Frank Lloyd Wright's obsession with Japanese art began with his first visit to Japan in 1905, and lasted through the final days of his life in 1959. Over more than half a century, the great architect and designer sought out Japanese woodblock prints, screen paintings and textiles, most dating to the Edo period (1600-1868), and added them to his personal collection.
Wright's passion is the subject of the current exhibition, "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan: The Architect's Other Passion," at Japan Society at 334 East 47th Street in Manhattan, Mar. 18-July 15, 2001. It features 115 objects from Wright's foundations and several public and private collections.
"The pursuit of the Japanese print became my constant recreation, a never failing avocation in fact. The excursions would take place at night…. Endless the fascination of the quest... Some said obsession," Wright wrote in his autobiography.
Japanese elements were routinely incorporated into Wright's architectural drawings, and features such as pagoda towers became part of the corporate structures he built. Perhaps most importantly, following the Japanese ideal, the interiors and exteriors of his structures began to become totally integrated in his designs.
At the time that Wright was buying, woodblock prints were cheap -- say under $50 for a Hokusai -- and he was able to acquire large quantities at wholesale prices. But he bought only the best, works by artists such as Hiroshige and Utamaro.
An estimate 20,000 prints or more passed through Wright's hands during his lifetime. And like so many collectors, he eventually became a dealer.
But not an enthusiastic one. Wright's success and recognition as an architect were not matched by financial success. He needed cash. Many patrons had their buildings designed by Wright for a relatively miniscule fee, then had the profit-producing construction directed by other architects. Wright, it seems, was unwilling to compromise on even the smallest detail of his designs, whereas other architects had no problem with changed concepts and design elements. Wright was just too difficult to work with.
One of the first and most enthusiastic collectors of Wright's Japanese prints was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Today prints Wright once owned are in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Elvehjem Museum in Madison, Wisc., and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Wright said that with his prints, "I began to see nature in a totally different way." He imparted this vision to his "apprentices" using the woodblocks as teaching tools. Today, his prints form a large part of his library at Taliesin West, and in Spring Green, Wisc.
Tibet at PaineWebber
Just how did New Jersey's Newark Museum become the most important repository of Tibetan Art in the United States? The chance encounter in 1910 of Newark Museum trustee Edward Crane and medical missionary Dr. Albert Shelton has now become part of Asian art lore [see "Art from the East," 11/10/99].
If Newark has seemed a bit of a trek for New Yorkers, they'll be pleased to learn that an important secular component of the museum collection is as close as PaineWebber's Manhattan Gallery at 1285 Avenue of the Americas, on view till June 22, 2001.
"Tibet: Mountains and Valley, Castles and Tents" is the title of the show. Its two components illustrate the life of the aristocracy in its castles and courts and that of the farmer-trader in the valleys.
Horses were the prime transportation in those days, and ornate silver saddles reflected both wealth and status for the upper classes. The nobility did not limit their acquisitions to goods produced by the highly skilled Tibetan craftsmen, but imported metal, porcelain and ivory objects from China, India and Nepal. On display are their prized possessions, including beautifully worked portable shrines, and exquisite jewelry.
Meanwhile the nomads contented themselves with beer jugs, probably mounted on the side of their saddles. Instead of shrines, the farmers carried prayer wheels that implored the gods to keep away evil, disease and misfortune.
If you find yourself in Newark, be sure to visit the museum itself to view the religious objects that are so important a component of the collection. You'll see the fine Buddhist altar consecrated by the present Dalai Lama in 1990. The Newark Museum is on Washington Street, a short ride by direct shuttle bus from Newark's Penn Station or the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.