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by Victor M. Cassidy
"Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature," Sept. 23-Dec. 4, 2005, at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, Ill. 60208

Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961) was the first woman licensed to practice architecture in the United States. After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she worked for the architect Dwight Perkins and then spent 14 years with Frank Lloyd Wright, where she is said to have developed the Japanese-style presentation drawings that are commonly ascribed to him. Later in life, she would claim that Wright had taken credit for her contributions to his Dana-Thomas House (1904) in Springfield, Ill., and for some of the drawings in the Wasmuth Portfolio (1910) that helped make his international reputation.

In 1911, Mahony married Burley Griffin, Wright’s former office manager, and joined his architectural practice, where the two created Prairie Style residential designs. In 1912, Griffin won an international competition to design the Federal Capital of Australia at Canberra and the couple relocated there. After Australia, the Griffins moved to India, where they completed several commissions. Burley Griffin died in 1937 in India, and the 66-year-old Mahony Griffin returned to the Chicago area, where she cared for a relative’s children and wrote a personal memoir that did not find a publisher.

Mahony Griffin died in 1961 and her drawings were given to the Block Museum at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The Block’s exhibition "Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature," Sept. 23-Dec. 4, 2005, is the first devoted entirely to her graphic work. While the museum claims to present "a new critical interpretation" of Mahony Griffin’s art as a "largely independent and significant practice," it provides no convincing evidence that she contributed to architecture.

Elegant graphics overpower the architecture in Mahony Griffin’s drawing Mr. G.B. Cooley Dwelling, Monroe, Louisiana (1910). The Prairie Style house at the top is surrounded with so many stylized trees that portions are hard to see. A tree trunk in front of the house obscures part of it and the planting that surrounds this tree is almost as big as the house. There are two sets of frame lines around the drawing, plan drawings in the middle, a section at the bottom, and beautiful color throughout, but nothing that suggests what Mahony Griffin may have contributed to the design of the house.

J.G. Melson Dwelling, Mason City, Iowa (1912) shows a cubic house built into a cliff. The exterior is limestone that was quarried on site. An elevation at the top shows the house from below surrounded with abundant vegetation. Four people on a terrace at the left enjoy the outdoors. In the middle is a detail (?) of the exterior and tiny plan views of the first and second floors line the bottom. Mahony Griffin shows clearly how the house is married to its unusual site and she surrounds it with plants, but her goal here, as in the Cooley Dwelling drawing, is to make a striking image and not to convey architectural information.

While she lived in Australia, Mahony Griffin made passionate drawings of local flora, which suggest that her true love was plants. She executed these works in watercolor and ink on silk, apparently taking much time to master a difficult technique. She must also have spent long hours observing local plant life, which would have been unfamiliar to her. Unlike her architectural drawings, the Australian landscape fantasies are art. Everything that makes a successful drawing -- close attention to scale, proportion, perspective, draftsmanship and color -- is present, but exclusively in the service of the artist’s imagination. In these works we sense that Mahony Griffin was doing what she wanted to do, perhaps what she had waited all her life to do.

The Australian drawings -- Eucalyptus Urnigera Tasmania/ Scarlet Bark, Sunset (ca. 1919) and Tree Fern Gully (ca. 1919) -- are the most rewarding in the show. Eucalyptus Urnigera shows tall trees on a mountainside with an extravagantly colored sky behind. The drawing is a study in purples and scarlets, punctuated by the pale eucalyptus bark. The tops of the trees form a sweeping, descending curve, which draws our eye through the work. Tree Fern Gully is all dark yellows, oranges, and tans, a spreading palm tree seen from below.

It may never be possible to specify Mahoney Griffin’s contribution to architecture. So be it. She was, almost secretly it seems, an artist when she gave herself permission. We have much too little from her. She is truly a lost woman.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.