Famous Collections: The collection of Frank Lloyd Wright

by: Caroline Moore

Wright stated in his autobiography “[Japanese art is] more nearly ‘modern’ than any European civilization alive or dead. If Japanese prints were to be deducted from my education, I don’t know what direction the whole might have taken.”

Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural legacy includes utilizing organic shapes and geometry found in nature in his plans, known as the “Prairie style,” and incorporating modernism into American living. Traditional Japanese printmaking typically doesn’t come to one’s mind when evaluating Wright’s career and work. However, the architect was a life-long admirer of Japanese art and culture and collector of ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) prints. He discovered a wealth of inspiration from Japanese aesthetic that he incorporated into his architectural works. With the recent publication of Julia Meech’s book titled Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan - The Architect’s Other Passion (2007) and the art world’s interest in Eastern and Western hybridity of culture and influence, Wright’s relationship with Japan has brought to bear a new understanding of the architect’s work and the true underlying sources of modernism in Occidental culture.

Wright was first exposed to Japan when he worked for Joseph Lyman Silsbee, a prominent and avid collector of Japanese art. Silsbee’s cousin, Ernest Fenollosa, was one of the first Western experts in East Asian art and literature. Fenollosa was Professor of Philosophy at Tokyo University, Curator of the Imperial Museum of Japan, and Curator of Oriental Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Silsbee introduced Wright to Japanesque Shinge-style architecture, which Wright looked to when designing his earliest residential homes, including his own home built in Oak Park in 1889. In 1893, Wright also visited the Japanese national pavilion at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition. Inspired by the country, Wright traveled to Japan for the first time in 1905. There, he acquired his first collection of prints, some of which he sold back home in America, including hundreds to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wright made a second trip to Japan in 1913 and traveled extensively between 1916 and 1922 while working on the Tokyo Imperial Hotel. Wright collected prints primarily from the Edo period (1615-1868), which depict contemporary scenes from the lives of courtesans, kabuki actors, common people, landscapes, and nature. Additionally, Wright photographed buildings, structures, and landscapes during his time in Japan.

In 1908, Wright presented an exhibition of his favorite Japanese print artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) at the Art Institute of Chicago. Wright curated the show, designed the exhibition, and wrote an accompanying catalogue. In his introduction of the catalogue, Wright declared that Japanese art “is no longer the sequestered art of an isolated people, but one of the most valuable contributions ever made to the art of the world.” In 1908, Wright participated in a second, larger exhibition at the Art Institute, which was comprised of 649 works. Almost a quarter of the prints were from Wright’s personal collection and the others from the collections of John H. Wrenn, Clarence Buckingham, Frederick W. Gookin, and J. Clarence Webster. In 1912, Wright published a book entitled The Japanese Print: An Interpretation. The book offers insight on the prints and distinct revelations are made about the cultural milieu of Japan and Wright’s architectural theory. Wright’s observations on Japanese aesthetic are broken down into themes such as Order, Structure, Simplification, Natural Simplicity, and Scientific Elements - all of which Wright considered when creating architectural plans, choosing building materials, and placing his structures in space and nature. Architectural critics and art historians have determined striking similarities to the traditional Japanese edifices and Wright’s architectural works: large, single, or double hip roofs, balanced proportions, distinct horizontals, a keen use of building materials, and placement of the structure in nature.

By the end of his life, Wright had collected tens of thousand ukiyo-e prints and spent nearly half a million doing so, a significant amount even today. Clarence Buckingham, Frederick W. Gookin, and John and William Spaulding all added Wright’s collected prints into their collections. Their collections then made their way to many museums including The Norton Simon Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Research Institute, and the Beverly Hills Public Library. The Grunwald Center for the Graphic Art holds the largest amount of prints from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Japanese print collection after Wright’s wife sold much of his art after his death. In 2017, the Art Institute of Chicago held an exhibition of Wright’s collection of Japanese prints titled The Formation of the Japanese Print Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School. The show contained photos of Wright’s 1908 exhibition of Japanese prints and presentation drawings by Wright and his studio. Many of the drawings are by draftswoman Marion Mahoney Griffin and show the incorporation of elements found in Wright’s Japanese prints.

Wright stated in his autobiography “[Japanese art is] more nearly ‘modern’ than any European civilization alive or dead. If Japanese prints were to be deducted from my education, I don’t know what direction the whole might have taken.” For Frank Lloyd Wright, Japanese art was initially a mere curiosity and financial investment but spawned a lifelong source of inspiration and spiritual essence for the architect and those who continue to look to his collection today.