Recipe for a Myth

by Roberto Dulio

The Show to End All Shows. Frank Lloyd Wright and The Museum of Modern Art, 1940 A cura di Peter Reed e William Kaizen, con un saggio di Kathryn Smith The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2004 (pp. 240, € 30,00)

In 1940, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) staged a retrospective of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, who had experienced a professional rebirth over the previous decade after many years of relative invisibility and personal/professional difficulties. “Frank Lloyd Wright: American Architect” was the exhibition’s official title, and should have been accompanied by a book. Not an actual catalogue, but a collection of essays in the form of a Festschrift, with writings by Alvar Aalto, Richard Neutra, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and others. Wright’s drive to preside over the cult of his personality was certainly not unknown, and he immediately (though unofficially) took charge of the exhibition’s organisation. But he was unable to gain control over the publication. John McAndrew, MoMA’s Department of Architecture curator, had commissioned Walter Curt Behrendt to write the introductory essay (which turned out to be the only one with explicit critical pregnancy). At the time, Behrendt had already written Modern Building (New York 1937), which placed Wright at the forefront of modern architectural culture. But Wright, in an unexpected final move, cancelled the book’s publication. What had happened? What reason did Wright have to censure an assemblage of writings made in his honour, and especially Behrendt’s essay, which was certainly not hostile in any way to his work? How does this episode relate to the wider-ranging confrontation with European architecture and especially with its protagonists, who had emigrated to the United States precisely during the Thirties? The 8th volume of the “Studies in Modern Art” series answers these and many other questions. The Show to End All Shows. Frank Lloyd Wright and The Museum of Modern Art, 1940 was brought out by MoMA in an obvious attempt to revisit the stages of its own identity, and it also resolves a fascinating historiographic enigma. But it is especially Kathryn Smith’s fine essay that reconstructs the antecedents and the successive interlocking events that led up to the 1940 show in an accurate and convincing manner. It is possible to position the starting point of this episode at the beginning of the thirties, when Wright, in an attempt to pull himself out of crisis, organised an exhibition of his work that travelled from the United States to Europe between 1930 and 1931. In the same years, the very famous “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” was under preparation at MoMA, along with the publication International Style (New York 1932), both realised by the same curators, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. The comparison between Wright’s work and that of the European avant-garde who had emigrated to the New World (the latter was indeed legitimated by the exhibition and the book) naturally positioned the American architect in the role of pioneer, to quote the title that crystallised out of Nikolaus Pevsner’s later book Pioneers of the Modern Movement (London 1936). Wright had immediately contested this vision, claiming for himself not only the role of initiator of so-called modern architecture, but also that of the authentic interpreter of the new Zeitgeist, which, in his opinion, was reduced to mere formal mannerism by the European avant-garde. He undertook long-distance polemicising with Le Corbusier, maintained a critical attitude toward Walter Gropius, yet thanks to support from Lewis Mumford (who had convinced a reluctant Johnson and a more open-minded Hitchcock), he pushed his way into being part of the 1932 exhibition, except that he proceeded to manifest a certain reluctance to appear in the company of the other architects involved. Despite attempts to pacify them, the parties continued to be belligerent. On one side, Wright insisted on making his leadership in modernity clear, and on the other, the European architects, who by now dominated the American cultural scene, took on a critical approach regarding Wright, who was considered to be the quintessence of individuality and romantic spirit. They positioned him, perhaps not completely erroneously, among the innovators of the 19th century, rather than in the ranks of the avant-garde. This climate was confirmed by the situation at Harvard University’s Department of Architecture (which was part of the Graduate School of Design, and run by Walter Gropius from 1937 with Marcel Breuer as one of its teachers), where Bruno Zevi, a very young student who paradoxically went on to become one of the most famous Wright experts in Italy, published a pamphlet together with a group of his contemporaries, An Opinion on Architecture (Boston 1941), that ratified this reductive vision of Wright beyond a shadow of doubt. In order to oppose this situation, Wright aspired to having absolute control of the organisation of the 1940 exhibition. He especially wanted to shape his personal image in a way that put an accent on the anticipatory character of some of his projects from the beginning of the century. He purposely redesigned them for the occasion, with graphics that showed them as being plausible formal models of the European avant-garde. He also inserted a large number of projects in study and realisation phases into the exhibition (a somewhat exaggerated number with respect to his total production) that aimed at testifying to the vitality of his role. Wright was convinced that the homage to him in the Festschrift, by European culture’s protagonists (of whom he claimed to be a leader), and especially the essay that Behrendt sent to him before publication, would have made the catalogue seem like a posthumous tribute to a career that had run its course and was over. For this reason, even Behrendt’s critical approach (in an article that was in any case commendatory) showed him the benefit of preventing the editorial initiative from being published (seeing as he was unable to modify the writings, despite him trying). And so he did, with all his habitual relentless determination. After the opening of the show, which he had significantly renamed “The Show to End All Shows”, Wright realised, from the amount of negative criticism, that the complexity of his work and critical vision were risked not being understood. So, as an afterthought, after the exhibition had closed and after having planned control of the operation (of which he would still not be completely satisfied), Wright agreed with Henry-Russell Hitchcock that he would become the author of In the Nature of Materials 1887-1941. The buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright (New York 1942). It was a kind of post-exhibition catalogue and at the same time the first wide-ranging monograph on the work of the American architect. The Show to End All Shows, edited by Peter Reed and William Kaizen, is completed by the accurate transcription of original documents from MoMA’s archives (including Behrendt’s essay in its orogonal form and then with the changes suggested by Wright, plus the latter’s furious letters). It possibly suffers from the below-par quality of its photographic reproductions (including its faded cover), but it most assuredly represents one of the most updated and in-depth studies on Wright. The aforementioned essay by Smith, which substantiates the whole book, has the merit of putting a precise and convincing focus on the organisation of the 1940 exhibition and on Wright’s obstinate drive to shape not only architectural space but also a precise critical vision of himself. It proves how both architectural and historiographic projects are ruled by a comparable and intelligible drive to represent and organise reality through apparently simple devices (organic architecture, rational architecture) that condense cultural problems that are much more complex and ambiguous. Roberto Dulio Architect

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