. Freer strongly disapproves—that the great outburst came. His wrath was like an overpowering revolt of nature. A whirl-wind of tempestuous fire mounted to the heavens and the museum emerged a clinker.

He went to our heads. We four, who saw and heard him, left Mr. Freer’s house drunk with the esthetic. Even the flooding knowledge of our own barbarian ignorance was not enough to sober us. Some of the flame had gotten into us. It was like old brandy. We waved our arms and cried out about art. For there is in a truly big human being—especially in one old enough to have seemed to gain perspective on the universe—some quality which touches something in us that nothing else can ever reach. It is something which is not admiration only, nor vague longing to emulate, nor a quickened comprehension of the immensity of things; something emotional and spiritual and strange and indescribable which seems to set our souls to singing.

The Freer collection will go, ultimately, to the Smithsonian Institution (the National Gallery) in Washing-ton, a fact which is the cause of deep regret to many persons in Detroit, more especially since the City Plan and Improvement Commission has completed arrangements for a Center of Arts and Letters—a fine group plan which will assemble and give suitable setting to a new Museum of Art, Public Library, and other buildings of like nature, including a School of Design and an Orchestra Hall. The site for the new gallery of art was purchased with funds supplied by public-spirited citizens, and the city has given a million dollars toward the erection of the building. Plans for the library have been drawn by Cass Gilbert.

It seems possible that, had the new art museum been started sooner, and with some guarantee of competent management, Mr. Freer might have considered it as an ultimate repository for his treasures. But now it is too late. That the present art museum—the old ore—was not to be considered by him, is perfectly obvious. Inside and out it is unworthy. It looks as much like an old waterworks as the new waterworks out on Jefferson Avenue looks like a museum.. Its foyer contains some sculptured busts, forming the most amazing group I have ever seen. The group represents, I take it, prominent citizens of Detroit—among them, according to my recollection, the following: Hermes, Augustus Cesar, Mr. Bela Hubbard, Septimus Severus, the Hon. T. W. Palmer, Mr. Frederick Stearns, Apollo, Demosthenes, and the Hon. H. P. Lillibridge.

I do not want to put things into people’s heads, but—the old museum is not fireproof. God speed the new one!