Glass of the Avant-Garde From Vienna Secession to Bauhaus
Through May 11
Cheekwood Museum of Art
1200 Forrest Park Drive. 356-8000
Hours: 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sun.
Glass is arguably the most versatile of the decorative arts. It can be blown to wafer-thinness or cast in an imposing mass. It can be colored, engraved, painted and carved. You can cook in it or serve the finest wine in it. Most of all, its transparent and reflective properties offer a limitless array of visual experiences depending on how and what sort of light strikes it.
The astonishing beauty and infinite variety of the glassmaker’s art is the subject of “Glass of the Avant-Garde,” a touring exhibition that includes nearly 200 objects from the top designers and glass factories of Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany beginning in 1900 and ending in 1938. “This was an exciting, devastating and crazy time in world history,” says Lisa Porter, associate curator for the decorative arts at Cheekwood. “When these artists started making these pieces, their countries were ruled by emperors, and by the time this era of glass-making ended, they were under Nazi rule.”
It is an era that also spanned several art and design movements, ranging from Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Arts and Crafts to Cubism and Expressionism. “It was an amazing moment in time for glass designers,” Porter agrees. “You had centuries-old glass factories in these countries and these new young designers who were trying to develop what they called 'a modern vocabulary.’ For a brief shining moment, they came together.”
The exhibition, culled from the collection of Torsten Bröhan, a noted scholar and connoisseur of 20th century design and decorative arts, is divided into six thematic sections. The first focuses on early 20th century designers who wanted to break from the art traditions of the previous century and create a truly modern style. “They drew their inspiration from the natural world and from such sources as the recently discovered art of Japan,” says Porter.
Examples include Otto Prutscher’s red-and-silver globe of glass and an iridescent vase by Josef Hoffman that reflects the influence of the famed Louis Comfort Tiffany. Hoffman was a member of the Viennese Secession, a group of young artists who broke away from the Art Academy in Vienna in 1897 and developed a style that favored simple architectural shapes, geometric designs and bold color contrasts. Hoffman’s stunning red-and-white vase is one of the signature pieces in the section of the show devoted to Secession artists.
Hoffman went on to found the Wiener Werksätte, a glass studio whose austere, geometric glass designs were inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement. In 1915, a new member named Dagobert Peche took the studio in a more playful, decorative direction. “Peche was also an illustrator of fairy-tale books, and his works really have a sense of humor,” Porter says. Three urn-like vases by Peche are included in the show. “They have these wonderful pastel blobs of color, and their bases look like they have been dipped in dark chocolate.”
Other themes explored in the show include avant-garde ornamentation of the 1920s, as illustrated by enameled, stained and gilt glass from Czech and German designers, and the engraver’s art, with remarkable examples of engraved and cut glass. “Virtually everything you can do to glass is represented in this show,” says Porter. “There is one piece, for example, with a design of birds that has been cut into the glass in a way that creates the optical illusion of the birds appearing smaller on one side when you look through it.”
The final section of the exhibit examines the quest to create modern, well-designed glass items for industrial production, a trend that found its full expression in the Bauhaus movement in Germany in the 1930s. “Form dominates these designs, which have virtually no ornamentation but are still lovely,” says Porter. One of the key artists of this era was Wilhelm Wagenfeld, whose sleek, heatproof glass designs are still in production today. Several of his works are included here. “There are coffeepots, a tea service, pitchers and even a set of kubus, which were sort of molded glass Tupperware,” Porter says. “Even though we think of glass as fragile, it’s been used in households since Roman times. With the invention in the early 20th century of heat-resistant glass, it became even stronger and that’s why we can use it for cooking today.”
Porter will lead tours of the exhibition 2 p.m. March 23 and April 27. She’ll talk about the key pieces in the show and put the glass into context through stories about the designers who made them and the times in which they lived. Tour admission is included in the regular gate fee. After the exhibition concludes its Cheekwood run, it will make two other stops in the U.S. before being installed in its permanent home in the Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas in Madrid. “This show is traveling this year only, and then it goes to Spain,” Porter says, “so you won’t see these beautiful glass objects in the U.S. again.”
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