parasites: provincialism on the prairie

To Frank Lloyd Wright, out of the Renaissance had come “debased” styles of rococo and baroque, natural extensions of its intrinsic sensuality and extravagance.” He was stunned by the sensualism, and despite his own private life and his own sensually powerful designs, its possible that at heart, Wright was a Puritan. He felt that he alone, among the American architects, was fighting to establish an idiom of his own and was not, like them, a “parasite feeding on past greatness.” :

But until the people have the joy again in architecture as a living art that one sees recorded in buildings of all the truly great periods, so long will architecture remain a dead thing. It will not live again until we break away entirely from adherence to the false ideals of the Renaissance. In that whole movement art was reduced to the level of an expedient. What future has a people content with that? Only that of parasites, feeding on past greatness, and on the road to extinction by some barbarian race with ideals and hungering for their realization in noble concrete form….

One can only speculate on what he might have done had he been more aware of the artistic ferment in France and elsewhere, which in 1913 produced Lipschitz's Man with a Guitar. Image:

IN America we are more betrayed by this condition than the people of older countries, for we have no traditional forms except the accumulated ones of all peoples that do not without sacrifice fit new conditions, and there is in consequence no true reverence for tradition. As some sort of architecture is a necessity, American architects take their pick from the world’s stock of “ready-made” architecture, and are most successful when transplanting form for form, line for line, enlarging details by means of lantern slides from photographs of the originals….

Hovenden. Breaking Home Times. The kind of work Wright called corrupted taste and ornament in the old sense not fitting for a modern America. Image:

This works well. The people are architecturally clothed and sheltered. The modern comforts are smuggled in cleverly, we must admit. But is this architecture? Is it thus tradition molded great styles? In this polyglot tangle of borrowed forms, is there a great spirit that will bring order out of chaos? Vitality, unity and greatness out of emptiness and discord?

The ideals of the Renaissance will not, for the Renaissance was inorganic. Read More:

If, then, neither the past nor the present of Western art was usable, what was an American architect in 1908 to do? A prophylactic measure would be to abjure ornament and decoration altogether: it was “dangerous… you are usually better off without it…Look to the simple line, to the clean though living form, and quiet color.” He himself was forced to follow this policy, he explained to a European audience in 1910 and that was why his own work lacked a “complete, highly developed” system of ornament. One of his key statements was ” Tenderness has often to be sacrificed to integrity.” Thus, he says, he has forced himself to design buildings of a severely restrained nature “whose chief office is to act as a background or frame for the life within and about them.”

---Coonely Living Rom. 1908. Image:

Writing of the early 1890′s, Wright recalls in his autobiography that he could not endure the “realism” of American art as represented by such immensely popular works as the Rogers sculptural groups or such widely reproduced genre paintings as Hovenden’s Breaking Home Ties. His judgment can be praised, but was his knowledge of American art only confined to such vernacular works as these? I think he just chose to target this art through these artists as a pretext for his own hostile attitude. It is not possible for man in his circle not to have heard of Whistler, Sargent or Cassatt. Or French painting for that matter; certainly, the rest of Chicago had heard of Renoir, Degas and Monet. It was a self-created personal provincialism or maybe his gene of moral priggishness and a tormented soul.

Certainly, American collectors at the time had limited knowledge and parochial tastes and ignorant of impressionism ; all in all, an exercise in stupefying banality. But was that enough to explain Wright’s lifelong distrust of Western painting or something deeper, nihilistic and narcissistic at work here? Or just a rage at upper class tastes and the cycle

onsumerism and invidious comparison that Veblen was just publishing at that time. In truth, except for a handful of artists, not too many were aware of the world-shaking events in France, and not until the great Armory Show of 1913 was the whole direction of American taste to be radically altered. And what use Wright would have made of this art, had it been available to him then, is a matter of speculation.

Certainly, the artistic criteria of a Van Gogh or Matisse seem to be similar to Wright’s at the turn of the century, and it is possible to imagine an artistic union between them. Be that as it may, it is easy to understand why he rejected the painters and sculptors that were available to him, and the lack of other architects he could have turned to.

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