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Portrait of an Artist as Prophet

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

An Autobiography. By Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $6.00.

Here is the life of an American Prophet, one of the first men of a great profession who sought the laws and beauties of the new methods and materials of this Machine Age.

He has begun his book with a parable of the directness which he has preached and practiced in his art and life, even if he has sometimes questioned it. His buildings are all examples of his doctrine, and this book is another. Sumptuous in its unconventional arrangement and decoration, there is a directness of purpose and result that shows how an artist imbued with his own sense of style may vary his medium without loss of individuality or creative ability.

His style is worthy of a prophet. The boy read Ruskin and Whitman for himself, he knew the book of Isaiah from the expoundings of his patriarchal grandfather and the music of Bach from the playing of his mystical father, and something of all of them is echoed in the writings of the man. He has a right to be heard for himself alone. Fate led him to predicate in the terms of what is at once one of the most public and obscure professions, whose members only too often create for the glory of others and take their fame from such extra-curricular calamities as may happen to them. Just as Stanford White is hardly known to the crowd save as the victim of an unpalatable murder; and the chief item of a great newspaper’s account of Goodhue’s untimely death was the recollection of a mild ornamental quip on one of his churches; so most of Wright’s publicity has come from a passive connection with a grim tragedy, and his entanglement in a legal fiasco.

The events of this life are set in one of the most interesting periods of American development, and in a scene with accessories and a protagonist typical of the time. Wright was born in the growing Middle West, towards the end of the nineteenth century, of the mixed ancestry of a New England father and a mother whose parents were immigrants. He came to the practice of his profession with the singular directness of a new man in a new country. He soon discarded the hocus-pocus of a college education. He passed himself rapidly through the hands of various practicing architects until he found a master to his taste in Louis Sullivan; and once he felt his feet under him, he discarded even that last leader and began to practice according to his own ideas. He even declined the gilded offer of safe conformity and a course at the sacred Beaux Arts from the hands of the then great Burnham.

His work began as the first trained ranks of architects in America were getting under way a series of revivals to end revivals, and fate with ironic perversity was presenting them with the first problems which had occurred in centuries that defied eclectic diligence and received no aid even from the pentecostal gleanings of the camera. The sky-scraper, a true creation of the machine age, outstripped imagination with a fact. Many a conscientious designer, even as he clothed their Gargantuan nakedness with the more or less inappropriate prettiness of neo-classic or synthetic-gothic detail, must have wished them heartily at the devil with their prototype of Babel. And the sky-scraper was only archetypical of the new methods and materials with which science is still flooding the world. Steel, cement, glass, machinery, bewildering in the amazing flexibility of the design which they permitted, drove timid men to the comfortable safety of tradition, with the ostrich-like desire to make every new thing as much as possible like an old one, and so disguise the fact that it was entirely different. We are still-at the process in our domestic work, reversing the Cesarean section to plant plumbing and heating in modern ”colonial” houses, and covering and crowning our lies with brick-veneer and with asbestos shingles that look almost like wood.

In the beginning of this turmoilWright went at his work with the simplicity of a genius. He was well equipped with an idealism drawn from a father who had lost himself to life between his music and his church, and the humanistic spirit of a mother who saw Nature’s greatest beauties in human attributes, and sought the best in the nature of things, even in the boiling of a potato. He put sentiment and tradition behind him in facing the new day, turned within himself for ideas, consulting the oracle of ways and means, and the tools of his craft for design, and questioning always the problem and the material in search of their philosophy. The pressure of economy, the arbitration of social necessities, and the insistent ethics of a rational profession have forced men to follow him more and more. Now one of the favorite American hunting-grounds for architectural inspiration lies among the works of Wright’s foreign imitators; for his style, as nearly autochthonous as any we have produced, has had the prophetic quality of being far more honored abroad than in its own country.

Wright’s scheme of massing his illustrations, several to a page and all at the back of the book, has a number of advantages. There is no invidious question of the appropriateness of a plate to a position, and they have all the advantage of proximity for the sake of comparison. Here is the man himself in various stages of his development. About him are grouped the scenes in which he lived, the relatives and friends who influenced his life, the fruits of that life, the children of his body and his mind, shown with the graphic frankness of the camera to substantiate, or modify, or illustrate the written word. It would be interesting to see the genetical chapters of a biography given in this fashion with photographs only, so that the reader might be made to draw his inductions before turning to the consequences of the succeeding text. But that, like Wright’s fashion of building, might call for too much thought.

There is plenty of room for that throughout his book, with his lessons in the ideals and ethics of an art which is neglected by intelligent Americans in almost the degree that they neglect their politics, with results that are almost as inescapable. It isn’t at all necessary that the reader agree with any of his conclusions, or even understand them; if the thoughts he has put down will only raise vital doubts in a few sheep-like minds it will have done something for the eternal verities of art. Certain people should be dosed on it: the young of the architectural profession for the good of their mental digestions; those about to build, for the terrible costiveness of mind that too often destroys any good that an architect might have done them; the legal profession, which should be given the chapters on his experiences with their kind, as a spiritual anthelmintic.

As the figure of an artist and a philosopher, projected by himself, it is recommended to anyone who cares to adventure into the Promethean dangers of thought.


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