Marion Mahony Griffin - in Australia and beyond
 -by Lynn Becker

Rediscovering Marion Mahony Griffin - her life and work with Walter Burley Griffin, her Forest Portraits of Tasmania landscape, her return to America, and the renewed appreciation for the importance of her legacy.


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Landscape in Australia is remarkable. The flora is tough . . . durable, hardy, and yet supremely delicate. It is so light at its edges that its connection with the deep sky vault is unsurpassed anywhere. The sunlight is so intense for the most part of the continent that it separates and isolates objects. The native trees read not so much as members of a series of interconnected related elements, but as groups of isolated elements. The high oil content of so many of the trees, combined with the strong sunlight, results in a foliage shimmering silver to withered grays, with affinities to the pinks, browns, to olives. The foliage is not dense, particularly outside the rain forest areas, and the shadows therefore present a dappled light, a dappled shade. This distinguishes our landscapes from that of most other countries, where the soft light tends to connect the elements of the landscape, rather than separate them..” - Pritzker-Prize winning Australian architect Glenn Murcutt.

Marion Mahony Griffin had never set foot in Australia when she created the renderings for the Canberra competition. They consisted of fourteen huge drawings, each five feet by two-and-a-half feet in size, that were completely unlike the traditional renderings submitted by the other entrants. According to Birmingham, those drawings, based on the European landscape, depicted “a green city and a blue sky. Mahony Griffin's renderings captured the rich variety of ochres, golds, browns, and russets that comprise the Australian landscape neither of the Griffins had seen but for black-and-white photos.”

Out of 137 entrants, the unknown Griffins came up the winners. Critics speculated that it was the beauty of the drawings that clinched the decision. “It is quite possible,” sniffed one, “that the Board of Assessors may have been carried away with the mere charm of this display.” The entry was made in Walter's name, but when a critic enthused over the beauty of the renderings, the architect was quick to respond, “My wife did that.”

The couple would move to Australia in 1914. Marion was entranced by the indigenous plant life, and began sketching it almost upon their arrival. In 1918 she joined the wife of one their clients and two of her artist friends a sketching trip to Tasmania. Mahony's Forest Portraits were the result, and they are the core of the Block exhibition.

Mahony's understanding of the Australian landscape mirrors Murcutt's. “Nature itself,” she wrote, “accomplished the decorative character required, for many of the trees were so open in their foliage that the structural members - trunks and joints and branches - were always well in view.”

In Tasmania, she found the “color runs riot” and the bark of the Eucalyptus tree “completely red, so fiery that paint cannot reproduce it. It was like a flame shooting up to meet the setting sun.” Mahony especially captures this in the exhibit's striking Eucalyptus Urnigera Tasmania /Scarlet Bark, Sunset, where Mahony not only shows a landscape crimson with sunset, but transcends the traditional way of illustrating plants as isolated specimens in favor of depicting them intertwined into a rich ecosystem.

For the Forest Portraits, Mahony used the technique of the gel lithograph, which would begin by drawing with ferric salts on a tray of gelatin. The drawn areas of gel would harden. When a piece of silk was rolled against the gel, ink would stick of the hardened areas to produce a line drawing, to which color was then added with applied inks and dyes. To provide different hues for the backgrounds, different colors of silk - mauve, silver, or, for Eucalyptus Urnigera, red - were used.

Mahony's only personal architectural commission disintegrated into a bitter dispute. When even the lowest bids for the design came in above Mahony's estimate, the client refused to pay, and had the design built by someone else. Mahony sued for copyright infringement, and lost. She never practiced independently in Australia again. She was, however, instrumental in the Capitol Theater project in Melbourne. Her touch is visible in elements like the the theater's crowning touch, an incredible crystalline ceiling of 4,000 individual bulbs coursed in ornate plaster work. Mahony oversaw the construction of the theater, and spent much of her subsequent time in Australia managing the development of CastleCrag, the Sydney suburb which Griffin designed.

Although the Griffins made a living for themselves in Australia, their ambitious Canberra design, done in by politics, was never realized. Years into the Great Depression, Walter began to find India a lucrative source of commissions, and he moved there. The couple had separated, but in 1936 Marion also came to India, and affected a reconciliation. For the first time in 14 years, Walter noted, "Marion is back at the drawing board." The result was still one more stunning rendering - of Griffin's design for a library and museum for the Raja of Mahmudabad.

Marion was there when Walter died of complications from a ruptured gall bladder in 1937. Birmingham quotes a letter Marion wrote to her sister, “Then as his breath began to fail, I talked to him, told him what a wonderful life I had had with him, how he was beloved by everybody and suddenly he turned and fastened his eyes wide open and round on mine, startled and intense as if it had never occurred to him that he could die and they never left mine till he ceased breathing and I closed them.”

Mahony returned to Chicago in 1938, to a house at 1946 W. Estes in Rogers Park that she shared with her cousins, the Hayes's, and where she helped in the upbringing of a favorite niece. In the last years of her life, she drifted into dementia and died in 1961 at the age of 90, in Cook County Hospital. Having the last laugh, her remains were interred, not with husband Walter two continents away, but in the company of Burnham, Sullivan, Root, and Mies van der Rohe, in Chicago's architect's cemetery, Graceland. Originally placed in an inexpensive foot-square niche, admirers got the permission of Lawrence Perkins, Dwight's son, to move her ashes to a new granite columbarium. It was dedicated, with a new, simple marker embossed with the image of one of her floral drawings, in October of 1997. John K Notz, a Graceland trustee who was instrumental in creating the memorial, remembers that Australia sent flower arrangements of incredible beauty. A renewed awareness and respect for Marion Mahony's legacy was signaled by the unexpectedly large turnout, which included, according to one observer, a who's-who of the city's women architects.

Mahony never reconciled with Frank Lloyd Wright. According to scholar Alice Friedman, she "hated Frank Lloyd Wright with a blinding passion.." She had been a close friend of the wife Wright abandoned, and had to endure Wright's bitter denigration of the Griffins and their work - he labeled them "unskilled hacks and plagiarists."

Because so much of it took place - or was kept - behind the scenes, Marion Mahony's influence and authorship is still being debated. In the compilation Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, Paul Sprague poses the question “Marion Mahony as Originator of Griffin's Mature Style: Fact or Myth.” He comes down on the side of “myth.” The very title of Elizabeth Birmingham's dissertation, Erasing a Woman: The Canon, Absence, and Gender proposes a contrasting viewpoint. Mahony herself often downplayed her own role. "I had nothing to do with it," she told an interviewer about the plan of Canberra. She made it the goal of the last decades of her long life to "honor Walter's memory by perpetuating his genius in books." The result was the eight volumes of the The Magic of America, a combination of tribute, memoir, and brief for her embraced philosophy of Anthroposophy.

But how did Marion Mahony see herself? The exhibition's reproduction of a striking mural she painted in 1931 for Chicago's George Armstrong School, where her sister was a teacher, may provide a clue. Mahony's description is straightforward: “A group of fairies high in a Birch tree, helping the mother Heron to feed the babies in her nest, the father Heron winging his way from a distance helped by other fairies to carry more supplies of fish.”

The execution of the two-panel mural is more intriguing. The right panel depicts a rocky bluff, snowcapped mountains in the distance. The wide-winged father heron, isolated in the far corner, flies majestically toward the nest. The landscape is incredibly stark and barren, the background a sequence of dark yellow, tan, and brown stripes. Even the sky is gray.

The left panel is also dark, except for the huge birch tree at its center, brightly illuminated where everything else is in shadow. Its foliage spills forth in an astounding fertility of rich green leaves. In the nest, the mother heron feeds her young, assisted by three female fairies, completely nude, adorned only by wings with colors as brilliant as the glass mosaics of a Tiffany lamp.

Fairies were not an uncommon motif in the art and literature of the time - think 1904's Peter Pan. Marion Mahony, herself, had used them before in illustrations for books and advertising, and in a fanciful lecture she gave to the children of Armstrong School that fused science with her own, highly idiosyncratic mythology of gnomes and crystals, Star beings and Moon beings and - above all else - fairies, which, to Mahony, appear to have possessed a private, personal meaning.

“All great beings have children and we human beings call these children of the angelic beings fairies,” she told the students. “The Fire Fairies built the fruits and seeds so that myriads of different kinds of trees and plants could come into the earth world. And it is as well that they did so, for the earth itself, the crystals, neither animal nor man can eat. Only the planets are smart enough to transform crystals into food and of course they could not do it if the fairies didn't show them how.”

Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature is on display in the Alsdorf Gallery of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art through December 4, 2005. The museum is located at 40 Arts Circle Drive on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Hours at 10:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. Wednesdays through Friday, Noon to 5:00 P.M. Saturdays and Sundays, and 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. on Tuesdays. Closed Mondays. 847/491-4000

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© Copyright 2005 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.