Nurtured by a Communist regime in the mid-20th century, the Czech art glass movement continues to astound the world in the 21st.
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Tina Oldknow wasn’t there to witness it in person, but the thrill that her predecessors at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., felt on opening the crates from Czechoslovakia in 1959 is as fresh as if it were yesterday. The shipment delivered a frisson of excitement simply because of having come to the U.S. from a Communist country at a time when the Cold War was as chilly as an Antarctic winter. But the delights inside—a selection of art glass fashioned by the finest contemporary Czech glass masters, sent for the museum’s “Glass 59” show—would have stunned the Corning curators regardless. When they took out Head I, a deep green, 13-inch tall Modiglianiesque piece by Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová, an artist couple who would later marry, the curators were pleasantly perplexed. “When they unpacked it, they didn’t know what it was,” says Oldknow, senior curator of modern and contemporary glass at the Corning. “It had been requested for a show on functional design. They held it up and saw a face in it, and saw it was a sculpture. They were brought to a halt by this.” Thomas Buechner, who then served as the Corning’s director, said that uncrating the Czech contributions was “like receiving household goods from another planet.”
Head I is now part of the Corning’s collection, and it brings visitors to an awed halt day in and day out. That’s to be expected; midcentury and contemporary Czech art glass tends to have that effect on people. The otherworldly shipment arrived in upstate New York when glass art was having a moment worldwide, and the pieces from Czechoslovakia added fuel to an already lively fire. The area now called the Czech Republic has been a glassmaking center for ages; it’s estimated that around 20 glassworks might have been active there during the late 14th century, and its glittering, prismatic chandeliers were all the rage in the 18th century, gracing Versailles and other noble haunts. But the postwar flowering of Czech glass art, led by René Roubícek, Václav Cigler, František Vízner, and Libenský and Brychtová, was something else entirely. Installations of Czech glass at international expositions such as the 11th Milan Triennial in 1957, the Exposition Universelle in Brussels in 1958, the 1965 São Paulo Biennal, and the 1967 Expo in Montreal dazzled patrons and inspired a rising group of American studio glass artists that included Dale Chihuly.
“They took glass from a craft and functionally turned it into what we consider art,” says Corey Hampson, a partner at Habatat Galleries in Royal Oak, Mich., referring in particular to Libenský and Brychtová. “They showed that anything was possible—they could do anything with the material they wanted. They weren’t scared of scale; they weren’t scared of size. To make a major statement, you had to make major work. That’s what they did.” Size and scale deserve extra discussion here; some of Libenský and Brychtová’s cast-glass sculptures assumed sizes that were rarely or never seen before in the artistic history of the medium. The 1959 Moscow show at which Head I debuted also included a work of theirs, Fire and Glass, which measured more than 13 feet in length.
Curious circumstances that arose under Communism helped propel Czech art glass to worldwide prominence in the mid-20th century. “The state understood it could represent itself culturally with pieces made in glass,” says Katya Heller of Heller Gallery, a former student of Libenský’s who also served as his and his wife’s interpreter for many years. (Libenský, who designed the couple’s artworks, died in 2002; Brychtová, now 90, who translated the designs from two dimensions into three and supervised the glass-casting process, is retired.) “And there was a random Czechoslovakian government policy that glass was a non-message-bearing material. It gave Libenský and his students greater freedom.”
Libenský, who taught at the Specialized School of Glassmaking in Železný Brod—which was co-founded by Brychtová’s father—and at the Prague Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design starting in 1963, had an unusually long and influential educational career; it’s almost easier to list the notable contemporary Czech glass artists he didn’t teach than of those he did. “He was a very skilled operator,” says Katya. “Even when he got himself into trouble, he managed to work his way back, and he wasn’t displaced from teaching until the very end, 1985, four years before the system crumbled.”
His dozens of graduates include Latchezar Boyadjiev, a Bulgarian-born artist now living in California who creates powerful abstracts; Ivana Sramkova, whose charming but never cloying figurative works often appear in impressively large sizes; and Jan Exnar, who makes compelling sculptures in deceptively simple shapes. But perhaps Libenský’s most successful student with an American presence is Vladimira Klumpar, whose work is in the Corning and who is represented by the Habatat and Heller Galleries, as well as Schantz Galleries in Stockbridge, Mass., and Austin Art Projects of Palm Desert, Calif., which recently hosted its first solo show of her work, “Searching For Light,” which ran from March 22–April 22.
A summer camp visit to a glass factory stuck with her, and when it was time for high school, Klumpar chose one in Železný Brod that focused on glassmaking. There she befriended Brychtová’s daughter and through her, the family. Though she trained under Libenský, she found that watching Brychtová operate was just as instructive. “Years later, when I was Libenský’s student in Prague, I was working on my first kiln cast piece,” she says, recalling. “I was casting that piece at the state-owned facility, where Brychtová was a head designer, producing their work. It was a very important experience for me, seeing a woman at that time in an all-male environment.”
Glass-casting, the technique favored by Libenský and Brychtová, is a fraught and lengthy process. Klumpar estimates that the 10 sculptures in the Austin Art Projects show (there are also four wall panels) required over two years to complete. The saga behind Depth of Water, a turquoise-colored abstract that stands 71 inches high, illustrates the agonies that she and other glass-casting artists face. The first casting cracked. Klumpar was in Mexico when the second attempt was underway, and she gave permission for the glassworks team in Prague to begin cutting and polishing without her, given the experience they had with creating a similar piece. When she returned to Prague, she was surprised to see that it was almost done. She brought the second version of Depth of Water back to her studio and contemplated it. “I knew that something was wrong,” she says. “It took me a while to figure it out. It was finished, but not perfect.”
She ultimately sent it back to the facility for recutting and repolishing. “Sometimes just a centimeter makes a big difference,” she says. “It costs a lot of money with this size of sculpture to have them do it again, and it also costs their pride. But if I let it go, the sculpture does not have the same energy. It does not work.” Her approach to her medium, which she learned under Libenský in Prague, earned the allegiance of David Austin, who has handled her work for 14 years, and whose gallery’s focus roams beyond contemporary glass. “She is a sculptor. She happens to have glass as her medium,” Austin says during a break from installing “Searching for Light.” “If any of the works in the show were in bronze, they would be fine sculptures.”
Martin Rosol, another Czech-born-and-trained glass artist represented by Schantz Galleries, pursues an equally labor-intensive path. Trained at a technical school in Prague (but not by Libenský), he was introduced to owner Jim Schantz through Michael Pavlik, Klumpar’s ex-husband and a former glass artist. Rosol has since become a naturalized U.S. citizen and settled in Massachusetts. “Occasionally he casts his own glass, or he gets colored glass that is cast in the Czech Republic, brings it to the U.S., and works with that,” says Schantz. Voyage (2014), testifies to his skill—it’s two pieces of glass of the same grass-green shade, joined to create the whole. “It takes a great deal of expertise to get those two forms so perfectly aligned, and to look as if they’re perfectly aligned,” says Schantz. A single Rosol represents up to 100 hours of concentrated toil.
Both Klumpar and Rosol prefer to create unique pieces, which might point to a complicating factor in the Czech glass market. The works are gorgeous and riveting, but they are not, and in truth cannot, be produced as abundantly as other types of art glass. A main reason why so much Czech glass art is monochromatic is the technical difficulty of including more than one color. “The color is always a surprise,” says Klumpar. “I can predict a general outcome, but sometimes something happens in the kiln and the outcome is completely different, with colors changing or disappearing, and I have to start all over—or it looks unexpectedly great. That is why some glass artists do not vary their colors. It always takes time to understand how each color works.” Many artists forestall the question by masterfully exploring the subtleties of their chosen hue, which they accomplish through varying the thickness of the glass.
Libenský and Brychtová did produce their works in editions, but that fact poses problems of its own. “Until the fall of the Iron Curtain, they did not control their work,” says Oldknow, noting that the pair didn’t gain possession of their molds until 1993. But even if they had had the opportunity to chose the size of their editions and keep solid records on their production and sales, they probably would not have. Doug Heller, Katya’s husband and founder of the eponymous New York gallery, notes that the two Czech artists “were never market-driven.” Katya expands on this point by describing futile post-Velvet Revolution efforts to convince Libenský and Brychtová to create a catalogue raisonné. “They were almost insulted,” she says, and recalls them telling her, “We’ve never been free to do what we want, and we’re not going to be tied down by records.” Katya adds ruefully, “It was one of the things we could never get through to them about.”
The fall of communism in Czechoslovakia meant the end of generous state support for its glass artists. “Artists had to start their own studios from scratch, but they still had a great advantage in the expertise of great artisans,” Klumpar says, referring to the native glassworks, which remain the only facilities in the world able to competently produce monumental cast works (though China might become a rival someday). “A major problem for glass sculpture is the cost of production. Without grants, galleries, or private support, it is almost impossible for a young artist to work consistently with glass,” she says. “For those who are successful, the question is where to exhibit their work.” The lack of a vital collecting community in the Czech Republic itself poses a threat to Czech glass art. Klumpar reports that collectors are “almost nonexistent” in the land of her birth, and that “the only gallery exhibiting significant glass sculpture is now closing.”
Libenský and Brychtová stepped up and shone when the world was especially hungry for innovative glass art, and Libenský’s influence on Czech glass art cannot be understated. But it’s possible that the style of work that he and his wife were known for might go into decline. But other approaches have emerged in recent years. Hampson’s gallery represents one of the most exciting talents to come out of the Czech Republic in recent years, Martin Janecky. Too young to have learned from Libenský, he embarked on his education at 13 at a glass-blowing school in the Czech town of Nový Bor and was a fully fledged professional by 20. Hampson will never forget his first encounter with Janecky. He was at a Glass Art Society conference in 2009 in Pittsburgh and heard cheers coming from a conference room, a rare occurrence. Intrigued, he went in and saw “a kid, real young, working the hot glass from the inside out. Nobody had ever seen it before.” Hampson says Janecky favors this challenging technique, in which he manipulates the molten glass from the inside, pushing out noses and pinching eyes into being, because it leaves no tool marks on the finished piece. “A lot of people don’t even attempt it, but he can do it,” says Hampson. “I don’t think any other artist can work the way he works. He’s unbelievably talented.” Hampson proudly notes that his gallery has sold 160 Janeckys since 2010.
Janecky’s work is the polar opposite of Libenský and Brychtová’s—exclusively figurative, relatively small in scale, often multicolored, and blown rather than cast. But it electrifies 21st-century collectors in the same way that Libenský and Brychtová’s did in the mid-20th. In this way, Janecky carries on their spirit, and he ensures that Czech art glass remains vital. In late March, Hampson was readying for his gallery’s 43rd annual International Glass Invitational Award Exhibition at the end of April. He had work in hand from every other artist except Janecky. “I don’t know what he’s going to submit, but I’ve never been disappointed,” Hampson says. “We let him roam free.”