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Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Celebrate the fragile art of glass

Special to The Japan Times

With the sweltering heat of summer now upon us, you could do worse than escape into the Suntory Museum in Akasaka to visit its exhibition of glass art. There is something particularly cooling about looking at these 142 exhibits, which range from a fragment enameled with a charming bird design from Roman Egypt to a startling and rather baffling work by contemporary artist Hiroshi Yamano titled "From East to West -- 'Fish Catcher Bag Type #4,' " a large hunk of watery-looking glass containing glass fish that appear dead!

News photo
Nineteenth-century vase with insect design, by Emile Gallé

Curator Ruriko Tsuchida explains that there are four principal ways to enhance the natural beauty of glass -- cutting, engraving, blowing or painting on it. Although many of the items on display include elements of the first three techniques, the focus is on glass painting.

"In one sense, painting on glass impairs it," Tsuchida says. "So, when I see glass art, the most important thing is the balance between artistic expression and retaining the character of the glass." The wide range of exhibits allows the visitor to trace this tension between medium and decoration through two millennia of glass art.

Early centers in the Muslim world -- notably Syria and Egypt -- are well-represented by various fragments, and by what Tsuchida believes is the most impressive item in the entire exhibition, a large 14th-century mosque lamp, its less-than-sparkling glass beautified with enameled arabesque and Koranic decoration.

Venice, the hub of European interaction with the Muslim world, rose to prominence as a major glassmaking center in the 13th century. The Venetians applied their Renaissance ingenuity to take glassmaking to new heights, and by 1450 Angelo Barovier found a way to make glass of such purity that it was termed cristallino.

The pride the Venetians took in the crystal clearness of their glass is obvious from the sparsity of decoration on a number of Venetian pieces, including an early 16th-century compote made for Florence's powerful Medici family. This work is decorated with little more than the Medici coat of arms, complete with the papal crown and keys, celebrating the recent election of a Medici as Pope.

Although the Venetians tried hard to guard their trade secrets, inevitably their techniques leaked out, leading to the spread of fine glassmaking across Northern Europe (in particular Germany, Bohemia, England and France) -- and yet more discoveries.

These included new methods for staining glass yellow and red, developed by the Bohemian glass-painter Friedrich Egermann. One of his finest works, an 1835 goblet commemorating the Battle of Kulm fought between Napoleonic forces and the combined powers of Austria, Russia and Prussia, is a symphony of the possibilities of glass art. The cut and engraved piece is decorated with a small enameled coat-of-arms, but what really sets it apart is the skillful use of color-staining to create opalescent hues that are refracted through the multifaceted glass.

By contrast, many of the other pieces on display neglect the qualities of the glass. A 19th-century goblet from Bohemia, for example, is mostly covered with a white overlay and a portrait design. The transparent areas that remain are heavily enameled with a gold-colored floral pattern, creating a lacy effect. Although extremely elegant, this work stifles the natural beauty of the glass.

A more effective balance between material and decoration is struck by a vase in "moonlight glass" by the celebrated French glass artist Emile Galle (1846-1904). A spindly design curls round the rim; stems and leaves are laid on the undulating surface of the opalescent glass; and a long-legged insect stalks across the vase. As you walk around the piece, the glass seems to ripple with subtle shadows, creating the effect of wind blowing into the hapless insect.

The simple naturalism of this piece suggests Japanese influence and, indeed, Galle's interest in the Japonisme movement of the period is evident in a less successful but more overtly Japanese piece, a heavy-looking glass fan with a cock-fight design.

There are authentic Japanese works, here, too -- many revealing a love of delicate flower patterns and a preference for colored glass. One fine piece is a purple sake bottle (c. 1825), in which the drooping wisteria of the gold lacquer pattern plays against the curves of the bottle.

Alongside such magical pieces are those that fascinate more by their oddity than their artistry. These include the many examples of reverse painting in which images are painted on the back of a sheet of glass to be viewed through the glass from the other side. These have a predominantly folk-art atmosphere, but, like the early 18th-century "Dutch People" by Araki Jogen, nonetheless show great skill.

Even more remarkable workmanship is found in some early 20th-century Chinese snuff bottles with portraits and landscapes reverse painted on the inside. These are testimony to the patience and diligence of their creators, who used tiny curved brushes to achieve their mind-boggling effects.

Tied to the enhancement of decorative or functional objects like vases and bottles, painting on glass was regarded for centuries as a craft activity. Since the '60s, however, practitioners working with glass have emphasized their artistry over their medium. "They say they are painters rather than glass artists," says Tsuchida. "They select the material to support their painting."

Certainly, after the carefully crafted works of 2,000 years, it is refreshing to see the artistic freedom of works such as Czeslav Zuber's "Head No. 18" (1994), a giant lump of clear glass engraved and painted with abstract shapes. However, these contemporary works sometimes seem dilettantish and lack the painstaking craftsmanship of earlier days.

Both modern and ancient, though, the very best examples of painted glass have combined the beauties of two different media. Whereas with conventional paintings the canvas or the board is a neutral medium for the pigments, with glass painting the powerful aesthetic qualities of the material itself adds a whole new dimension.

"Two Thousand Years of Light and Color: Painted Glass from Ancient Egypt to Art Glass" runs till Sept. 16 at the Suntory Museum of Art (03) 3470-1073. Open 10 a.m. - 5 p.m (till 7 p.m. on Friday). Closed Monday. Admission: 1,000 yen, 800 yen and 600 yen.

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