'Glass of the avant-garde'

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Oct. 29, 2001 at 11:36 AM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 29 (UPI) -- Some of the most beautiful objects of glass ever made were produced in studios and factories in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic in the early years of the past century, when Art Nouveau and Art Deco were the "modern" design styles.

Some 186 pieces of this glassware dating from 1900 to 1939 are on display at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York through Feb. 24. This is a traveling exhibition that will be seen later in Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Corning, N.Y.

It marks first public showing of the Torsten Brohan glass collection acquired in 1999 by the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Madrid, which has sent it on tour while building a special wing to house it. Titled "Glass of the Avant-Garde: from Vienna Succession to the Bauhaus," the exhibition pays tribute to master glassmakers whose names are virtually unknown to Americans except for specialists in the decorative arts and glass collectors.

Yet some of the earliest work, especially iridescent glass, was inspired by the glasswork of Louis Comfort Tiffany in New York. Other stylistic influences were the painters Gustav Klimt and Koloman Moser as well as the French glass designer Emile Galle.

Art Nouveau, which reflected sinuous forms in nature, originated in France and was known as Jugenstil in Germany and Sezessionstil in Austria. The Lotz Witwe firm in Czech Bohemia, then a part of the Austrian Empire, was a leading producer of Sezessionstil iridescent glass that used brighter colors than Tiffany's subdued palette.

A splendid example of Franz Hofstatter's iridescent blown glass from the turn of the century, a vase with orange and gold swirl patterns, shows masterful use of metallic oxides and chemical manipulation of glass surfaces, as does a green and apricot goblet by Leopold Bauer iridized in glowing patterns.

Even more dramatic is Josef Hoffmann's vase in brown opalescent glass overlaid with iridized colored glass. Hoffmann, a leading Vienna designer, founded the Wiener Werkstatte (Vienna Workshops) for the design of architecture, furniture, silver, textiles, ceramics and glass in 1903. Its output was shown at important exhibitions, such as the one in Cologne in 1914, and became a powerful influence on European designers of the day.

Vienna innovations in glass included Adolf Bechert's technique of overlaying glass so that different colors were exposed by means of glass etching and Otto Prutscher's introduction of bead glass by imbedding tiny silver globules in clear glass. A Bechert vase achieves the effect of blue coral in foamy green water and a Prutscher vase in red glass shimmers with silver bubbles.

The Werkstatte gradually developed a glass style of flat, two-dimensional patterns, squares, and sharp silhouettes in contrasting primary colors that presaged Art Deco. Prutscher's series of goblets and champagne glasses are in a square design with stems of colored glass that appear to be a delicate chain. Hoffmann's tastes also became more severely geometric and by the 1930s he was designing austere functional items.

Overseeing the transitional period at the Werkstatte was Dagobert Peche who was director from 1919 until his death in 1923. He preferred a more lushly decorative style that could be whimsical and quirky as well as elegant. This was an era rich in enameled designs on glass exemplified by a huge goblet decorated by Mathilde Flogl with maidens, birds, dogs and plants in the style of fairytale illustration and by Peche's tumbler decorated with a scene in a milliner's shop.

By this time most Wiener Werkstatte glass was manufactured in Bohemia, by now a part of Czechoslovakia and Bohemian glass houses such as Haida were designing their own glass. In the late 1920s, Prague embraced Cubist styles and this was reflected in glass production of objects cut in geometric patterns such as Heinrich Hussman's heavy blown colored glass that mixed geometric, botanical and animal patterns.

A 1931 vase produced at Steinschonau in Czechoslovakia covered with enameled abstract designs reflects the strong influence of the Russian artist Vasili Kandinsky after he settle in Germany in 1922 and began teaching at the Bauhaus, a design center, in Berlin. Adolph Bechert was director of the technical school at Steinschonau from 1918 to 1926 and promoted abstract decoration.

He and several other artists -- Alfred Walter, Hans Bolek, and Karl Massanetz -- added gold enamel to the centuries old technique of painting designs in black enamel on clear glass. Examples of their work in this style on vases, lidded jars, and other receptacles are among the most breathtaking in the show.

Engraved glass was also much in vogue, and many of the best glass engravers were trained by Wilhelm von Eiff, director of the Stuttgart School of Decorative Arts' glass division. One of his finest works is a delightful small-footed vase etched with a satyr playing the flute for prancing goats. He made it in 1932 for a beloved pupil, Nora Ortlieb, whose own small vase with etched circus scenes also is on exhibit.

Von Eiff was a master of cut glass, too, and several of his monumental bowls and vases deep cut with alternate matte textured and clear glass surfaces are on display along with six cylinders for an electric chandelier etched with musicians and dancers. Designing for industry had become a part of the glass business and was a driving concept at the Wiener Werkstatte and the Bauhaus..

As early as 1919, Wilhelm Wagenfeld was designing glass for German industry and in 10 years had a wide range of affordable utilitarian objects in clear, elegant mold blown glass to his credit. His modular set of stacking food storage containers called "Kubus," dating from 1938, is one of his many designs on display, some of them still in production.

Another pioneer in industrial glass design was Gerhard Marcks, a sculptor and ceramist. In 1925 he designed a drip coffeemaker in heat-resistant glass for the Sentrax firm. Aside from its utilitarian value, it is a two-part sculptural work in the grand tradition of Central European glassmaking that remains healthy until this very day, particularly in the Czech Republic.

A catalog of the show, "Glass of the Avant-Garde: From Vienna Secession to Bauhaus," has been published in English and Spanish (Prestel, 192 pages, $65, softcover $35).

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