This is a season of Japanese prints in Southern California. The Norton Simon Museum has “Hiroshige: Visions of Japan,” with 175 prints, all from the permanent collection (left, The One Thousand Acre Plain at Susaki in Fukugawa). LACMA’s Japanese Pavilion is presenting a rotation of about 30 Abstract Expressionist prints, and the San Diego Museum of Art is headlining “Dreams and Diversions: 250 Years of Japanese Prints,” still another permanent collection show.
The two pivotal figures in the region’s collecting are the notorious Frank Lloyd Wright and the not-so-well-known (yet also scandalous) Cora Timken Burnett. Print sellers camped outside Wright’s Tokyo office while he was designing the now-demolished Imperial Hotel (below). Wright bought reams of Japanese prints and resold them for the rest of his career. It was the prints that subsidized the architecture: Wright made $17,000 for his design of the Imperial Hotel but netted over $200,000 dealing prints through the 1930s. As dealer, Wright was as leverage-happy as any hedge-fund rocket scientist. One telegram to a wealthy collector/equity-partner asked, “Can anything be done with the prints. If not would you be willing to lend me half their value for six months.”
Wright championed Utagawa Hiroshige as the world’s greatest artist. Naturally, there was only one architect who bore comparison… Students at Taliesen were informed by the Master: “Hiroshige did, with a sense of space, very much what we have been doing with it in our architecture… On what is your attention focused? Nothing.”
A large share of the ukiyo-e prints in the great Eastern and Midwest museums passed through Wright’s hands. As usual, California was late to the salad bar. But Wright died in 1959 with substantial inventory, some 6000 prints. The pre-Norton Simon Pasadena Museum was a major buyer from the estate. So was UCLA.
Many curators had reservations about Wright’s prints. Colors in ukiyo-e prints fade quickly when exposed to light. Wright’s prints often appeared as fresh as if they had been printed yesterday. Indeed, Hiroshige’s prints were such commercial successes that posthumous impressions were being pulled well into the 20th century. When a color block wore out, the publishers made a replacement. Wright was aware of this. At Taliesen he would show students how different two impressions of the “same” image could look. Pin holes, visible from behind, identified prints made from later, replacement blocks.
Not only that, Wright retouched the color of faded prints. When Metropolitan Museum curator Sigisbert C. Bosch-Reitz confronted Wright on this (1922), the architect wrote,
There is no intention on my part to deceive you or anyone else—I think you know this. Kindly forward suspected prints at once for inspection and comparison. I have never changed the values in any of my prints. As all collectors do and and will do I have worked on them sometimes with color to retouch spots, clean surfaces, put the print into condition but very little even of that. I have done this usually with the mats on and no one could object to what I did. Long ago some fooling with some of my prints was done by my studio boys who has always access to them as to a kind of library—for their education and pleasure. But that was ten years ago or more and rejected long since. I have gone through the remaining prints carefully to eliminate the “taint” of the “vamp.”
Elsewhere Wright called retouched prints “vampires” and lent some to the Met for an exhibition on fakes. It’s likely that many of the Hiroshiges in American collections are 20th-century impressions, or retouched, or both. Wright’s cavalier attitude toward the work of an artist he idolized is of a piece with the narcissism his biographers have found. Even in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, now a Tea Party bestseller, the Wright character blows up his own building. Clients!
Down to San Diego, and another sort of existential ruthlessness. Cora Timken Burnett was a roller bearing heiress and self-financed sculptor who collected Asian art and paranoid ideation. In the 1920s she married a boy-toy who also happened to be a Dr. Frankenstein. Osteopath and scientist Dr. John Clawson Burnett believed he might cure all ills with electromagnetism. Cora’s wealth bought him a suitably electrified laboratory in the New Jersey Palisades. It was part of the couple’s 50-acre compound, featuring a green-tiled house designed by Cora, a swimming pool shaped like a coiled snake, and an art collection that featured a reconstructed Indian temple. Dr. and Mrs. Burnett were nuts about security (even compared to neighbors in celeb-ghetto Alpine, NJ). They had a barbed wire fence, a kennel of guard dogs, and and unfinished 200-foot-long fallout shelter, big enough to store their collection. Cora died in 1956, before the art panic room was completed. Most of her collection went to the Metropolitan Museum. A large share of her Japanese prints were bequeathed to the San Diego Museum of Art, however. That must have been due to the lobbying of her San Diegan sister, Amelia Timken Bridges.
A highlight of the San Diego show is Hokusai’s Rainstorm Beneath the Summit (above left). It’s a pendant to the much better-known Mount Fuji in Clear Weather (Red Fuji, right), of which LACMA has a good early impression. The jagged lines in Rainstorm are lightning, not ski trails. Hokusai was influenced by the naturalism of Western prints; and years later, Gauguin and van Gogh would regift the favor, prizing Hokusai’s abstraction.