Monday, July 27, 2009
For many who enjoyed the wonderful evening of chamber music provided by the Clavio Trio at the Greatbatch Pavilion last week, the Duo for violin and cello, opus 7, by Zoltán Kodály was the highlight. The vigorous performance by violinist Deborah Greitzer and cellist Linda Jennings was dazzling in the compelling acoustic setting of the Greatbatch Pavilion. "Music for a Modern House" was organized to showcase some of the Clavio Trio's early twentieth century music against the backdrop of Frank Lloyd Wright's early twentieth century Martin House complex. The initial concept was of a broad historical connection between music and architecture. But further contemplation yields more specific parallels between Wright's work and that of composers such as Kodály: they both took inspiration from "other" cultures, using them to energize the products of Western modernism.
Broadly speaking, Wright and Kodály followed a practice that was already familiar to European artists and composers by the beginning of the First World War: mining various cultures seen as outside the classically-based tradition of European historicism for new "raw material" to be refined by the rapidly-shifting paradigms of Western art. In Kodály's case, this mining took him to the rich melodies of Hungarian folk songs - to his own backyard, so to speak. In 1905, the same year that Kodály began visiting remote Hungarian villages to start "collecting" these folk tunes, Frank Lloyd Wright made his first visit to Japan (as the Martin House was still under construction), where he would nourish his already budding love affair with Japanese art and culture.
An important difference between Kodály's and Wright's appropriations is that Kodály turned to what was familiar and close at hand for inspiration, while Wright went further afield. Raised in the Hungarian countryside, Kodály returned there, with an educated ear and eye, to "rediscover" and intellectually appropriate the folk music of the region. It may seem a contradiction in terms for Kodály, Bartók and other composers to treat European folk songs as products of "another" culture, but this was done in the contemporary spirit of re-working such "low" cultural finds into the products of "high" culture (e.g. classical music). Wright, by contrast, went half way around the globe to commune with his favorite source of design inspiration. By 1905, Wright was already familiar with Japanese art and culture by virtue of influential orientalist Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, and by visiting the Ho-o-den, the Japanese national pavilion at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Wright's fascination with all things Japanese was not unique at the turn of the century, but part of the larger trend of "Japonisme" in art and culture that also influenced the work of artists such as Van Gogh. Though Wright would often deny or sublimate the influence of Japanese architecture on his own buildings, he did admit to a certain cross-cultural affinity (especially in regard to the Japanese print), one that he absorbed into his design palette of Sullivanesque ornament, geometric abstraction and the new American vernacular of the Prairie School.
The appropriations of Kodály and Wright may be seen as experiments in the laboratory of modernism. Both seem to assert that the products of Western high culture were in need of aesthetic or expressionistic infusion from elsewhere if they were to avoid decadence and stagnation. Such infusions came from sources as diverse as African sculpture (Picasso), Tahitian culture (Gauguin) and romanticized Medieval Europe (William Morris). While some of these artists may have found novelty to exploit in these cross-cultural sources, I think Wright and Kodály turned to them out of a more comprehensive understanding and reverence for what they found there: truth to the human experience.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Hamilton College intern and special to the Weekly Wright-up
Sometimes, I feel like a Greek.
In the Art History classes I have had over the years, the teachers and professors would always spend at least one 50-minute class on the infamous Elgin Marbles. I have heard it so many times in the classroom that I can almost give you the story by heart:
Lord Elgin was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799–1803, and he had obtained a controversial permission from the Ottoman authorities to remove marble sculptures, inscriptions, and architectural friezes from the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. From 1801 to 1812, Elgin's agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon. Many thought that Elgin was saving these priceless works from further destruction because for many years the ancient Greek temple laid vacant, exposed to the elements. Others compared Elgin’s actions to vandalism and looting. This sparked a Parliamentary debate which ended with the British Government purchasing Elgin’s entire collection in 1816 and placing it on display in the British Museum, where the marbles are on view to this day in the custom-built Duveen Gallery.
As I am going through file after file representing art glass pieces from the Martin House that have ended up in museums all over the world, I recall the story of the Elgin Marbles and the surprising similarities between them and the art glass: these architectural fragments that are not now - and may never be - where they were intended to be. The museums that obtained Martin House art glass for public display did it through absolutely legitimate means and usually consider them to be “gems” in their collections. Yet, I wonder what gets lost when works of art are taken out of their original context. Does a “Tree of Life” window displayed in a museum, with its white-washed walls and artificial lighting, have the same spirit as when you see its cascading reflection on the ceiling in the reception room in the Martin House?
However discouraged I become, seeing Martin House windows built into the walls of museums, discovering in their online collections that they have the art glass shown upside-down, and cringing at the oversight of details such as the spelling of Isabelle Martin (Isabel, Isabella, you name it), I look to one courageous bunch of activists for inspiration: the Greeks. The persistence of these people, hell-bent on uniting the Parthenon marbles in Athens once again, gives me hope for our own plight here at the Martin House. The Greeks have never given up the effort. In order to prove they were ready to have their marbles back, they built a brand-new Acropolis museum (completed in 2008), equipped to hold all of the artifacts that were ever found on the ancient site. And guess what? They have an empty room for the sole intention of housing those long-lost marbles taken by Lord Elgin.
The Martin House Restoration Corporation realizes that it will never be able to get back all of the nearly 400 pieces of original art glass, no matter how Greek-like it is, and maybe that’s not such bad thing. The Australian kid who is a Frank Lloyd Wright-enthusiast most likely doesn’t have the means to fly out to Buffalo to view the Martin House. He or she can, however, go to the National Gallery of Australia and see a “Tree of Life” window, study it, appreciate it, and maybe keep a mental note that this Martin House would be a cool place to visit someday.
So, with the Greeks cheering me on, I continue my research on the art glass in public collections and do my best to be a good ambassador (un-Elgin-like) to the world’s museums.
altered (1909) "Tree of Life" window from the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Syracuse University intern and special to the Weekly Wright-up
As many followers of the Martin House well know, Darwin D. Martin was a voracious reader and a self-taught man whose collection of books numbered in the thousands. Considering that he was the kind of man who recorded his height and weight on a regular basis, Martin’s diary is replete with pithy notations on what he had begun reading, what he was finishing up, who he was reading to (which was his wife Isabelle most of the time due to her failing eyesight) and even where he was reading: Martin didn’t even waste time on train cars when riding into the city of Buffalo for work.
Of some 2,000 books in his collection, Martin recorded only 42 titles over a 47 year period in his diary; however, one could consider the titles he mentions a kind of cross-section of the literature he was reading, both for himself and aloud to his family and friends. For the most part, Martin chose to read classic works of fiction, autobiographies of religious subjects and individuals, local histories and Christian Science texts. He also writes later in life that Isabelle has a particular fondness for Dickens, which explains the multitude of the author’s work in their collection. If a certain tome struck a particular chord with Martin, he was sure to make note of it, however brief. He considered in 1906 Tolstoy’s My Religion to be “the greatest book I ever read,” while in December of that year Martin read a rather obscure book on the train - The Parochial School by Jeremiah Crowley, which he described as a “…book on esoteric Catholicism…which greatly moved me.”
Martin also seemed to enjoy reading aloud, both to his wife and particularly to his son, Darwin R. The senior
The Martins were a literary family in general. Many of the photos in the Martin House collection feature family members reading in quiet repose. Also, Mrs. Martin was a charter member of the Highland Park Literary Club (a sort of literary salon) which often met in the Martins’ home. As Darwin D. and Isabelle get older,
Indeed, books seemed to remain a comfort and a source of knowledge to Martin even in his last days. One of the last entries in his diary in the months before his death, between the stubborn recordings of day-to-day minutiae, is the entry of
Darwin D. Martin reading to his children, Darwin R. and Dorothy. Photo by Muller, 1912
In light of this incomplete record, I will attempt a relatively sober interpretation, based on the available evidence:
Of those who may have had a hand in the design of the windows - Wright's studio or Giannini and Hilgart - I think the design can most likely be credited to Giannini (or Blanche Ostertag, the probable designer of the wisteria fireplace mosaic for the firm of Giannini and Hilgart). The design has none of the hallmarks of Wright's work in art glass: chiefly, a more abstract, geometric and symmetrical rendering of natural forms. Also, the letters suggest that the design of this frieze was soon out of Wright's hands and he then turned to the uphill battle of trying to control the work of others (indicated by his occasional admissions of conflict with Giannini).
Of those who may have executed this design and fabricated the windows - Linden Glass Co. or Giannini and Hilgart - my money again is on Giannini and Hilgart. The more conventional lead caming and painterly use of irregular glass seems in keeping with their known work in similar media. However, another plausible possibility is that some local (Buffalo) stained glass craftsman (Martin's "glass man who never heard of Wright") built the windows based on Giannini and Hilgart's drawing, which Martin - apparently determined to take charge of the languishing project - may have obtained. However, if there's truth in Wright's claim that Giannini and Hilgart lost the drawing (Wright's drawing? their own drawing?), more doubt is cast on this last supposition.
The letters concerning the dining room buffet panels do tell us one thing for sure: their design and execution was a protracted process. This easily explains why we see plate glass in the three window openings in the Fuermann photo of 1907. Essentially, Martin and Wright were so busy hashing-out many other details and open issues of finishing and furnishing the house that some projects ended up simmering on the back burner for years. One can easily imagine (NB docents: this is in the realm of speculation) that the extant art glass frieze of tree trunks and branches was not installed until 1910 or later.
The most timely question of whether the extant panels will be removed and replaced with plate glass during our interior restoration is still an open question. We have clear evidence that a temporary enclosure of plate glass was installed circa 1905 (when the Martins moved into the house), but the letters clearly indicate that Wright intended for these apertures to have some sort of art glass by the time the house was complete (whether he was capable of fulfilling that intention or not).
Thursday, July 2, 2009
The following month, Wright re-enters the fray and tries to reassure Darwin Martin that he is vigorously engaging Giannini on the issue, saying "I have communicated with Giannini and the sparks are beginning to fly." In response, Martin tries to leverage his intelligence on the matter, saying "I have just learned indirectly...that [you have] countermanded the order for the three windows over sideboard. I suppose when it is good for us to know, you will tell us what the new plan is for equipping with glass these three holes in the wall." Martin then threatens to apply decals (decalcomanias) to the three windows, if Wright doesn't comply quickly (a favorite tactic of Martin's in trying to motivate Wright).
In July, 1906, Darwin Martin continues to use his Oak Park envoy - brother William - to attempt to resolve the matter, reporting back to Wright that William says that Giannini is out of town for six weeks, and that one of his craftsmen is "on strike." Wright's response in August seems to admit defeat: "[I] can do nothing with Hilgart concerning...the windows over the sideboard. They have lost the drawings also, apparently, and they will have a lively time with me unless they produce them soon." Wright concludes with a statement that opens the possibility to yet another contractor: "I will then get the work done elsewhere."
The last writing on the matter of the three dining room windows in question - a letter from Martin to Wright dated November 28, 1906 - does little to resolve our questions of who designed the extant panels, who fabricated them, and when they were completed and installed. Martin writes: "Giannini has promised frequently to make early shipment of the three dining-room windows...On Monday I received from Linden a sample window...the design and the colors look good to us. We have no fault to find therewith. Did you see the sample before Linden shipped it? Have you seen Giannini's effort? I do not pay any money except for work executed to your and my satisfaction, and I only pay for one job, see?"
Next week: an attempt to make sense of it all...