Pictured above: Tiffany Dome, Chicago Cultural Centre, USA (c.1897; restored in 2008). Public domain photo
Glass is not only a material that has shaped our past, but it also continues to define our future. In celebration of this marvellous, ancient material, Catherine Rose spoke to glass art historian Justine Hopkins about glass innovation over the last century and the contemporary glass artists pushing boundaries today.
By Catherine Rose
Glass art history expert Justine Hopkins describes the birth of the modern glass movement at the end of the 19th century as “an exciting explosion of ideas and techniques when science and art coincided”.
“Artists were looking for new materials to use at around the same time as the invention of the periodic table,” she explains. “Many glass workers had a scientific background and could understand and predict chemical reactions.”
This was an era of experimentation where the serendipity of producing glass objects became de rigueur.
“Glassmakers found that they could create lustres with techniques such as sucking out oxygen during manufacture or using green wood at the molten stage,” says Justine. “Glass was a good fit with the spirit of the age.”
There was also a new fin de siècle appetite for taking risks.
“Working with glass is dangerous. Suddenly, it was all about injecting uncertainty and glass was a good fit. Being a progressive medium with unique qualities made it very important,” continues Justine.
Previously, 18th-century glassmakers had been concerned with predictability, not uncertainty, producing utilitarian objects where the focus was on clarity and perfection. Flash glass was commonly used, which employed surface colour. However, the late 19th century Arts & Crafts movement, through manufacturers such as James Pole & Son, reinvented “pot glass” where metallic oxides are added during the melting process so that the colour is intrinsic, making complicated effects more achievable.
The subsequent Art Nouveau movement, originating from France and spreading worldwide, lasted from around 1890 to 1910 and heralded an innovation in glass manufacture not seen since the invention of lead crystal (spearheaded in the UK by George Ravenscroft).
Although Justine points out that you can’t narrow down the number of talented glassmakers producing diverse work at this time (for example, Max von Sporn in Bohemia), the principal glass masters we associate with the Art Nouveau period are Emile Gallé (1846-1904) and Louis Comfort Tiffany (1878-1933) – both different in approach but equally influential.
A French interior designer, Gallé was a pioneer and inventor of numerous types of glass including favrile – his well-known opaque, iridescent glass. For Justine, Gallé was pivotal.
“Gallé was well aware his imagination didn’t work like anyone else’s,” she says. “None of the methods Gallé used would have been unknown to the Romans but the way in which he used them was new.”
Gallé worked out of premises in Nancy, France, as did the Daum brothers who were producing “outstanding work”. Justine explains that although technically in competition, they worked harmoniously as they had fought together for France in the Franco-Prussian War, which divided Alsace and Lorraine, following which there was an 18-month amnesty that saw an influx of craftsmen to the small city alongside a wealthy client base.
Consequently, Nancy became a hugely influential centre for Art Nouveau design.
A political commentator, some of Gallé’s most famous creations are his philosophical Vases Parlants which he cameo-cut and internally decorated with poetry.
“For the first time, beautiful glass was affordable and being made at a commercially viable scale alongside unique pieces. Tiffany produced simple designs in batches of 100-150. Unlike painting and sculpture, commercial glass wasn’t seen as degrading to the artist,” says Justine.
“Typical of late 19th-century work practice, both Gallé and Tiffany looked after their workforce and gave credit to their craftsmen, such as Tiffany’s glassblower Arthur Nash, who were awarded bronze and silver medals at international exhibitions.”
Nothing was wasted. Tiffany would sell flawed pieces to museums while Gallé signed them étude (study). The Musée de L’École de Nancy has several.
The public clamoured for this new glass. The German/French art dealer Siegfried Bing, founder of Maison de l’Art Nouveau, persuaded them that a Tiffany vase was the “graceful gift”. For the first time, glass was mass-marketed.
As glass moved into the 1930s, and what Justine describes as the “phrenic movement” of Art Deco, glass quality improved, rendering it more suitable for architecture.
“It was possible to use larger sheets of glass,” explains Justine. “And there was a revival of stained glass, which was redesigned to fit the dramatic geometry of Art Deco. Glass was just as perfect for the Deco years as it was for Art Nouveau.”
René Lalique (1860-1945) was originally an Art Nouveau jeweller who won the Legion d’Honneur and gold medals for his incredibly detailed pieces. In 1902, he set up a small glass studio and turned away from jewellery to become one of the foremost Art Deco glass designers.
Justine explains: “Lalique began experiments with casting glass that hadn’t been done since antiquity. Glassmaking doesn’t progress in the way you would think. Glass is a mystery and has always been shrouded in ritual and secrecy. If Murano glass artists tried to leave Venice, they were hunted down. Generation after generation passed knowledge only on to their own children. But in this way, techniques were lost. Even today, no one knows exactly how Tiffany mixed different oxides together to make his famous Volcano vases and many of Gallé’s methods disappeared, only to be rediscovered in the 1960s.”
Lalique would make a mould using the lost wax method and then kiln-fire chunks of glass from a hopper.
“He would see currents of glass come together and was as excited by the inside of the piece as the outside,” says Justine. “However, Lalique’s moulds could only be used once and were not commercially viable. He wanted to reach a wider audience so he set casting aside following which there was 60 years of abeyance.”
Lalique turned to press moulding, inventing a machine that used a compressed air plunger that still required a large degree of skill.
Few of Lalique’s largescale architectural pieces survive, but some of the most impressive can be found in the interior of St Matthew’s Church in St Lawrence, Jersey. Commissioned to make the “glass church” by Florence Boot in memory of her husband Jesse, founder of the well-known high street chemist, Lalique designed and completed its features using acid-etched press-moulded sections.
“The church is the only way we get any feeling of the scale of Lalique’s work,” Justine observes.
Lalique’s smaller pieces were often about colour – clear, green, blue and the iconic Deco amber known as “tango”. He also specialised in hydrofluoric acid dipping that renders parts of a design shiny and others frosted, such as in his Scarab vases. He was able to produce these beautiful pieces on a commercial basis.
Famous for his perfume bottles, Lalique was also known for his car bonnet mascots, production of which began in 1925 when he was commissioned to design one for the Citroen Cinq Chevaux, which he based on a five-horse chariot team.
Justine says: “Made using mould-blown methods, car mascots could be wired into the engine’s dynamo to change colour according to speed and were a huge status symbol. Lalique designed every prototype himself, developing demi-crystal glass which is only 5-10% lead. This can blow better, is less expensive and has a softness to it.”
One of Lalique’s diametrically opposed contemporaries was Maurice Marinot (1882-1960), originally a Parisian fauve artist. In 1910, he visited old friends Gabriel and Eugene Viard, glassmaker brothers at Bar-sur-Seine. He persuaded them to let him have a bench in their workshop and taught himself enamelling and glass blowing, developing supreme skill.
“He discovered how to trap air bubbles between two layers of glass and learned how to spin and twist them into interesting shapes,” says Justine. “For Tiffany, ‘when cool, the object was finished’, but not for Marinot. Once cooled, he would engrave, polish and acid dip his creations in innovative ways. There was a personal relationship between him and the glass. Each piece was unique.”
Shunning commerce, unusually, Marinot worked alone. His pieces were sold by art and sculpture galleries. For this reason, it could be argued he was the first true studio glass artist.
Marinot produced his acclaimed glass art for around 20 years, giving up when the Viard brothers closed down their factory in 1937 following a fire. He had made around 1,000 vessels, few of which survive, but he had inspired a generation of other artists including Henri Navarre.
“Following a Second World War hiatus, 1950s glass factories increasingly began to include art departments. In Switzerland, for example, glass designer Andries Copier (1901-1991) who made the Unica series was supported by Royal Leerdam Glassworks. It was the new model,” says Justine.
But it was Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino in the 1960s who liberated the artist from the commercial glass factories that were anti-individual expression through the important Studio Glass Movement.
At the American Craftsmen Council Conference In 1959, Harvey Littleton stated that, “Glass should be a medium for the individual artist”. Three years later, he was running workshop seminars at the Toledo Museum of Art and, with Labino’s technical support, showing students how to blow their own glass using a small furnace in a domestic studio setting.
“He set up the first university glass programme in Wisconsin in 1964,” says Justine. “Glass working was added to the art college syllabus and it took out all the rules. Tutors were learning alongside their students. There was freedom. Nobody was saying, ‘Yes, but we can’t sell it’. It was a sea change; an extraordinary moment.”
An era described as “wild and glamorous”, artists produced extraordinary objects that were reflective of their material. The movement was the bedrock of modern glass practice and spawned some of our greatest contemporary artists.
Justine concludes: “At the time, CP Snow wrote a lecture ‘The Two Cultures’ about the divergence of art and science. But one of the few places where art and science recognise that they need each other equally is in glassmaking.”
Asked who she believes to be among the notable contemporary glass artists pushing the boundaries today, Justine mentions Alison Kinnaird, James Maskrey, Colin Reid, Lino Tagliapetra and Bertil Vallien. “The main thing that distinguishes these artists is that they never stand still,” she says. Read on to find out more about each of these artists below.
About Justine Hopkins
Justine Hopkins is a published author, freelance writer and lecturer in Art History, specialising in art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She has an MA from the Courtauld Institute, a PhD from Birkbeck College, and is a visiting lecturer at the Victoria & Albert Museum, giving courses on the history of glass. She has also worked for Tate Britain, Tate Modern and the National Gallery as well as the Arts Society and various universities. In her limited free time, she relaxes by making lampworked glass beads.
A Celtic musician and glass sculptor born in 1949, Alison Kinnaird uses cutting, sandblasting, acid etching and casting, and specialises in traditional copper wheel engraving to create her pieces. She says: “The slow meditative pace of the engraving will not suit everyone but I now feel that I am not limited by the technical process, which allows me to express ideas and imagery that I hope will mean something to a viewer.”
Alison discovered glass “by accident” when she met Harold Gordon, a fine engraver who set her on an “unexpected path”.
“I have been working as a wheel engraver now for 50 years, and I still find that there is unlimited potential, and innovative and exciting ways to work with the glass, whether it is incorporating new technology in the form of LED lighting or taking wheel engraving to an architectural scale using a jigsaw of flashed glass. Wheel engraving is an ancient technique, but I think that, if a technique has lasted for 2,000 years, there must be something special about it.”
James Maskrey has over 30 years of experience and has exhibited globally including at the V&A. He has facilitated glass projects for other artists with the Crafts Council and is based at the National Glass Centre, University of Sunderland. He created the 2012 Antarctic series of glass sculptures commemorating the 100-year anniversary of Scott’s polar expedition to collect the eggs of emperor penguins. The sculptures included a bottle containing diary fragments, a cup and saucer holding a photograph, and three penguin eggs in a jar – all made out of glass.
Colin Reid re-uses optical glass from industrial applications, such as telescopes, to kiln-cast his art, often from life. Winner of the 2010 and 2017 People’s Prize in the British Glass Biennale, Colin says: “My works in optical glass are figurative but play with a familiar form in an unexpected medium, using the reflective and refractive qualities of glass.”
Open Eye was cast from 70 pieces of glass, each one cut, colour applied, numbered and placed in a mould in the kiln. Colin explains: “The glass melts and flows into the form of the mould at about 880c. The firing is long, taking about three weeks of precisely controlled cooling. Then follows a long period of grinding, polishing and carving to achieve the final form.”
In Still Life with Books, the image of the books can only be seen reflected inside the glass as “almost an abstract negative cast of the outer form”. As well as exploring the physical form of the book, the piece refers to the depth and meaning of the stories and thoughts contained within the pages.
Of his work Still Life with Sunflowers, Colin says: “On my drive to the studio each day, I pass a farm. One year it was growing sunflowers and I asked if I could buy some to cast. This is the resulting piece.”
“Working with glass is like life – it’s emotional. You must love the material. You must respect the material. It takes a lifetime to get to know glass, and I am still learning,” says Lino Tagliapetra.
Now in his 80s, Tagliapetra began working with glass in Murano at the age of 11. Extensive knowledge across every discipline allows him to marry new studio glass ideas with ancient Venetian techniques. A technician and designer, he introduced traditional Murano glass blowing methods to the Pilchuck School in Seattle. Today, his time is split between Murano and Seattle.
“He’s the glass artist’s glass artist. Every project he does is more exciting than the last,” says Justine.
Born in 1938, Swedish innovator Bertil Vallien sand-casts glass and is famous for his boats and Brains series. Justine describes his pieces as “ethereal and symbolic”.
As well as using lampwork, he pours layers of glass to render provocative objects that appear to swim inside the artwork. In 2020, he won the Lifetime Visionary Award at the Glass Art Society’s annual conference.
Vallien says: “Glass offers opportunities like no other…. It has everything … It’s like ladling material out of a volcano and watching the lava turn to ice. Knowing the exact moment at which to capture a shift of light or expression and wrench the secret from the glass is what it’s all about.”
The Shops at the Corning Museum of Glass is hosting Bertil Vallien with Passing Through during October 2023 where special events celebrate his 60-year career. These include an inaugural ‘Connected by Glass’ lecture by Vallien and a display of the largest collection of his iconic designs in the United States. Guests will also have the opportunity to watch Vallien design and create glass sculptures live in the Museum’s Amphitheatre Hot Shop. Details are at www.cmog.org.