Frank Lloyd Wright and the Family Legacy

My grandparents have been in town for the last few days, and they have a thing for Japanese art (I should say that our family has an inherited thing for Japanese art – more in a minute) so I dragged them down to the SAM for the Japan Envisions the West exhibit, before it closes this week.

Man, it was really interesting seeing an exhibit that I’ve seen through the eyes of others, especially my grandparents. And with the spectre of Frank Lloyd Wright hanging over us (as he has a funny way of doing, when it comes to Art and the Family). Let me explain. William H. Winslow, my great grandfather, was a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright’s; he ran the Winslow Ornamental Iron Works (one of their elevator screens are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC) and also published House Beautiful, a periodical on the Arts and Crafts movement of the early part of the 20th Century. More importantly, Winslow was also Frank Lloyd Wright’s first private commission, and in 1893, the two embarked on what would become the Winslow House, in Oak Park, Illinois. I know that my grandfather spent some time in this house as a small boy, and I’ve seen a picture of him and his sister, Aunt Mary, sitting on the covered benches just inside the entryway when both were not more than five or six years old.

My sister in front of the Winslow House on her last cross-country journey.

The house has long since been sold. I don’t know when it was sold, sometime when my grandfather was still a child. My understanding is that Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses weren’t exactly livable, though they certainly had a beautiful, austere quality to them. The photos that I’ve seen of the inside of the Winslow House also made me think that it was quite dim. At one point a couple years ago, I had the chance to visit the mock-up of a FLW interior at the Met in NYC, and I was overwhelmed by how familiar the space felt. It looked very much like the photos I’d seen of the Winslow House, but also, Frank Lloyd Wright did all of his own interior design. And when I say that he did all of his own interior design, I don’t mean that he ordered fancy sofas from Europe and African fertility masks and arranged them artfully in tableaus in the way that contemporary designers do, though I suppose he did in a way; no, he was a control freak, and designed all of his furniture and everything that went into the house. For the smaller decorative things, he was much more interested in Japanese art and culture (I’ve never known why) and spent a tremendous amount of time in Japan personally collecting woodblock prints and other media. All of these went into the Winslow House when it was built, and when my grandfather’s family moved out, everything that could be taken went with them.

As a child, I wasn’t as aware of this legacy. There was so many antiques and old peculiar things everywhere – naturalist paintings, a massive antique spinning wheel (18th century?), uncomfortable chairs (which I later learned were made by Frank Lloyd Wright), laquered boxes, mahogany tables, vases, a peculiar painting of a soldier from the French Revolution, old sheet music, my great, great grandfather’s old books (some of which were in Latin and Greek). I mean, the entire house smelled of a combination of Camembert cheese and Tone soap (still!). The Japanese art was just part of the mix, though I do remember being a little awed and terrified by some of them: the massive, angry sumo wrestlers in the front bathroom, the delicate ladies in the hall, the little man chasing his hat in the wind under the watchful eye of icy Fuji-san. And these, I am told, are only the prints that have been framed — my grandparents have a portfolio with other prints that they haven’t framed because there aren’t enough walls, and you know, it will be my and my sister’s inheritance someday. Hokusai, Hiroshige; these are the names that they say. My grandparents pull out glossy books of Japanese woodblock prints, and oh look, we have some of the same prints that are in museums. There is a quiet smugness here. We may not have money — that vulgar thing that people squander — we have art.

Since I volunteer at the Seattle Art Museum, some weeks ago, I went to go see the Japan Envisions the West exhibit, and I quite enjoyed it. I saw it with fresh eyes, free from Frank Lloyd Wright and the family inheritance; the exhibit showed how the Westerners influenced Japanese art during the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was so, so well done. It was a really exciting exhibit, and the examples were so superb (I have given an exhibition review earlier here). I was quite excited to go back and show my grandparents some of these pieces because they were so brilliant. For Christmas, I gave them a copy of the exhibition catalogue, and they – my grandfather especially – was so thrilled about this gift. For years, I have made the mistake of thinking that they were fans of Japanese art for the sake of Japanese art. This is, I am sure, partly true, but as I discovered while we were at the museum, part of this interest is fundamentally about validating the artistic merit of the family holdings.

When my grandfather was flipping through the exhibition catalogue, he was getting excited about sword guards — they are removable hilts that slip over the end of a samurai sword and rest against the handle. I mean, sure, they are lovely, but why get excited about something like this, when the prints are so colorful and great? Maybe it’s just because I’m drawn to narrative images. At the museum, we ended up looking at a whole case of sword guards, all just splotches of dark wood, most of the gilt long since rubbed away, and I kept thinking, who cares? And then it came out: my grandparents have one from Frank Lloyd Wright, which is apparently in fabulous condition. Aha. Honestly, it put a bit of a damper on things.

I realized right then that they had wholly missed the entire point of the exhibit. So much care had been taken with this show — every single object illustrated a connection between Japan and its foreign visitors before the turn of the Century. I was so impressed with the exhibit when I went through on my own two months ago, and I was so delighted with the images, especially those of the Dutch settlements illustrated in the Japanese style, in Japanese traditional housing, showing Dutchmen, in curly red hair and breeches, smoking pipes and dancing! So wonderful. And my grandparents were so preoccupied with their sword guards and other things that they missed so many little details like these.

But I have to wonder, which of us had the richer experience yesterday, really? Or rather, which of us is more satisfied? Those are really two very different questions. They get to remain smug, their trip to our little museum has validated their collection (which they never purchased themselves). Part of my grandparents smugness comes from the fact that they rarely do purchase art themselves — so much of it is strictly inherited, or given to them. The things they do purchase are nice, but of mid-range value; it will never be museum quality. I am reminded of something I once read about how fashionable British university students talk about juggling schoolwork and social life: “effortless superiority.” This is how I think of my grandparents’ art collection. They would never deign to purchase anything of substantial value, nor treat their collection in any true shrewd manner; they merely visit museums and insist that the objects that decorate their house are of better quality than those under glass or behind the velvet ropes. Attending the museum is no longer an aesthetic experience, but rather more like checking up on the value of your stock portfolio on Chuck Schwab. Ah, yes, there is that charming Hiroshige: just like the one over our credenza! Terrible shame how much this one has faded. Darling, we must remember to pick up a bottle of merlot on the way back to our hotel! Ok, ok, I exaggerate, but I do make my point.

Anyway. It was an interesting afternoon. After we wandered through the rest of the exhibit, my grandfather, Tom, and Trent left my grandmother and I to wander around the museum a bit more. Liz was going to come pick us up, so Grandmommy and I had a chance to wander around just a bit before we left. I took her through the contemporary art area, which she found distasteful in the extreme. It was rather hilarious. As we walked down the escalator, she was making comments to me about how if she were a trustee of the museum, she would find it hard to justify certain purchases for the museum, such as a certain ceramic toilet, and a large photograph of a whole bunch of naked people. She just didn’t consider them Art. It took a great deal of restraint not to laugh at her, and to bite my tongue at the same time. Oh my. But, I totally had to give her props for being able to identify an Albert Bierstadt painting without looking at the tag. I couldn’t do that! She just looked at it and knew. I was impressed. And then, downstairs, at the information desk, we spent a while looking at the catalogue for the Impressionist show that’s coming next summer, which she’s pretty excited about. So, I suppose, all things considered, my grandparents may be old fashioned, but they aren’t hopeless when it comes to art. They don’t own any Impressionist pieces, so I can cast aside my cynicism, and welcome them back into town to go see that show when it’s here.

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~ by ecp on December 31, 2007.

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