FRANK Lloyd Wright wrote that the Japanese woodblock print was "one of the most amazing products of the world, and I think no nation has anything to compare with it." An exhibition of 45 of these prints at the Octagon, "Frank Lloyd Wright and Japanese Prints: The Collection of Mrs. Avery Coonley," testifies to the great architect's lasting admiration for the art form.
The exhibition is a comely, if very limited, selection of ukiyo-e (literally, "floating world") images, showing mainly landscape and urban scenes by Utagawa Hiroshige, the last great master of the school. But Wright is the reason for the show, which is like a beautiful footnote to his career. Recent research suggests that the prints played a larger role in Wright's life, particularly in his tangled financial affairs, than previously suspected.
Scholars say that Wright's initial contact with Japanese culture occurred when he visited that country's exhibitions at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, but it was not until 1905, during his first visit to Japan, that he became an avid collector of the prints. When he returned he staged a show of 213 Hiroshige prints at the Art Institute of Chicago and, two years later, provided an inspired design for a larger, more varied show (containing 659 prints) at the same museum.
Wright was not alone in this admiration. Japanese prints began coming into Paris in large numbers in the early 1860s and had immediate and lasting influence upon the best painters there. By the 1890s the enthusiasm for things Japanese had reached the United States in a big way. Great collectors, including Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery, began to visit Japan and to buy its art, especially the woodblock prints, in great quantities.
The architect was attracted for special reasons. He saw ukiyo-e prints, produced by artists and artisans for a dynamic if pent-up urban audience in still-feudal Japan during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as examples of a truly collaborative and democratic art. He would hold a print party each year at Taliesin, his workshop in Wisconsin, telling his students, "Hiroshige did, with a sense of space, very much what we have doing with it in our architecture. Here you get a sense of tremendous, limitless space. Instead of something confining within a picture . . ." Most of all he valued the Japanese artists for their economy of expression, their ability to grasp the "inner harmony which permeates the outward form . . . and is its determining character."
In addition to this, he valued the prints as a source of money. For a period of a decade or so, Wright was one of the most important woodblock print dealers in the United States. Julia Meech-Pekarik, curator of Far Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York who wrote an introductory essay to the catalogue for the Octagon exhibit, estimates that he spent nearly $500,000, much of it other people's money, on Japanese prints. Many of the greatest ukiyo-e images in American museums passed through Wright's hands.
As a dealer Wright had his ups and downs. Though the operation was often profitable, he also lost money, and was embarrassed in the bargain. In 1920, for instance, he spent more than $50,000 in two hours on prints recommended by a Tokyo dealer. As it turned out many of these prints had been reworked in a clandestine country studio in Japan. "I lost at that time--by means of restitutions I felt bound to make--about $30,000, which I had earned by my work on the Imperial Hotel completed in 1922 in Tokyo ," Wright wrote to a curator at the Metropolitan.
Wright's finances were severely strained after a fire destroyed Taliesin in 1914, and he helped to pay for the rebuilding, says Meech-Pekarik, by a couple of major print sales to the Metropolitan. (After these transactions, too, he was forced to admit that some of the prints he sold had been tampered with.) In the mid-1920s the architect's money problems were compounded by the prolonged, messy litigation occasioned by his second divorce, and a second fire at Taliesin. These difficulties effectively brought his career as a print dealer to an end.
In 1927 he was forced to auction many of his prints at a New York gallery. Many of the images in the Octagon show were purchased at that show or from the architect himself by Mrs. Avery Coonley, a longtime Wright aficionado who, with her late husband, had commissioned the Avery Coonley House in Riverside, Ill., completed in 1907. Fittingly, the show includes a selection of photographs of this house, one of the greatest of Wright's Prairie houses. Mrs. Coonley's collection remained intact, handed down to her daughter, Mrs. Waldron Faulkner, widow of a well-known Washington architect.
The exhibition, sponsored by the American Institute of Architects Foundation, continues through July 3 at the Octagon, 18th Street and New York Avenue NW, open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. on weekends.