Czech studio glassmaking: From an old tradition to a unique form of modern art

Czech studio glassmaking:

From an old tradition to a unique form of modern art

The antecedents of glass processing’s ongoing expansion can be found in the area of present-day Bohemia as early as the 14th century. The historical transformations undergone by glassmaking from this part of Central Europe gradually began to define the concept of Czech glass as one of value, as a phenomenon of a distinctive genius loci.
For centuries the personal identity of the glassmaking craftsman remained, with a few exceptions, shrouded in anonymity. This began to change gradually only during the first three decades of the 20th century. Progressive artists and architects were conscious of the role of glassmaking in Czech culture and strove to influence its further development. They promoted a return to form and to respect for the material itself, advocating the elimination of decorativeness, which masked the essence of the glass. In the 1930s, it became ever more evident that glassmaking was no longer being perceived merely within the traditional dimensions of utilitarian and decorative objects. One of the fundamental prerequisites for Czech glassmaking’s successful artistic development was the opportunity to train new generations of artists, technically as well as artistically, in the specialized glassmaking schools in Kamenický Šenov, Nový Bor and Železný Brod and in the studios of Prague’s School of Applied Arts.

Following a slump caused by World War II, an intense search began in the late 1940s for a new face for Czech glass based on a contemporary mode of expression. This reflected an attempt to prove the viability of Czech glassmaking even after the expulsion of German citizens, of whom many were qualified glass workers, from the border areas. Teachers in specialized glassmaking schools, as well as trained artists, became interested in regular collaboration with glass foundries. The intention was to build on tradition, creating a new mode of expression for Czech glass. This was linked to the general postwar tendency toward the creation of a new free world, rich in dynamic and creative ideas. Glass developed to a high artistic level, as René Roubíček and Stanislav Libenský began to have an influence as teachers in glassmaking schools and as artists. In Prague, the School of Applied Arts was upgraded to become the College of Applied Arts and, in addition to the glassmaking studio of Professor Karel Štipl, a new stained glass studio was established under the leadership of Professor Josef Kaplický.

With the rise of the Communist dictatorship in 1948, however, the situation changed radically. Interventions by the regime resulted in the breakdown of contacts abroad and Czech glass was forced to develop fundamentally in isolation and independent of foreign influences. Paradoxically, this isolation proved to be a driving force in the formulation of original solutions in the development of the modern form of glassmaking. The Czech glass artists produced, despite all the obstacles, work of consistently high quality, which was extremely progressive in terms of ideas. Later, when it became possible to exhibit in an international context (for example, at the 11th Triennale di Milano in 1957 and at Expo 58 in Brussels), these groundbreaking artists earned the undisguised admiration of both the experts and the public at large.

The original collaboration of trained glassmaking artists with manufacturers soon became incapable of satisfying the artists’ creative inventiveness. Although the state and the glassmaking industry launched design competitions, they did not accept the resulting selections. Excellent designs were implemented, for the most part, only in the form of prototypes. Despite international acclaim, in the reality of centralized production management and the absence of competition, these innovative designs were sidelined as something which, although high-quality, was time-consuming to produce and lacked a stable market. This created an untenable situation for young glassmaking artists with great potential.
Fortunately for the artists, however, their disappointment and feeling of superfluity within the dull machinery of the Communist economy became productive stimuli, spurring them toward different approaches in their creative enthusiasm for the material properties and expressive possibilities of glass. Their work, influenced by contemporary artistic trends, had to seek new validity. Thus, in the mid-1950s, works in glass began to appear as individual creations and experiments. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, a revolutionary change was occurring in the modern concept of Czech glassmaking. Its point of departure was the liberation of the glassmaking artists’ work from its traditionally strict ties to industrial production. Glass crossed the boundaries of the utilitarian and decorative object and began to encroach into the field of fine art (as seen, for example, in the work of René Roubíček or the duo Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová). The new orientation’s success was soon reflected in the transformation of glass works into intimate sculptures and objects with the character of artistic originals.
Top-quality schooling, specialized and highly demanding, played a fundamental role in shifting the boundaries of glassmaking expression, by educating the artists technically and, even more importantly, artistically. Professor Karel Štipl’s former sculpture studio at the College of Applied Arts in Prague, which focused primarily on engraved and cut glass in a more traditional context, was influential in this respect. It was, however, Professor Josef Kaplický’s studio of monumental painting and glass that affected the future of Czech glassmaking in a revolutionary manner. Kaplický, a well-regarded sculptor and painter who headed the studio from 1948-1962, viewed glass as a material with unique expressive potential within the wider contexts of artistic creation. At the same time, however, his criteria for quality artistic work were not only the quality and effect of the material, but also how well it was exploited to express a deeper artistic objective. It became a seminal belief that the progressive development of modern glass depended upon its connection to the other fine arts. Kaplický’s teaching was grounded on linking the natural relation of modern architecture and art to respect for the glassmaking tradition, disencumbered of the customary approaches to glassmaking as a field of applied art. Glassmaking’s transformation into a distinctive sculptural phenomenon was formulated by the Czech sculptural tradition as well as by perception of the contexts of the European cultural heritage. Alongside the sculptural conception of constructing glass forms, staining and other techniques used with the forms were applied in an unusual way. Traditional decorativeness was forgotten, and painting fully exploited abstract formal compositions in merging spatial planes on the surfaces of hollow forms. A strong inspiration was the contemporary fascination with photographing the newly discovered shapes of the microcosm, the intricacy of its structures and dynamic compositions of areas and lines. Professor Kaplický’s studio sent forth many of the important artists of 20th century Czech glass, including his successors Stanislav Libenský and Vladimír Kopecký, as well as Václav Cigler, Bohumil Eliáš, René Roubíček, Jiřina Žertová, Dana Vachtová and others.

Czechoslovakia’s ruling powers in the late 1950s and early 1960s realized that the glass artists’ progressive and highly regarded work could be used to represent the state in an international context. With its recognized historical tradition and dazzling material effect, glass was utilized to camouflage much of the reality of life under the dictatorship of the proletariat by presenting a positive image of proclaimed freedom of expression. Ideological manipulation was not manifested in glassmaking with such drastic consequences as it was in painting and sculpture. The regime’s cultural watchdogs underestimated the glassmaking field and its tendency to experiment and create works of equal merit in the context of contemporary fine art and spatial installations of abstract forms. They continued to regard glass as a sphere of applied and decorative art that posed no threat of disturbing, through its content, the official ideological proclamations that the focus of artistic creation must arise primarily from the lives of the people. Paradoxically, then, while in the fine arts, any abstract tendency was totally suppressed as a manifestation of non-life-affirming Western formalism, the same tendencies were tolerated in glassmaking. In this bizarre way, glassmaking became a bastion of liberated thinking for experimentation and an enclave of relatively unrestricted creation. Although contact with the international art scene was very difficult, in the somewhat more liberal political conditions of the 1960s it was possible, at least to some extent, to present modern Czech glass pieces (modern forms of utilitarian object designs, as well as the first sculptures and installations) abroad. The work of the Czech glass artists garnered unreserved respect and approval. Experts immediately recognized the works’ fundamental conceptual value for the development of a new phenomenon – studio glassmaking.

The year 1963 marked a significant milestone in the development of Czech studio glass when Professor Stanislav Libenský took over the leadership of the glassmaking studio after Professor Kaplický’s death. Libenský built faithfully on the studio’s previous programmatic foundations regarding the conception of applied art, but at the same time he enriched the study with serious initiatives already unequivocally directed toward the level of artists’ autonomous sculptural work. In this, he accepted the basic traditional formulation of the essence of sculpture: “Sculpture is a consciously constructed mass in space founded on volume.” Glass, however, was not to serve merely as a distinctive and as-yet unfamiliar material with a striking effect. Libenský assiduously promoted the exploitation of its luminous and chromatic properties within the interaction between the glass form’s internal space and the space surrounding the sculpture. As a powerful artistic personality himself, he led the students to solve tasks of both an intimate and monumental nature and allowed room for newly emerging concepts within the teacher-student mutual process of creative inspiration. Up till 1987, Libenský had a hand in nurturing more than three generations of important Czech studio glassmakers. Some of his students who set out successfully on their own artistic path are Jaroslav Matouš, Václav Machač, Jiří Šuhájek, Aleš Vašíček, Marian Karel, Ján Zoričák, Ivo Rozsypal, Jaromír Rybák, Jan Exnar, Gizela Šabóková, Milan Handl, Stanislava Grebeníčková, Břetislav Novák Jr., Ivana Šrámková, Markéta Šílená, Zdeněk Lhotský, Marian Volráb, Michal Machat and others.

In collaboration with his partner Jaroslava Brychtová, Libenský explored the technique of casting glass (the process’ basis is better described by the term “sintering”) in a mold. This technique brought about a total revolution in the field of glassmaking, effectively making it possible to work with molten glass using sculptural means. In this way, Libenský and Brychtová played an integral role on a global level in the establishment of glass as a medium of monumental sculptural forms.

In the 1960s, a fundamental conceptual direction of glassmaking – the prismatic sculpture – came to the forefront. This entailed the creation of sculptural forms on the basis of strictly constructed geometry, precisely cut and exploiting to the maximum the singular optical properties of glass. Its initiator was Professor Václav Cigler, who served as the head of the Glass in Architecture studio at the College of Musical Arts in Bratislava until the end of the 1970s. Based on his experiments with the glass object from the 1960s, he is regarded as the leader of the geometric-optical/kinetic concept and the father of modern glassmaking’s sculptural-conceptual role. He was one of the first to recognize the specific properties of glass for fine art work. Most consistently of all, he exploited the material’s purity in a minimalistic language as a means of communication between the spectator and his environment. In these creative concepts, Cigler went far beyond glassmaking’s original point of departure regarding landscape implementations, architecture and utopian projects dealing with the world of tomorrow. To this day, he is regarded as an exceptional, singular figure in contemporary Czech studio glassmaking, rigorously applying the principles of sensuality. His focus of interest was an intensive experience of the relationship of the object to the mutable factors of the landscape or space in which the work is sited. Cigler’s works do not attempt to be an art of aesthetic perception and logical thought; glass gives him an exceptional possibility to dematerialize the object itself and to emphasize the perception of the most subtle visual manifestations, often transported into spiritual contexts. He induces situations of drawing the spectator directly into the artwork’s imaginary force fields and makes it possible to experience the magic and concealed significance of simple natural events and the miracle of light transformed by the lens of glass as an expression of ubiquitous energy.

Štěpán and Zora Pala are among the artists who were fundamentally influenced by Cigler’s concepts developed at the College of Fine Arts in Bratislava.

Since the time of his studies, Štěpán Pala’s artistic work has been conspicuous for its focus on the artistic implementation of geometric and mathematical principles through structural forms, drawings and later, computer graphics. Similar principles in the realm of spatial relations are projected into the creation of glass objects. In his mostly very minimalistic objects, he accents the monumentality of elementary, precisely cut forms, which in many of his works have an almost archetypal character. He exploits the dynamic transformation of optical phenomena, arising from the preponderance of large forms and the use of details. The simplicity of the artist’s forms emphasizes the fascinating essences of the glass itself as a transparent material creating within itself a distinctive, enclosed universe. Here, it is as if time itself has stood still. Elsewhere, on the other hand, it is the linking of elements and their mutual, illusionary multiplication in fractures of light that are the impetus for perceiving the work as an object filled with internal movement, an object of a sort of “other temporal and spatial dimension.”

The same admiration for the fascinating artistic possibilities of glass as a material marks the work of Zora Palová. Her work, however, obviously distinguishes itself from the rationalist-constructivist approach of her partner by a more emotive mode of expression. From being captivated by strict geometric precision, she later moved on to the creation of cast sculptures, which link the possibility of spatial illusion within a cut form with expressive elements reflecting another of glass’ marvelous properties – its malleability. The artist began to make use of contrasting modeling of surfaces. Cold, precisely elegant, polished surfaces began to appear adjacent to fairly rugged ones, becoming all the more charged with energy from the swelling of the red-hot material. Color, too, plays a very important role in the effectiveness of Zora Palová’s sculptures. In this respect she takes advantage of all the magical qualities that glass provides in the transformation of light. The monumentality of her large-scale works took on a different character to that of her earlier closed blocks, opening out freely into the surrounding environment. Often their base is merely a firm, but quite exposed, “interior structure of the construction” of the form. Her sculptures enable the viewer to perceive the natural perfection of construction from the world of real, natural forms.

The 1970s saw a partial loss of interest in the earlier concepts of glass staining, engraving and cutting and the use of foundry techniques. The role of monumental implementation in architecture continued to develop, however.

A sudden boom in new directions occurred again in the late 1970s and especially in the 1980s. Programs that had already been constituted were further developed, as it became ever more evident to many artists that the earlier orientation toward intimate sculpture was too restrictive for the possibilities inherent in working with glass. Large-scale works based on the interaction of glass sculptures with space began to emerge. For several years, an interesting direction was the creation of great blown shapes inspired by natural forms as well as purely abstract creations. They were formed in static plaster molds, dramatically modeled and emphasizing the dynamic process of dispersion of glass bubbles. Principal proponents of this mode of expression were Jiřina Žertová, Dana Vachtová and Kapka Toušková. Glass became a medium with which to express gazing at the world within philosophical contexts. In the early 1980s, artists including Oldřich Plíva, Marián Karel, Aleš Vašíček and Jan Zoričák dedicated themselves to the specific trend of emphasizing prismatic cutting. In Slovakia, Štěpán Pala, for example, adopted Václav Cigler’s ideals regarding glass precisely cut on the plane.

At the same time, however, a younger generation of glassmaking artists emerged, deliberately taking a stance quite contrary to the previous cold perfectionism of expression. From the first half of the 1980s until the beginning of the ’90s, these artists’ glassmaking also reacted to the explosion of Postmodernism and the theory of “everything is allowed.” The glass works of artists such as Jaroslav Róna, Zdeněk Lhotský and later Ivana Šrámková, Michal Machat and Martin Velíšek were mixed with painterly, graphic or sculptural work in other materials.
Czech studio glassmaking from the 1980s up to the present day has been governed by two dominant trends based on two techniques – cast sculpture and stained glass. The work of the pioneers of cast sculpture, Stanislav Libenský (1921-2002) and Jaroslava Brychtová, was clearly radically innovative from its very beginnings. Their collaborative work on monumental sculptures with a unique concept of the formation of internal space signifies a fundamental reassessment of the role of glass in artistic sculptural work. At the same time, it formulates a new role for glass in connection with architecture. This revolution did not consist merely of implementing new techniques. Libenský and Brychtová played a fundamental part in transforming contemporary thinking regarding work with glass. From the outset, their work reflected a sculptural way of considering masses and volumes. The space around the sculpture is perceived as not empty and two forms enter into a mutual relationship – the internal form created by light and the external, modeled form. Libenský’s preparatory drawings must be studied to better understand the basics of the new thinking in the creation of large-scale glass sculptures. They express very graphically the overlapping of the sculptural principle with quite specific considerations of the material’s possibilities. These are not robust sculptural drawings emphasizing modeling; rather, they capture the light in future sculptures, which delineates, by a means possible only with glass, a shape within a shape. The work of Libenský-Brychtová underwent several developmental stages, as their original organic morphology was later disciplined into the austerity of geometric forms and the optical effects of crystals. Still later, they returned to the use of color in sculptures that emphasize the brutality of external form filled with the fragility of glass and its internal light. Their work pushed back the boundaries of using glass in sculptural work, but their oeuvre always had one thing in common – an emphasis on the use of the “expressive possibilities of glass.” Both artists played a pioneering role in promoting this new level of consideration. The last collaborative sculptures of Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová, such as “Imprints of Angels,” are examples of artistic masterpieces: They are silent, monumental figures with a powerful inner message. Despite their monumentality, they are basically delineated only by intangible, shimmering light, which seems to originate from within the form itself. They are an image of guardians of timeless order and laws, standing above the principles of the order of human life.

Concurrently with Libenský and Brychtová, a number of other artists, primarily graduates of Libenský’s studio, were (and still are) creating cast sculptures. With their varied approaches, they create a wide range of characteristic artists’ signatures. Some build on the concept of the effect of monumental precision of cut, cast objects, while others focus on experimental, sculptural modeling.

The relentless pursuit of liberating form from all superfluous effects is the consistent leitmotif of Jan Exnar’s work. His compact works contain in their silence the monumental character of some sort of mysterious signs. They are inspired in part by cosmic spaces, whose infiniteness is enclosed within a glass form with a myriad of internal bubbles, but in recent years his work has moved increasingly toward a position of expressive, symbolic figuration. The artist’s glassmaking work is very closely tied to a painterly position in the form of dynamic, gestural painting on canvas, and earlier on, in the form of distinctively expressive stained glass windows. They combine in mutual contrast dynamic color strokes with a strict construction of lead strips or with a strictly precise range of inlaid components of cast and cut glass.

The sculptural glass and painting works of Gizela Šabóková are distinguished by a vigor and emotionality concealed in the depths of an apparently rough, unpolished form. She delineates only the most basic signs for communication and avoids superfluous decorativeness. She makes use of the transparency of glass, but in the work itself does not succumb to the enchantment of its effects. She expressed the vulnerability of the human core’s inner world in the past through a series of sculptures standing on thin rods, often pointed. They were synonyms for the feelings of impermanence and constant human balancing on the edge of uncertainty. In her later work, often depicting the motif of the figure, she uses the technique of brutally injuring the glass by means of a structure carved with a diamond saw, which creates a fascinating, fragmenting play of light in contrast to expressive modeling. The exceptionally intense expression of inner content in Šabóková’s sculptures locate them among the most emotive works in contemporary Czech glassmaking, focused on the essence of human experience of the world in all its joyful and terrifying aspects.

Originality, nonconformity and playing with the bizarre characterize the glassmaking work of Jaromír Rybák. From the beginning of his work with glass, his approach toward established procedures can be summed up as “with a few exceptions, nothing is impossible.” The resulting work is not only surprising in its form, but also in its technically innovative approaches. These include, for example, exploring the technique of fusing segments of glass, which offers unique potential for the use of engraving, staining, dusting and more. Fascinating objects with events happening within a glass block emerged from these explorations.

Currently, the artist is creating many provocative pieces, which attract with the very power of their nonconformity. His work’s determining momentum arises from a sculptural approach that combines a feeling for three-dimensional modeling with a focus on glass’ great dramatic effects. Rybák’s sculpture, whose form is created in the balance of glass and expressively modeled bronze elements, are singular within the context of Czech glassmaking. His work’s most characteristic feature is the combination of opposites in working methods, also on an expressive level. The sculptures emanate the sense of being thought through with refinement. Spontaneous modeling is balanced by the aspect of almost classical discipline of filigree processing. He unhesitatingly combines an enthusiasm for the prodigally lavish exquisiteness of the material with extremely demanding working techniques in order to create a work that provokes a comic disrespect of the theme. Thematically, his sources of inspiration include the ocean depths and their myriad of beautiful and frightening creatures. All of this leads to one undeniable result: His creations have a rare ability to disturb and cannot be regarded with indifference.

The works of Jaroslav Matouš share the common features of sobriety of form and a painterly sense of colors and their transmutability. He creates his works in the form of painted, cut-through and matt-blown forms or as glued-together spatial compositions of cast glass, as well as glued, laid-down glass plates. A specific element is the addition of fine structures of wires with cast colored beads and shards. The world of his creations is not filled with a dramatic story, fatality or myth. His inexhaustible sources of inspiration are landscape, natural forms and events. Matouš has become a sensitive observer of the beauty of often inconspicuous and everyday realities. His work depicts a reality imaginatively metamorphosed into the simplified forms of stained or cast glass objects filled with a spectrum of fine details. They simultaneously contain both a monumentality, and a feeling of intimate proximity and private experience. The enchanting simplicity of motifs elevated from ordinariness into the role of art gives his work a strong emotional charge and an inspirational conviction toward personal perception of the diverse, concealed things of beauty around us.

Marian Volráb is among the artists whose glassmaking is closely tied to parallel painting work. This combination of mutually balancing aspects could be described metaphorically as “darkness in glass – light in paintings.” Volráb’s sculptures are characterized by the reduction of the superficial effects of glassiness. Another feature is engraving on the sculptures’ and objects’ surface that is very succinct, crudely austere and unembellished, almost as if it exposes the innermost feelings of man, whose experience of the world is made up of many fragmentary emotions. For Volráb, outer roughness, significance of form and suppression of effects become a means of expressing an intimate inner admission of the experience of a whole spectrum of feelings: from melancholy and hopelessness to humility in the face of the scale of things in the universe that go beyond human fate. The artist frequently creates archetypal landscapes that constitute a place for considerations of the essence and importance of fundamental human things. Also very striking to the point of brutality are his monumental, characteristic heads – symbols of vulnerable man. Volráb’s work is not lavish in the beauty of effect, but nevertheless it holds an exceptionally powerful artistic position in Czech studio glassmaking. His sculptures’ intensity of expression does not depend on an elegant outer appearance; the role of glass consists of the material’s meaningful subtexts filled with contradictions.

Vladimíra Klumpar, who worked as a glassmaking artist for many years in the United States, produced many of her sculptures in artistic collaboration with her husband, the glassmaker Michael Pavlík. Her cast glass objects are based on an excellent command of working principles with luminous mutability acquired during study in Professor Libenský’s studio. In her work’s initial phase, she concentrated primarily on effects in the “inner world” enclosed within a glass block. Her recent works, however, are monumental creations that expand into the space with dynamism of form. They are primarily inspired by the fantastically rich world of organic forms, but symbolic figurative elements have also appeared in the spectrum of her work. Klumpar is capable of elevating even minor motifs into a monumentally universal state. She allows the emergence primarily of an elegant harmony of outlines and sculptural volumes modeled by pervading light. The effectiveness of these sculptures is multiplied even more by sensitive work with surfaces and very free use of color. All of these aspects contribute to the fact that Klumpar’s otherwise very solid sculptures give an impression of playful lightness and a very positive inner charge.

Interest in glass staining returned to studio glassmaking in the 1980s, inevitably taking quite a different form to that of late-1960s stained glass. Bohumil Eliáš (1937-2005) deserves fundamental credit for the rehabilitation of stained glass as an expressive artistic means in studio glassmaking. His entire oeuvre constitutes an image of painterly and glassmaking approaches combined with an unusual intensity. The beginnings of Eliáš’ work with glass are associated with the revolutionary use of horizontal layering of flat glass cut into relief, layered forms. He also began gradually to use this principle for large-scale cut-glass works, sometimes enriched with staining on individual layers. In this way, he executed artistic sculptures as well as several monumental works for architecture. A fundamental shift occurred in the 1980s, however, when he began to create forms from flat glass panes arranged vertically. On individual layers, he used free painting with a background arrangement of motifs or created rising clusters of small particles, thus achieving the appearance of an illusionary, three-dimensional composition within the mass of the form itself. His later work entered into a further dimension using glass, but at the same time, in its intense essence, determined by the artist’s painterly perception of the world. In the mid-1980s, Eliáš linked painting with the glass form – first in the form of blown objects and later bent plates of monumental dimensions. He extended into space stained forms on an “intangible” foundation and made use of all the properties of glass in the sense of chromatic transparencies or penetration of spatial planes. As a very passionate artist, he did not hesitate to experiment with combinations of materials. Motifs from painting work entered into the context of his glass objects and vice versa, and he also created bronze and stone sculptures. His work is an exceptional example of the creative mutual coexistence of glass and other areas of artistic creation.
The essence of Vladimír Kopecký’s artistic personality consists of the parallel bipolarity of glassmaking and painting work. Both areas are based on a similar duality in several modifications, as if an expression of discipline and geometric economy alongside explosive, spontaneous expressiveness reflected the influence of melding two distinct personalities. The artist’s work can be divided into more or less defined periods, but at the same time it is all unconcluded, mixed together and connected into a single, complex, pulsating organism, whose functioning is not subject to a predictable scheme. His glassmaking approach was never a celebration of the fascination of the material’s natural properties and mutable appearances; indeed, the term “ugly glass” has been used several times in connection with this artist’s approach. Kopecký rid glass of its immediate charm, but remained a sovereign glassmaker in the purposeful use of its exceptionality. This was also manifested in the line of objects from arranged glass plates. They are distinguished by a precise geometric construction of multiple shapes, whether painted or sand-blasted. They draw the viewer into an illusion of imaginary receding spaces with waning, soft light. Objects that constitute penetrating screams, revealing the complexity of human perception and experience of the world, stand in contradiction to the ordered discipline of geometry. The glass is piled up in heaps of panes and assembled blocks, violated by applications of poured colors in crusty structures and bizarre, free decorations of trickling drips. Prisms stained black lose their mass as if they have melted and sunk into spaceless darkness. Elsewhere, wildly painted glass is crushed in the compactness of other materials. Although the programmatic negation of glass’ beauty gives the impression that the artist is carrying on a bitter struggle against the rooted expectations of expression and the tendency toward adoration of effects, this is not the case. He needs glass intensely, because it allows him to expand painting intangibly into space. In the dramatic process of such creation, Vladimír Kopecký experiences the most individual sense of his work.

Currently, Jiřina Žertová is one of the artists who are expressively influential in the area of stained glass. For a long time, her artistic work made use of the aesthetic of mold-blown, large-scale, hollow forms, later sometimes supplemented in places with expressive painting. Her sculptures were filled with an expression of the dispersal of the glass mass’ physicality with dramatic modeling, which deprived the glass of its effective smoothness. This intention culminated in striking chromatic interventions carried out with a brush or poured color. Her works were inspired either directly or freely by natural motifs. In the early 1990s, the artist discovered new possibilities in painting on layered plates of flat glass set apart by separators. Her contemporary work is less dramatic. Apparently immaterial beams are created by an ordered construction of horizontally layered glass plates on which a spreading poured color structure is used. The objects’ inner tension arises from the contrast between the order of the glass layers and the nervous liveliness of the liquid structure creating an impression of constant movement. The objects do not expand into space; their sense consists of a magnificently rich visual play with perception of the merging of colors and intersecting of lines and lights enclosed in the intimacy within the form.

By training , Dana Zámečníková was not originally associated primarily with glassmaking (she studied architecture and stage design). Using glass plates as a ground for painting, however, she brought an expressive and authentic discourse to the sphere of artistic work using glass. Her initial works did not deny the influence of the stage design approach. Her small works appeared to be some kind of closed boxes with painted scenes on layers of glass. Their form was linked to their content. The scenes from real life with dream-like, absurd and comic elements were conceived with gentle detachment as a panoptical theater of life. At a later stage, the artist painted on the silhouette of cutout layered glass plates, which she often assembled into spatial installations reaching monumental proportions. The individual artifacts and the large compositions shared the same content arising from personal experiences and visions. Their outward appearance therefore had the effect, even when perceived with an evidently ironic detachment, of a more serious admission of the experience of often concealed dramas. As she further developed, Dana Zámečníková went as far as allegorical-symbolic works using motifs from old masters paintings merged with photographs of reality, with painted elements and other combined techniques, to express the emotional world of feelings, dreams and imaginings. In these works, the glass’ expression is relegated to the background in order to facilitate the presentation of the emotionally more distinctive pictorial composition.

Outside the two predominant trends of cast sculpture and stained glass, a range of more or less solitary artistic personalities operate on the contemporary Czech studio glassmaking scene, accepting other “offers” from the range of possibilities of working glass material into a work of art. The work of many of these artists represents years of purposefully developing an exceptional concept, one that cannot be categorized as part of a wider trend.

A case in point is Václav Machač, whose work developed quite distinctly from the main expressive tendencies over the course of many years. He continues to create his sculptures as an isolated solitary artist, but his expression complements the plethora of essentially sculptural approaches in modern glassmaking. He uses the technique, now somewhat neglected by other artists, of blowing glass into a mold taken from a sculpted model. Containing the essence of the method of forming glass imbued with a dramatic character and a naturalistic expression, this technique is further accented by raw interventions with a cutter. Thus emerges an exceptional whole with a very emotional tone. Thematically, he remains faithful to the motif of the horse head. In the horses’ expression, we find enchantment with beauty, harmony, freedom and the strength of dynamic motion, reflecting a personal perception of this creature, man’s companion from time immemorial; they are also endowed, however, with moments of painful loss. Similarly emotive are his busts of jockeys or the twisted faces of boxers. Despite his isolation in the spectrum of contemporary Czech glass production, Machač’s sculptures remain a constant proof of glass’ unique possibilities in expressing the work’s mutual harmony of form and content.

A precondition for maintaining an active link between artists’ glass and contemporary events in fine art was met in 1990, after Professor Vladimír Kopecký took on the task of nurturing young artists in the glassmaking studio. With his many years of multifaceted work, he served as living proof of the glassmaking artist’s “non-isolation.” It is still too early to properly assess the work of these graduates. Often the glass itself is not their main focus and they use it in its most universal form. Dealing with the essence of glass on philosophical levels, their works are frequently a brutal attack on glass or concepts. In 1994, an independent Glass in Architecture studio was established, led by Professor Marián Karel, an unequivocal recognition of the important role of glass in the real environment of man at the turn of the millennium. The studio, under the leadership of Professor Rony Plesl since 2008, has somewhat turned back from free creation to the concepts of modern glass design.

Since the beginning of the second millennium, the Czech studio glassmaking scene has been a palette of trends as well as individual expressive approaches, whether systematically developed and slowly refined, or born in tempestuous reversals of work. Formerly abandoned concepts return in surprising new ideas: for example, the vision of the vessel-object-symbol. Artists behave absolutely freely. They do not hesitate to combine glass with metal, stone, ceramics, plastics, wood… They are determined to completely overthrow the usual schemes of use of glass’ typical properties and aesthetics. They fully respect the progressiveness of the principle promoted by professors Kaplický and Libenský in their glassmaking studios: The field of glassmaking must be in contact with painting, sculptural, graphic and architectural work. The beauty of the material itself and the effectiveness of its work techniques are not the sole signifiers of an artwork’s quality. In this sense, glass is merely a means of facilitating, by means of its specific properties, the realization of projects that cannot be realized using classic procedures and traditional materials. The essence of quality, however, rests in the artistic concept.

It can be stated unequivocally that Czech studio glassmaking has very dramatically earned worldwide respect in its field, thanks to its leading artists. As an artistic phenomenon, it reacts to contemporary artistic initiatives in order to actively reshape and reformulate them using its own specific method. The Czech artists’ approaches have been and still are inspiring from the standpoint of commanding techniques and even more, for their trailblazing understanding of this material as a means of expression and a vehicle for works comparable in content to painting and classic sculpture. In this context, anything originating from the manufacturing tradition was considered no longer usable, so it was necessary to take a step into the unknown. This meant asking questions totally unfamiliar to glass in its utilitarian and decorative form, such as “Why was this work made?” and “What should it say to the spectator?” Thus, from the outset, the Czech experience of a radical transformation in glassmaking has sought to attain fundamentally higher goals than merely presenting craftspeoples’ bravura and technical innovation. All of this obviously went hand-in-hand with an attempt to provide an authentic artist’s testimony by means of glass. Czech artists did not grow as the graduates of summer workshops, but were schooled for years with emphasis on the classic artistic disciplines of painting, drawing and sculpture. Glass brought to their work not only the uniqueness of the material, the enchantment of its effective reflections and fractures, or any attempts to bedazzle the spectator with seemingly conceivable technical finesse. The works of the best contemporary Czech glassmaking artists have a characteristic signature, specific thinking and content, which testify to the thinking and reflexes of the period, place and time in which we live. They do not serve as dazzling decorations, but pose questions meant to disturb the spectator.

New technologies and work methods that influenced the possibilities of using glass in artistic work

Glass casting

Experiments in casting glass in molds began in the middle of the 20th century at the glassmaking school in Železný Brod, as part of an attempt to use the technique for serial production of small decorative sculptures. Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová were instrumental in the fundamental development of this radically new method of working with glass, thereby making the most essential contribution to the modern history of worldwide artistic glassmaking. Today, this technique dominates the studio creation of glass sculpture, whose wide array of appearances ranges from the emphasized, fascinating play of colors and illusionary optical effect of light fragmentation in elegant cut works, through classically conceived sculptural works distinguished by mysterious inner light pervading the object, and on up to modeling forms with brutally raw expression and the contrast of rough and polished surfaces that only the dramatic effects of glass can permit.

The fundamental revolution in glass casting technology came about when glassmaking artists were no longer restricted in their work by the necessity to immediately work the basic form while hot. This meant that a sculpture’s preparation could take the form of classic work with clay, wax and other models, enabling careful sculptural working of all details and the use of structurally negotiated surfaces, as well as the construction of interior cavities and spaces. In this method, the constructed model is coated with a one-piece or multiple-piece mold, usually made from plaster with added heat-resistant materials. The model is removed from the mold and the resulting cavity is filled with the appropriate quantity of ground glass. The mold is then placed in a furnace and as the temperature gradually increases, the glass melts into the form of the sculpture’s original model, copying the smallest of details. After very slow cooling, the mold is removed and the sculpture is prepared for other methods of processing using cold techniques (cutting, polishing, etching, etc). The glass sculpture’s unequal thickness enables the implementation of mutable intensity of penetration of light, a unique play of colors and soft modeling of forms. Thanks to developments in casting techniques, it is now possible to create imposing works weighing as much as several hundred kilograms, which never could have been produced with the classic hot-glass technology.

Layering of plate glass

Bohumil Eliáš was the first to introduce the technique of layering flat glass at the beginning of the 1970s. This consisted of the gradual horizontal assembly and then gluing together of shapes cut out from panes of plate glass in a layered system, from which emerged the form of an object or sculpture that could be further expanded three-dimensionally into space. Eliáš’s early sculptures left the edges of the glass layers unsanded, thus making use of the effective play of sparkling light reflections in combination with color mutation according to the form’s thickness. Soon, he began to develop this innovative technique further by polishing the edges in places to achieve a contrasting effect. Expression was also transformed by applying color on individual layers and freely painted compositions on objects with vertically arranged, glued plates.

Over the following years, other artists in both the Czech and the worldwide art scene also worked extensively with different methods of layering plate glass shapes – freely assembled, glued or fused – applying a variety of artistic approaches. Some notable examples in Czech glass include the monumental (but also playfully illusionary) sand-blasted or brutally colored painted objects of Vladimír Kopecký, the expressively comic painted spatial figural compositions of Dana Zámečníková or the assembled objects treated with gestural, structural painting by Jiřina Žertová.

Fusing of glass segments

This technique was used innovatively at the end of the 1970s by Jaromír Rybák. He began to execute engraved drawings and paintings with colors and gold on a flat-cut section of a glass block and placing them on structural grids or creating relief excavations. Following re-smelting of the two parts, these elements were left inside the glass block. From this process emerged expressively effective works with the mysterious character of something rare and untouchable. Gizela Šabóková also used this technique later. Using this method with fused blocks, forms that were nearly sculptural could be created by drilling or relief cutting of the original contact surfaces of the two parts.

Ivo Křen

Curator, studio glass collection
East Bohemian Museum in Pardubice

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