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Frank Lloyd Wright and Asian Art: A Search for a New Perspective on the Interaction between Western and Asian Art

Chung Moojeong 1

1덕성여자대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

While I was staying in the United States in 2010, I could have the opportunity to survey Korean art objects collected in American museums. When I visited a museum in North Carolina, I heard of the presence of a Korean screen from a curator whose husband happened to be a grandnephew of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright(1867-1959). According to the husband, Wright had bought three Korean screens in 1913, which had been given to his children as gifts, one of which is currently in the Milwaukee Public Museum. I also found out that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts held a Dragon Jar of the Choson period, which had once been a part of Wright's collection. Ample evidence of Wright's interest in Korean art led me to a reconsideration of existing explanations of American interest in Asian art and culture as exotica. The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented change in the United States. Begun in Europe in the late 18th century, the industrial revolution soon spread to the United States. Industrial growth gave rise to a transportation revolution as well as sweeping increases in production capacity. Populations also swelled through immigration both from abroad and rural areas. This in turn led to the rapid transformation of American life in the late 19th century. With the accumulation of wealth around the late 19th century,upper-class Americans such as William W. Walters, Henry O. Havemeyer, Charles L. Freer William H. Vanderbilt, Ernest F. Fenollosa and William S. Bigelow began to collect art objects and donate their collections to major art museums such as Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Fine Arts,Boston and Art Institute of Chicago. These activities can be seen as a type of conspicuous consumption which, according to the American sociologist Thorstein Bunde Veblen, is a way to display and legitimate the status of the American upper class. In the same context,the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also argued that such cultural capital as cultural institutions and works of art would give a higher status in society to those who owned them. Even though he was in debt to his friends and clients, Wright led a luxurious life and purchased works of art, representing a model of conspicuous consumption. In this sense, conspicuous consumption is one of the motives for American collectors' interest in Asian art. The aesthetic movement can also explain why Americans came to pay attention to natural motifs in Asian art. For Americans, nature had been a symbol of a spiritual resource and a sign of innocence, as well as the source of economic bliss. With the industrial growth,however, nature lost its traditional meanings. The aesthetic movement played an active role in adapting the symbolic meanings of natural forms to urban environment of late 19th century. These explanations, however, tend to oversimplify the collecting impulses of American collectors. Amid the various periods and styles in the late-19th-century collections, there was something in common, that is, a fascination with the primitive. Their preferences seem to have been rooted in the psychic turmoil of the late 19th century. As we have seen,there were a number of neurasthenic collectors in the late 19th century. Bigelow, Gardner and Freer were all victims of nervous exhaustion. These collectors used premodern art to withdraw from nervous strain and seek release from bourgeois anxieties. They thought that premodern art would promise spiritual comfort and therapeutic restoration. In the same context, Wright, who surrounded himself with Asian art throughout his life, also remarked:“In spite of all my reasoning power and returning balance I was continually expecting some terrible blow to strike. The sense of impending disaster would hang over me, waking or dreaming... I looked forward to Japan as refuge and rescue.” It is quite significant that Wright installed Asian Buddhist painting and sculpture in his house or studio, close to the fireplace. For Wright, Asian art was a religious surrogate. A deeper reason why American collectors showed interest in Asian art, thus, lies in the way it performed an important function, that is, the satisfaction of social, aesthetic and religious needs of 19th century America.

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