Published: April 24, 2001
Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan:
NEW YORK CITY – The first major exhibition devoted to Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) as collector, teacher, and dealer of Japanese art and the pivotal influence Japanese aesthetics had on his work is on view at Japan Society Gallery through July 15. “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan: ” explores Wright’s self-described “obsession” with Japanese art and reveals the historic encounter between America’s pioneer modernist and the aesthetics of traditional Japanese design that shaped much of his artistic and intellectual life. The Japan Society is the sole venue for the exhibition.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 300-page illustrated book by guest curator Julia Meech, a prominent Japanese art historian and senior consultant to Christie’s, New York. The result of nearly 20 years of research, the book is co-published by Japan Society and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (hardcover, $49.50).
“Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan: ” features some 115 objects drawn from The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and several public and private collections in the US and Japan, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. The show focuses on Japanese works of art that Wright collected during his several sojourns in Japan, including woodblock prints, screen paintings, and textiles, mostly dating to the Edo period (1600-1868).
The exhibition also features Wright’s architectural drawings for projects he was commissioned to build in Japan, such as Jiyu Gakuen (School of the Free Spirit, 1921); drawings for the Japanese Print Gallery for William Spaulding, a wealthy Boston collector (circa 1914); and designs that reveal Wright’s adaptation of Japanese compositional motifs, such as the Wasmuth portfolio lithograph of the Hardy House (1910). Also featured are the original model of the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo (1917), and rare furniture by Wright including print stands and a table designed for the display of Japanese prints. Wright’s early infatuation with Japan is documented with his own experiments with landscape photography.
The exhibition traces Wright’s little-known career as America’s foremost dealer in the early Twentieth Century of Japanese woodblock prints, and gathers works by such leading ukiyo-e masters as Harunobu, Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige that Wright originally sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to several private collectors. These collectors’ donations later became the foundation of major Japanese print collections at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan” is organized by the Japan Society in association with The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Wright’s extraordinary interest in Japan and Japanese art continued throughout his entire career, from 1893 when he opened his office in Oak Park, Ill., until his death in 1959. A rising young architect in Chicago in the 1890s, Wright was keenly aware of Japanese art as it gained popularity in America in the late Nineteenth Century after the reopening of Japan to the West. The Japanese pavilion at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago included architecture and paintings reflecting the wave of “Japonisme” that swept both Europe and America.
In 1905, the 38-year-old Wright sailed to Japan for the first time, spending three months touring temples and gardens and buying Japanese prints, textiles, stencils, and pattern books. Japanese art remained a lifelong fascination and became a second career for Wright. He was a print dealer and he lent prints to numerous museum exhibitions. Among his contemporaries he was regarded as a great connoisseur of Asian art.
He returned to Japan briefly in 1913 and lived and worked in Tokyo for extended periods from 1917 to 1922 while building the Imperial Hotel. His own collection, which numbered in the thousands, was central to his architectural aesthetic, and to the end of his life he spoke of it as a major influence on his art and thought. Speaking to a group of his apprentices at the age of 90, he said that through the arts of Japan, “I began to see nature in a totally different way.”
Wright as a Collector of Art: The Inspiration of Japanese Design
This section explores the visual sources that Wright sought out in Japanese art and design. A selection of important Japanese prints and textiles that Wright collected are shown together with rare architectural drawings by Wright that exhibit graphic compositional design motifs derived from his study of Japanese art. Among the important works in this section are a superb group of landscape prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, which were the basis of an exhibition Wright staged at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1906 – the world’s first exhibition of Hiroshige prints and the first of many Japanese art exhibitions Wright was to mount. There is also a group of masterpieces of the ukiyo-e genre by Kitagawa Utamaro. On view are rare Japanese textiles and several of Wright’s most important early drawings.
The Japan Years, 1913-22
The exhibition explores Wright’s years in Japan, where he worked on several important architectural projects, notably the Imperial Hotel of 1922 – recognized as one of modern architecture’s greatest monuments and famous for having survived the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. During these years he became a well-known figure in the Japanese art world. The original plaster model of the Imperial Hotel, on loan from Kyoto University, as well as drawings, plans, and photographs related to this historic building, are on view.
Wright as a Merchant of Art: Bringing Japanese Prints to America
Wright emerged in the early Twentieth Century as America’s foremost dealer of Japanese prints, selling important collections to museums and private collectors. This section reassembles prints with Wright provenance from around the US, including icons such as Katsushika Hokusai’s “Great Wave” from the series “Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji” and Eighteenth Century Kabuki actor prints by Torii Kiyomasu II, Ishikawa Toyonobu, Katsukawa Shunsho, and Katsukawa Shunko, among others.
Wright at Home: The Late Years
Although Wright never returned to Japan after he finished work on the Imperial Hotel in 1922, his interest in Japanese art continued until his death in 1959. This section presents furniture designed for the display of Japanese prints; folding screen paintings that Wright collected for his own use; exquisite surimono prints Wright showed his apprentices during the famous “print parties;” and photographs showing various Wright interiors designed for the display of Japanese art. This section explores yet another and perhaps the most significant aspect of Wright’s relationship to the arts of Japan: that of aesthete and connoisseur.
Japan Society Gallery was established in 1971, when the institution moved to its present building designed by preeminent architect Junzo Yoshimura. As the museum program of Japan Society, the gallery works with leading museums in Japan, the United States, and Europe to organize major loan exhibitions that contribute to the scholarship, connoisseurship, and general appreciation of Japanese and East Asian art and culture.
Japan Society, founded in New York nearly a century ago, is America’s leading resource on Japan. This private, nonprofit, nonpolitical institution brings together key Japanese and American individuals in programs devoted to the arts, business, education, and public affairs. In recent years, the Society’s focus has increasingly reflected a broader Asian and global context in US-Japan relations. Its main purpose, however, has remained unchanged – to deepen understanding and promote enlightened relations between American and Japan.
Japan Society Gallery is at 333 East 47th Street, between First and Second Avenues. Hours are Tuesday to Friday, 11 am to 6 pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. For information, 212/832-1155.
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