Frank Lloyd Wright's Japanese Legacy

By Burbank, Jon | The World and I, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Frank Lloyd Wright's Japanese Legacy


Burbank, Jon, The World and I


A hundred years ago the ship "Empress of China" steamed across the Pacific from America to Japan. Among its passengers was an architectural genius, an art dealer known to overvalue his portfolio, a father of six, a repeatedly vilified adulterer, a haughty self-promoter, a discerning connoisseur, and a fashion dandy with enough vanity to fill the ocean the "Empress" sailed over.

Given the hundreds of passengers the ship carried that may not seem surprising, but all of these personalities were squeezed into just one passenger.

Frank Lloyd Wright strode out of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth like an American Colossus. It's a portrayal he would think fair to make. Testifying as a witness in a court case, Wright was asked to identify himself. He stated he was the world's greatest architect. When asked how he could make such an astonishing statement, Wright responded since he was under oath, he had no choice.

Many of his works are gone now, but those that remain are still icons of American architecture, including his home at Falling Water, Pennsylvania; New York's Guggenheim Museum; and the Robie House in Chicago.

A largely unknown side of Wright emerged on this trip: He developed into one of America's foremost ukiyo-e woodblock print collectors and dealers. Today, prints Wright collected are prominent in America's best art museums' Japanese collections. He also probably did more than anyone else to foster an appreciation of Japanese prints in America.

Of course, Wright studied Japanese architecture on his trip. Later he acknowledged the importance of Japanese architecture to his own work, but he also paid homage to the great print makers of Edo-era Japan as his architectural mentors:

"The print is more autobiographical than you can imagine. If Japanese prints were to be deducted from my education, I don't know what direction the whole might have taken."

The sale of ukiyo-e prints also saved him financially throughout his life. Julia Meech, in her book "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan," estimates Wright made well over $200,000 from the sale of prints by the 1930s. His fee for Tokyo's Imperial Hotel was about $17,000. Wright's life work may have been architecture, but dealing Japanese prints paid Wright's bills.

What few bills he had, he deigned to pay. Wright never understood why he should have to pay for his hand-tailored clothes, his frequent studio remodeling, his beloved prints, or his lavish dinner parties; after all, he was Frank Lloyd Wright.

How could a boy born in rural Wisconsin in 1867 become an expert print collector, let alone a world famous architect? Wright seized the threads that chance and fate laid before him and then followed them like a modern-day Theseus through the maze, to a life many would envy, although few of us would want for our own.

In 1871, as the infant Wright was already constructing with colored blocks, Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern, starting the Great Chicago Fire that destroyed the city. When young draughtsman Wright arrived in 1887, Chicago was the booming de facto capitol of America's west. Chicago needed to rebuild and had the money to do it. The city was a "perfect storm" of architectural thought and development.

On his fourth day looking for work, surviving (he claimed) on ten cents worth of bananas, Wright found work in the office of Joseph Lyman Silsbee, one of Chicago's most respected architects. In a contemporary photo of Silsbee's living room a "kakemono" painting hangs by the hearth. This may have been Wright's first exposure to Japanese art.

Even more fateful, Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, America's foremost expert on Japanese art, decorated by the Emperor Meiji himself, was Silsbee's cousin. Fenollosa stayed with Silsbee on trips home. At some point Wright met Fenollosa, later recalling:

"When I first saw a fine print it was an intoxicating thing. …

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