Japan at the turn of the Century
In the Right Place at the Wright Time
by Lauren W. Deutsch
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867- 1959) insisted throughout his career that Japanese buildings, with their "supreme study in elimination" had no direct influence on his own designs. But it is hard to believe this of the creator of such "Japanesque" buildings as Falling water (Pennsylvania) and
Tokyo's own Imperial Hotel. Having visited Japan at least seven times between 1905 and 1922, Wright became the foremost proponent of the use of
Japanese art and design, a legacy which lives on in his revered work and in that of his grandson, Los Angeles architect Eric Lloyd Wright, and other graduates of Wright's famed training institution, the Taliesen Fellowship.
But the fascinating exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan which runs through January 7, 1996, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will set you on a different path. "If Japanese prints were to be deducted from my education," the architect often said, "I don't know what direction the whole might have taken."
The Phoenix Art Museum has assembled over 190 works of art and documents from Wright's personal collection from 20 public and private sources, and at the heart are 50 of Wright's 600 surimono as well as ukiyoe and other prints. In addition to being a magnificent piece of art in its own right, each article has a wonderful anecdotal history and serves as a piece of the complex of artistic sensibilities and economic pressures, the social revolutions and intimate ambitions of one of this century's seminal creators.
While Wright was in the right place (Japan) at the right time (tum of the century), according to Kevin Nute in "Frank Lloyd Wright and Okakura Tenshin: On the Social and Aesthetic 'Ideals of the East'," recently published in Chanoyu Quarterly, the young architect who was making his mark in Europe as well as the USA, "was familiar with Lao-tsu and that he had seen his first woodblock prints by the mid-1890s at the latest." According to Eric, his grandfather's freedom of expression also incorporated the family's Celtic heritage and observation of nature. But there were those prints.
"Ever since I discovered the Japanese print," the architect wrote in his 1932 autobiography, "Japan has appealed to me as the most romantic, artistic country on earth." It was on his first trip, a purely tourist expedition, that Wright began to acquire prints – with an admitted obsessive fervor. Between 1916 and 1922, when he was building the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, he acquired a reputation as the foremost dealer in Japanese prints in the USA. His efforts lay the foundation of many American museum and private collections to this day.
Surimono woodblock prints are privately published, limited edition masterpieces whose fibrous paper, metallic powders and subtle gradations in tonality distinguish them from other prints. They were commissioned by groups or individual amateur poets for special occasions such as New Year's gifts. Demonstrating an intuitive understanding of the medium and aesthetic, Wright collected the complete range of the genre, from simple designs of articles used in daily life to the complex landscapes, historical narratives, and mythological creatures inherent in Japanese and earlier Chinese cultures. (For more information on the prints, see Joan B. Mirviss' recently published The Frank Lloyd Wright Collection of Surimono.)
It's really not possible in this space to discuss all of the influences and cross pollination which typified the senior architect and his work, but walking through the exhibition with Eric enthusiastically pointing to many key points gave me a deeper sense of how the man gave birth to the myth.
Wright acquired prints not only because he liked them, but because they became a great currency to keep his socially-challenged career financially afloat. One ukiyo-e print, the accompanying tag noted, was sold by Wright to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1922 for $10. "Why didn't he just give it to them?" I asked, considering that $10 is equivalent to about $100 today. "He needed the money," was Eric's reply. Several prominent museums in the USA have their print collections built upon gifts of Wright's patrons from whom he secured much-needed loans with prints as collateral. Wright built Taliesen, his education facility in Wisconsin, with funds derived from the sale of tens of thousands of prints to willing collectors.
If print collecting was a lucrative addiction, it also was an inspiring, magnificent obsession! Clues abound in the exhibition! Inconspicuously depicted in a print portraying the famous Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro V is the source of Wright's own red square cipher — the white concentric squares patterned on his red kimono sleeve. Or Wright's sense of muted colors — he used to expose new prints to the sun to accelerate the natural fading of bright pigment.
And most importantly, Wright admired flat, "floating" portrayal of landscapes with natural elements dwarfing any man-made objects. They are reflected in his studio's architectural renderings. Here, too, was the kernel of his "organic architecture" where there is an unbroken connection between beings and the universe, where capturing the space within is the goal, rather than creating monolithic structures. "Herein lies the difference between Wright's work and traditional Japanese architecture, there having been no real notion of space as a definite object in the latter," notes Nute.
Walking past the familiar screens and ceramics, including the "studio Buddha" head, Eric described his grandfather's annual Taliesen "print parties" where the mentor would gather his apprentices round and "bring out the prints," discussing the important features of each one of them to illustrate a design principle. Regularly, Wright would give prints as gifts.
Wright built the first bridge spanning the Pacific Rim– sinking his influence deep into the earth of both "sides" of the pond and vaulting the unique sensibilities of each culture towards a constructive, challenging apex. I would venture to say that what we tend to think about Japanese and nature is actually veiled by Wright's work.
Okakura Tenshin, author of the famed The Book of Tea, was "Wright on" when he said in 1906, "Perhaps we are now passing through an age of democratization in art, while awaiting the rise of some princely master who shall establish a new dynasty."
Lauren Deutsch is Executive Producer of KCRW National Public Radio's "Contemporary Japanese Short Stories."
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