Vetro - 20th Century Murano, Czech, and American Glass Masters

New River Fine Art | Burgess Modern + Contemporary

by Sergio Gnesin

Glass has been a material of immense cultural significance for centuries, employed globally in crafting sophisticated tools, equipment, and instruments for daily use, as well as utilized in the refinement of decorative objects, as well as magnificent works of art. This exhibition, VETRO – A GLASS EXHIBIT, celebrates the unique allure of glass and the spellbinding enchantment it has conjured among diverse cultures and regions.

The curatorial selection is rooted in three primary regions renowned for their contributions to the advancement of glassmaking techniques and applications: Bohemia – Murano - and the United States. A concentrated focus spotlights only the 20th and 21st centuries, a time of stunning proliferation of glass as a favored medium among preeminent designers, artisans, and artists.

Notwithstanding unique traditions, artisanship, techniques, and cultural differences - an abiding passion for probing the limitless potential of glass as a medium underscores the diverse artistic expressions showcased in this exhibition.

Chronologically, we must then begin, academically with Italy. The earliest known written record of glass blowing in the Venetian lagoon can be traced back to 982. During this time, glass factories were still operating in Venice, but in 1291, the Grand Council of Venice mandated that all existing furnaces within the city should be destroyed. As a result, new ones could only be established on the small island of Murano, as a precautionary measure to prevent any fire outbreak that could potentially ravage the Serenissima.
Venini Laguna Pitcher, Circa 1933 Blown glass 6.12 x 5.25 x 4 inPhoto byCourtesy of New River Fine Art

Murano's glass production remained relatively unchanged for centuries, with glassware, chandeliers, and decorative items being crafted in styles that evolved gradually over time. Notably, in the early 17th century, Giovanni Darduin stumbled upon the Avventurina technique, which is characterized by small particles of copper that make the glass sparkle and gleam in a way that was previously unknown.

Around the same time, the Calcedonio technique was invented, which mimics the shades of the stone from which it derives its name, and it is still highly regarded by collectors. However, the most significant transformation in Murano's glass production occurred during the 20th century, with the rise of Paolo Venini, who opened his own glass factory and worked with talented artistic personalities from around the world.
Venini Miniature Fazzoletto Vase, 1949-50 Blown glass 31.25 x 4.37 x 4.37 inPhoto byCourtesy of New River Fine Art

Venini's factory became the most acclaimed during the modern era due to his vision of surrounding himself with talented artistic personalities, such as Napoleone Martinuzzi, Tomaso Buzzi, Carlo Scarpa, and Fulvio Bianconi, among many others. This collaboration was not limited to Italian artists, as Venini also worked with international names such as Tyra Lundgren, Thomas Stearns, Tapio Wirkkala, James Carpenter, and Toots Zinsky.

Nevertheless, Venini was not the only glassmaker in Murano, as other glass factories also played a crucial role in the development of the craft. For instance, Cenedese and Seguso, from the 1950s to the 1970s, brought the Sommerso technique to new heights, thanks to the efforts of their artistic directors, Antonio Da Ros and Flavio Poli, respectively.
Dino Rosin Torso, c. 2000's Calcedonia Glass 13 x 7 x 5.25 inPhoto byCourtesy of New River Fine Art

It would be unfair to overlook the contributions of other names, including Salviati, Barovier, Zanetti, Rosin, Signoretto, Marco Polo Glass Gallery and Studio, Berengo, and many more who are featured in this exhibition.

Another significant revolution in Murano occurred in the 1950s when Egidio Costantini founded the Fucina degli Angeli (Forge of the Angels), bringing internationally renowned artists like Calder, Moore, Picasso, Chagall, Ernst, Arp (who designed the Fucina's symbol: a star), Rubin, and Cocteau (who in 1958 suggested the new name for the previously called Centro Studio Pittori nell'Arte del Vetro di Murano) into the mix.

The profound artistic significance of the innovative glass factory was such that it garnered the attention and financial support from Peggy Guggenheim in 1961. Ermanno Nason, an exceptionally gifted artisan who I had the privilege of knowing well when I authored a book on his career, was one of the master glassblowers who created pieces for Fucina degli Angeli. Some of his distinctive works adorn my personal collection, and he rightfully deserves recognition as one of the most skilled Maestros ever to have worked with glass, alongside Archimede Seguso and Alfredo Barbini.
Pietro & Riccardo Ferro Owl, 2020 Hand Blown and Hand Carved Murano glass - 3 Layers 20 x 10.25 x 7.50 inPhoto byCourtesy of New River Fine Art

Even today, Murano continues to produce highly esteemed works of art, and new generations of glass artists have attained remarkable results and elevated their craft to the pinnacle of excellence.

In recent years, Pietro & Riccardo Ferro have impressed the glass-collecting community by taking the art of carving glass to new, previously unexplored heights. Thanks to the steady exchange of ideas and collaborations with artists from across the globe, the small Italian island remains a leading destination for enthusiasts of glass art.

Historically, Bohemian glass, also known as Bohemia Crystal, emanates from what we now recognize as the Czech Republic. The earliest archaeological evidence of its creation harkens back to the mid-1200s. This beguiling material's peerless quality and captivating beauty has long held the fascination of collectors worldwide, from diminutive mementos to grandiose chandeliers, sculptures, and figurines. Among the preeminent, polished names in this field, we may cite Moser, Rückl, and Crystalex.

In times past, Czech crystal chandeliers lent their splendor to the palaces of French King Louis XV, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and Empress Elizabeth of Russia. At present, magnificent luminaires still bedazzle such esteemed venues as La Scala in Milan, Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, the Palace of Versailles, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the royal palace in Riyadh. Bohemian glass's preeminence rests on its inimitable cutting and engraving techniques, uniquely tinted hues, and unparalleled finesse.

The region is a nexus for numerous glass studios, and artists from across the world who pilgrimage here to absorb the glassmaking techniques and collaborate with skilled artisans to create their masterpieces.
Wesley Neal Rasko Days Gone By, 2022 Painted, Laminated, Cut, and Polished Glass 16.50 x 13 x 7 inPhoto byCourtesy of New River Fine Art

At New River Fine Art, we have forged a recent representation with two gifted Czech glass artists: Wesley Neal Rasko, a Canadian of second-generation Czechoslovakian heritage, who discovered his passion for the traditional art of glassmaking while traveling in the region and has since endeavored to develop and reinterpret its splendid heritage, and Latchezar Boyadjiev, a Bulgarian-born artist residing in the United States, who fashions stunning pieces that conform to the finest Czech traditions of carving and burnishing glass.

The American Studio Glass movement is intimately connected to the Venetian lagoon. It all began in the late 1960s, when Dale Chihuly moved to Murano and began working with Venini, studying glass as a medium. Chihuly was not the first American to have access to the Venini premise, since before him artist such as Kenneth Scott, Eugene Berman, Charles Lin Tissot, and Thomas Sterns has already worked at this prestigious glass factory.

But what made Chihuly experience special, was his vision and the brand-new concept: Chihuly had a vision, a concept: artist teaching artist. Along with the Philanthropists, Anne and John Hauberg, he established the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle in 1971, organizing summer camps for artists eager to explore, share, and teach the potential of glass. This was an unprecedented approach to what had hitherto been a secretive and somewhat insular environment. It was a distinctly American approach, characterized by open competition, great enthusiasm, and the sharing of secrets and techniques with others.

Today, the Pilchuck Glass School is among the most renowned destinations for glass lovers, and over the years, several Murano masters - despite the notion that the island's secrets should not be shared overseas - have been persuaded to travel to Seattle to teach their techniques. Among the most prominent names are Lino Tagliapietra, perhaps the most celebrated living master glassblower; Pino Signoretto, who passed away at the end of 2017 and for whom Dale Chihuly, who created some incredible pieces with the Maestro over his career, organized a memorial day after his passing; and Loredano Rosin, the maestro who inaugurated the very first course on massive sculptures at Pilchuck.
Alex Gabriel Bernstein (b. 1972) Gold Half Moon, 2023 Cast and cut glass, fused steel 14 x 24 x 4 inPhoto byCourtesy of New River Fine Art

Today, the list of American glass artists worthy of recognition is far too long to be enumerated in this modest preface. At New River Fine Art, we are delighted to work and collaborate with some of them, such as Alex Gabriel Bernstein, an outstanding interpreter of the medium both before and after the fusion, and Marlene Rose, whose archeological-looking pieces are a unique offering in the art glass community.

Of all the insights that could be drawn from a thousand years of glassmaking, perhaps the most critical is that all of the work, passion, and effort that has gone into the craft has contributed to catapulting glass to an entirely new and elevated level in the realm of art: a medium that can be utilized to experiment and discover new avenues for artistic expression, a medium that has been brought into being by the four elements - earth, water, air, and fire - and combined with human imagination and spirit, has no limits. It is this medium that we aspire to honor with our humble exhibition.

Sergio Gnesin

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