All About Glass

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Glass Behind the Iron Curtain: Czech Design, 1948-1978

All About Glass

An Interview with Tina Oldknow, Curator of Modern Glass

This interview was conducted in December 2001 in preparation for the opening of the 2002 summer exhibition at The Corning Museum of Glass: Glass Behind the Iron Curtain: Czech Design, 1948-1978.

The Corning Museum of Glass is known for the extraordinary range of its collections. All of the objects in Glass Behind the Iron Curtain: Czech Design, 1948-1978 are part of the Museum’s collection. What are they and how were they acquired?

Tina Oldknow: The exhibition presents about 100 glass objects and design drawings made in Czechoslovakia between 1948 and 1978. The objects are vessels and sculptures that illustrate a variety of glassworking and decorating techniques, including blowing, casting, pressing, enameling, and cutting. Some of the objects are accompanied by an original design drawing, which was made by the artist who designed the piece.

Many of the objects in Glass Behind the Iron Curtain were shown in Glass 1959, an international exhibition organized by the Museum that documented the world glass scene at a time of historic change. One of the most important results of this exhibition was the documentation of the shift of glass from its use as an applied art to a fine art. For the Czechs, the exhibition took place at a particularly opportune time. The Museum’s former director, Thomas Buechner, remarked: "When the highly-anticipated crates of glass arrived for the show from Czechoslovakia -- a hostile Iron Curtain country -- we were amazed. It was like receiving household goods from another planet!" Recognizing the innovation and creativity of the Czech glass, in particular, the Museum purchased almost all of the Czech glass at the close of the exhibition.

The Museum purchased another group of Czech glass in the early 1980s. The artists Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová donated important early work, and the Galerie Nationale de Prague donated glass objects from this period.

Please explain more about the relationship between the artists and their work.  

Artists made sketches and then working drawings for the production of their designs. The glass objects were made by master glassblowers, but the enameled, cut, and engraved decorations were often made by the artists themselves. The artists worked closely with the craftsmen who produced the objects. In the %%case%% of Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová, they pioneered and developed their distinctive mold-melting process for making sculptural and architectural glass.

Czech artists were rarely allowed to travel with their work when it was shown in foreign exhibitions, and they were not allowed to know if their glass sold, how much it sold for, or if there was any response to it at all. Working in a vacuum, the isolation of Czech artists and designers was both negative and positive: positive because they did not know that what they were doing was so radically different from how other designers approached the material. For example, upon seeing the work of Czech designers alongside that of western Europeans at the 1957 Milan Triennale, the famous Czech professor Josef Kaplický was disturbed. He thought that because the Czech designs were so completely different, he had led his students astray. But he had not, of course.

How significant is this portion of the collection to the Museum?  

This portion of the collection is very significant because it documents a particularly innovative and creative period in glass. The historical context is also fascinating.

With the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, artists were expected to conform to the State-approved artistic style called Socialist Realism, a strictly representational, narrative style meant to inspire the working class. The heritage of the Czech avant-garde and the contemporary international art scene were dismissed as "decadent Western culture," and abstract art was held in contempt. Those who chose not to conform to this style met with strong resistance.

It is significant, in this context, that many Czech artists and designers working in glass were not as artistically repressed. Unlike painting, sculpture and graphic arts, glass design was overlooked, and artists working in the medium were allowed to continue relatively unhindered. Glass was considered a functional, ornamental medium, not an expressive one: How could a political statement be made in the design of a goblet? Many painters and graphic artists took refuge in glass and other applied arts as a way of escaping harassment and retaining a modicum of creative freedom.

Why was glass an "overlooked" medium?  

Glass was considered a medium for applied art, although what distinguishes Czech glassmaking is the use of glass for painting, sculpture and architecture! The communist regime did not consider the applied arts as capable of conveying political statements, although there were some pieces that were questioned. For example, there is the story of a vase with abstract engraved decoration – designed by Jan Kotík and executed by Cestmir Cejnar -- that was exhibited in a 1959 exhibition in Moscow. The Museum has a similar vase by Kotík. The decoration of the vase – an abstract composition – was clearly at odds with the tenets of Socialist Realism. One visitor remarked on this unfavorably; this visitor happened to be Nikita Khruschev, the Soviet premier. So, glass was not entirely ignored! These artists were courageous, disregarding mandates in their pursuit of abstract art. They were persistent and passionate, modest and humble.

What is significant about the exhibition, Glass Behind the Iron Curtain: Czech Design, 1948-1978?  

Heart/Red Flower Sculpture Jaroslava Brychtova Stanislav Libensky

This exhibition celebrates the Museum’s purchase, in 2001, of a unique, large, important, and rare collection of original design drawings from this period that were amassed by the Steinberg Foundation in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. The primary theme of the exhibition is that in spite of political repression, Czech glass designers retained some freedom of expression, as evidenced by their exploration of abstract art. This is most clearly demonstrated in the drawings that form the core of the exhibition.

The original drawings that are featured in the exhibition show how Czech artists explored and transformed abstract ideas into glass. Created with watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and pencil, the drawings shed light on an important period in 20th-century Czech art, closely connecting the history of glass to the history of art. They also provide insight into the ways in which an artist develops an idea in two, and then three, dimensions.

After the drawings were purchased, it was discovered that many of them were the original sketches for objects already in the Museum’s collection of Czech glass. The acquisition of the drawings also underscores the Museum’s commitment to its Library, which is the most extensive glass library in the world, and to the Library’s development of a comprehensive archive of materials related to glass.

Even today, mid 20th-century Czech glass is an understudied area, but important research is underway. Glass made during the Communist era is just now beginning to receive the recognition it deserves. Sealed off from the West for decades, with only intermittent periods of exposure, the work of Czech artists and designers from the second half of the 20th century can now be fully appreciated.

For visitors who come to see the Museum, what does Glass Behind the Iron Curtain: Czech Design, 1948-1978 add to the experience?  

Glass Behind the Iron Curtain: Czech Design, 1948-1978 offers an in-depth exploration of a subject about which relatively little is known. The exhibition points out fascinating stories and pieces of history, and tries to show glass in the context of politics and history.

If a visitor were to take away only one impression of the exhibition, what would you want it to be?  

That artistic freedom is an absolute necessity. It is also important for people to realize that in addition to making vessels, glass can be used as a medium for painting and sculpture.

Could you talk about a few of the artists?  

So many of these artists are important for the innovation and creativity they have brought to glass. I will just mention a couple of names. Vladimír Kopecký and Jan Kotík are leaders among the painters and engravers. Kotík could not display his abstract painting and sculpture in public from 1948 to 1957, and his interest in applied arts is often explained as a compensatory activity. However, Kotík never accepted the idea that applied arts were of any less value than fine art. Kopecký’s enameled vases are literally abstract paintings on glass.

Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová are extremely important in the field of sculpture, developing their own techniques for sculptural and architectural glass. Libenský makes a concept %%drawing%%, which is transformed into a three-dimensional sculpture by Brychtová. A mold is made of the sculpture, large chunks of glass are placed inside the mold, and the glass is allowed to slowly melt in the kiln.

Jirí Harcuba is internationally admired for his engraving on glass, and he has been an inspiration to glass artists around the world. René Roubícek is well known for his spontaneous and expressive blown forms that have been so influential to studio artists.

With the exception of Jan Kotík, all of these artists are well known today for their work in glass. But, most people know only their contemporary work in glass, and not the early work that is shown in this exhibition.

Published on October 4, 2011