BY SHEILA WICKOUSKI FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Glass is one of the most contradictory media, delicate and solid. Easily broken, glass objects have survived for centuries. Used for fine bead and brooch jewelry, glass is practical for everyday household items like glasses and tableware. The most common use, glass windows to let daylight into homes and offices, became a revered art form in church stained glass.
While the shapes and forms that glass artwork can take are endless, you don’t have to be a wealthy 19th century traveler in Venice, or traveling the world in the 21st century, to discover its wonders in works of art. The Smithsonian Institution is now offering that chance with two new exhibits.
Rich in history, “Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano”, exhibited until May 8 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, mixes paintings, watercolors and prints with glass treasures to reveal the 19th century influence. Venetian craftsmanship in American art.
Artists, as well as tourists and collectors, have been drawn to this city of water, light and beauty amid the thriving decades of the Murano glass industry. Paintings by John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, who top the list of American artists who have visited Venice, surround the display cases with glass works from the decorative arts industries.
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Venice is a city on water, so it is not surprising that in addition to paintings of canals and water carriers, there are glass works with wide-eyed sea creatures. They steal the show in works like “Fish and Eel Vase” (attributed to Vitttorio Zanetti circa 1890), “Vase with Dolphins and Flowers” (circa 1880-90s, Attributed to the Compagnia di Venezia e Murano (CVM), maker) and “Vase with Dolphin and Snake” (c. 1870-90s, Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company Ltd. (Salviati & Co.)
Archaeologists will delight in a selection of glass bowls, cups and flasks from the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean from the 1st century BCE to the 4th century CE “Ancient Roman Style Striped Glass Bowl” (circa 1875 -1880) Glass and mosaic from Venice and Murano Company Ltd. (Salviati & Co.) is part of a selection of 19th century reproductions.
Sargent’s “Venetian Glassmakers” (c. 1880-1882, oil on canvas) connects the art on the wall with the art in the display cases. “A Venetian Woman” (1882) is his life-size portrait of a pearler, holding wads of what would be one of Venice’s major exports in the 19th century to a world market.
An American painter would use glass in his work. Maurice Brazil Prendergast used glass and ceramic mosaic tiles to translate one of his watercolors to “Fiesta Grand Canal, Venice” (circa 1899).
Some of these pieces were tourist souvenirs, others for collectors and art dealers. Each room contains a story. If the great paintings of this romantic time and place resemble novels, these glassworks are poetry.
Irving Ramsay Wiles’ oil portrait of a collector, “John Gellatly” (1930-1932), sits above this gallery of treasures. Nearby is an unusual personal object: “Miniature Diorama from the John Gellatly Collection” (c. 1924-1929) by Ralph Seymour, made from fragments of “an exquisite old bottle of iridescent glass from the 15th century broken beyond any repairs” and placed on a tiny desk. A memory of an avid collector perhaps, but that of a man whose donation of 1,600 works after his death in 1931 remains intact among the SAAM collections as an important study of 19th century Venetian glass.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Unlike an exhibition devoted to the work of an artist or a theme or even to the limits of glass as a medium, each piece of “New Glass Now”, on display until March 6 at the Renwick Gallery, shows that everything is possible. The exhibition of 50 global contemporary artists from 23 countries, in a range of objects, installations, videos and performances, challenges the very notion of the variety that exists in the vital and versatile medium of glass.
There are variations on a theme, such as Martino Gamper for J. & L. Lobmeyr’s “Neo” tumblers (2016) in which classic golden crystal double whiskey tumblers were polished, sandblasted, painted and gilded to create a new set.
There are works that combine the possibilities of current technology like “The Wild One” by James Akers, an unruly assembly, with neon lights and pirated toys, guaranteed to illuminate all the senses.
“The Chief Shepherd and His Cattle” (2018) is more traditional. James Magagula, one of the chief glassblowers of Ngwenya Glass in eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), used recycled glass to tell folklore by replicating a herd of cattle, a symbol of wealth in southern Africa.
The exhibition is full of humor. “Mutter” (2017) by Erwin Wurm is a hot water bottle on legs. The playful and misshapen “Penguin” Jugs by Jochen Holz (2017) are pretty silly.
There are works with a message. “Globalized” (2015) by Argentinian Andrea da Ponte is a globe of historical map images on blown glass, which show how their expansive relationship with geography and the planet often strains a more finite reality. “Meat Chandelier” (2018), Venetian chandeliers recreated with sculpted cuts of meat in place of frilly flowers, is feminist artist Deborah Czeresko’s response to the themes of traditional male-dominated glassblowing workshops.
The works expand beyond their physical space by using light projections to create meditative moments like Bohyun Yoon’s “Family II” (2018). A rotating mass of cast glass projects the profile of his wife and child onto a gallery wall, blending the mystery of the media with the theme of family ties.
Whether seen as memories and treasures of the past or as an expressive form of conversation about contemporary culture, these works inspire wonder. The two exhibitions, a double treat that delights young and old alike, can be summed up in one word: Wow!