by Roderick Conway Morris

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International contemporary glass on show in Venice

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 19 October 1996
Kyohei Fujita
Red and White Plum Blossom box in cast and enameled glass by Kyohei Fujita, 1995



It started out as Dale Chihuly's party, but eventually over a hundred and twenty other glass artists - or their works at least - turned up as well.

As Chihuly's enormous, brightly-colored 'chandeliers', pendant clusters of blown-glass spheres and tubes, each formation weighing up to half a ton, began to blossom over canals, in waterside gardens, in archways and in a medieval cloister, three substantial public shows opened at the Doge's Palace, the Correr Museum and the Murano Glass Museum for Venice's first 'Aperto Vetro' (Open Glass), a new international contemporary glass show (until Nov. 8).

The city's public shows were the brainchild of the Venetian glass scholar Rosa Barovier Mentasti, supported by a small group of local private galleries that are now committed to offering not only Murano, but also foreign, art glass. And, happily, Venice's municipality saw in the imminent arrival of the 'Chihuly Over Venice' spectacular an opportunity not to be missed to launch what it is hoped will become a regular biennial event.

In some settings, Chihuly's chandeliers looked as weightless as fugitive balloons and created sparkling configurations of light. His technicians have achieved wonders in almost invisibly hanging together the hundreds of pieces of glass that make up each composition, but the chandeliers' effect were sometimes reduced where pyramids of scaffolding were required to suspend them. This could no doubt be overcome in more permanent sites, where a work could be hung from a ceiling or its supports sheathed in glass.

The idea of showing glass outside was a novel one here, and the local population responded favorably - save for an elderly woman who called the police complaining that 'Melon from Finland', a chandelier (attached to a pair of piles by a boatyard), the lower orbs of which floated lazily in the water, was keeping her awake at night with its resonant knocking.

One of the most successful of all was 'Citron Green from Mexico', a fresh, translucent confection like a succulent bunch of grapes on a terrace above the Grand Canal that looked equally good by day and illuminated by night. (The chandeliers are due to go on tour, beginning at the Kemper Museum of Art and Design in Kansas City, Missouri, from Dec. 15.)

This year is the 25th anniversary of the first Pilchuck Glass Summerschool held by Chihuly and some friends on a 54-acre patch of virgin land north of Seattle. It was an idealistic, back to nature, artists' colony venture at the time, and a note in the valuable and well-illustrated book, just published, charting its progress, 'Pilchuck: A Glass School' by Tina Oldknow, nicely catches its original flavor when it says that 'Staff listings for 1971-73 are not included since little distinction was made between faculty, students and staff until 1974.'

Pilchuck - which, according to the British glass expert Dan Klein, who curated the three indoor Venice shows with Attilia Dorigato, director of the Murano Glass Museum, now 'serves as a model the world over' - has since become a roaring success, and it is noteworthy how many glass artists represented in the Doge's Palace and Correr (leaving aside altogether the numerous famous American names) have spent time teaching and working at the school, including the Venetian master Lino Tagliapietra, the Czechs Jaroslava Brychtova, Stanislav Libensky and Marian Karel, the Swedes Bertil Vallien and Ann Wolff, and the German Klaus Moje, now living in Australia.

What is immediately striking about all three shows - the Doge's Palace and Correr featuring established and young working artists, and the smaller Murano display showcasing students' work - are the giant strides studio glass has taken over the last quarter-century, and the remarkable vigor and variety of the worldwide scene today.

A host of techniques are now employed, from conventional blowing, cutting and engraving to sand and kiln casting. Bold experimentation has shown that glass, while extremely malleable in the right hands, can be given the qualities of ceramic, wood, stone and metals. And the exuberance and dogged patience that artists have applied to exploring its possibilities have been decisive in liberating glass from being labeled as a material suitable only for the 'decorative' arts.

In modern glass terms, Czechoslovakia has one of the best-established traditions (grounded on the old Bohemian glass industry), dating back to the late 1950s, of contemporary artists treating glass as a perfectly valid medium of general expression and attracting to glass some of the best talent available.

Czech glass art even became a form of protest against the communist regime, but, as Sylva Petrova, points out in her essay in the shows' informative catalogue, the question 'What next?' has become a major one in the Czech Republic now that 'we are no longer an exotic rarity from the East and have become partners in competition, subject to the same conditions as all the rest.'

Japan has no native glass tradition of its own, which may seem an advantage when one looks at the difficulty Murano glass-makers have had in escaping the bonds of historical precedent and finding fresh idioms. Yoichi Ohira, however, who now lives in Venice, manages to produce on Murano exquisite pieces that combine the subtlety and poise of Japanese ceramics and fully exploit the refulgent qualities of blown Venetian glass.

Several other pieces in the show by Japanese artists are also somehow at once distinctively Japanese and assertively personal, notably Kyohei Fujita's silky, cast-glass enameled boxes, and Ryoji Shibuya's ice-like block containing a mysterious, worn-down staircase, 'Shrine on the Sea'.

Britain's strong craft traditions - fostered by the Crafts Council, founded in 1979, not to subsidize quaint activities but to make it possible for serious artist-craftsmen to make a living by assisting them in selling their works - have clearly helped the development of what is now a very lively and diverse glass culture, as revealed by Anna Dickinson's wonderful blown, cut and etched African-inspired vessels, Margaret Alston's and Emma Wood's beautifully delicate bowls and David Taylor's witty and stylish sculptures.

Finnish and Swedish exhibitors, too, confirm that though some of the venerable greats - Bertil Vallien foremost among them - are still constantly developing, there are also independent-minded young artists entering the arena, while inventive newcomers, such as Joan Crous, are putting countries like Spain, where studio glass is a nascent phenomenon, on the contemporary art glass map.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024