Friday, July 29, 2011

Another Tree That Escaped the Forest

The latest stop on my world tour of "Tree of Life" windows in museum collections was Richmond, VA, where I visited the Martin House art glass at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  Their "Tree of Life" window is displayed as part of the Lewis Decorative Arts Collection, and its curator, Barry Shifman, kindly gave me a personal tour.

This particular "Tree of Life" window is in good company - The Lewis Collection is an exceptionally rich representation of Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Arts & Crafts and Art Deco objects, from furniture and art glass to jewelry.  In this context the Martin window stands as yet another instance of how world-class decorative arts collections seek a "Tree of Life" window as a prime example of Frank Lloyd Wright's design in art glass.  

The window is installed in the Wright section of the Arts & Crafts gallery of the Lewis Collection, along with a pair of Coonley playhouse windows, and a number of iconic Wright chairs - including a Larkin Administration building metal desk chair.  The installation as a whole reads like a "who's who" of Wright's designs for furnishings and art glass.  Surrounded by Stickley, Rohlfs and Greene & Greene pieces in the Arts & Crafts gallery, the Wright objects display a geometric affinity with their counterparts, but remind one that "Prairie" is not "Arts & Crafts," or vice versa.  The Greene & Greene pieces from the Gamble House in particular are exquisite examples of turn of the century Japonisme - an influence on Wright, to be sure, but more sublimated in the unique synthesis of his designs.

My only regret concerning the VMFA's "Tree of Life" window (shared by Mr. Shifman) is its installation:  set into the gallery wall and back-lit with a less than natural light, its lustrous iridescence is impossible to detect.  Perhaps the installation can be revised so that both sides of the window are visible.  Still, the Martin House window is a highlight of a museum and decorative arts collection not to be missed by those seeking an unforgettable aesthetic experience in Richmond.


Steven said...

Why do museums insist on using bright white light as the illumination source for these lightscreens? It's difficult to view the colored glass pieces when you're staring into the sun.

EJF said...

Good point Steven - though another option might be to install it so it's not back-lit, but not lit by daylight either. That is, installed so it's lit from both sides in the gallery, as they have one of their art nouveau art glass pieces installed.

Michael said...

Do museums like that in Richmond ever say how they acquired the window? Or show any inkling of giving it back?

EJF said...

Michael - the VMFA acquired their window via Christie's in 1983, and shared that provenance information with us. No real prospect of getting it back in this case - but it has a very good "home."