Glass as a critical lens

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The six editions of Glasstress have been groundbreaking for the use of glass as a medium for contemporary art. When Adriano Berengo started a glass studio on Murano thirty years ago, few could have predicted that his efforts would be so successful and their global impact so significant.

Over the years, Berengo invited over three hundred artists from five continents to come to Murano and work with the glass masters in his studio. Although this concept was not new – Egidio Costantini, supported by Peggy Guggenheim, worked with artists like Picasso, Arp, Le Corbusier, etc., to create innovative works in glass – Berengo refined the idea and succeeded to build closer relationships between the artists and the glass masters. As a mediator of conflicts – or an “Alchimist der Seelen” (alchemist of souls) as he likes to call it – he gets actively involved and bridges the differing visions of artists and craftspeople, often resulting in more resolved work that better reflects and integrates with the artist’s oeuvre. To fully comprehend the historical significance of Berengo’s projects, one has to understand what happened since the Renaissance, the time period when the term “art” was first defined.

It was during this time that Roman glass traditions were reintroduced from the East to Venice and Murano. But it was also a time in which important shifts within the art of painting took place. From the fifteenth century onwards a sublime realism appeared in Northern Italy and the Low Countries, at first glance an occurrence that has nothing to do with glass. However, in a book and a BBC documentary titled Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, David Hockney demonstrated how painters of this period used mirrors and lenses in order to achieve a level of realism that, in today’s terms, amounts to photographic realism, using concave mirrors and subsequently, lenses or a combination of both. By projecting a scene onto a blank canvas, artists could trace the image and paint all the details.

In his book Vermeer’s Camera, Architect Philip Steadman also investigated the use of optical instruments by Renaissance painters and concluded that, Johannes Vermeer too must have used lenses and a camera obscura for the creation of several of his masterpieces.

The use of glass in this context seems purely functional. However, not only did painting become more realistic; but new subject matters were depicted and artist’s perceptions changed accordingly. Philip Steadman stated: The camera was, for Vermeer, an instrument through which to gain a new vision of the world at the scale of the everyday, just as the telescope and the microscope were instruments for gaining new views of the worlds of the very large and the very small.

Renaissance painters investigated the metaphysical characteristics of the medium and how glass objects, lenses and mirrors impact observations and the perception of reality. They questioned the relationship between artwork, artist and viewer. Some of the most striking examples are van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait and the left panel of Campin’s The Werl Triptych. In both paintings, a convex mirror is located in the center. It reflects the backs of the people in the foreground but also two other figures – that would otherwise not be visible in the picture – who seem to be standing where the artist himself must have stood, which is also the stance the viewer would likely adopt. In a sublime way, the artists bring both the painter and the viewer into the artwork. This happens so ambiguously, yet so radically, that the viewer cannot escape it. By placing the convex mirror at the eye level of the painter/viewer and at the right distance, the painter/viewer is placed right in the center of the mirror, almost undistorted, while the rest of the space bends around them. 

Glass – although not physically used in these artworks – was the key element that allowed for a shift in perception, in art, and with regard to the relationship between the artist, their work, and the viewer. It puts the human being at the forefront as a creative and conscious individual. Humanism had arrived.

During the Enlightenment, scientists also used glass instruments—lenses, mirrors, prisms—to observe and construct their theories. Many of them were lens makers as well: Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), Robert Hooke (1635–1703), Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677), Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), the Brothers Constantijn Jr (1628–1697) Christiaan Huygens, and many more possessed this skill. And just like the painters before them, they used glass instruments to observe and understand the world. Their observations – translated into detailed prints – revealed a whole new (micro-)cosm.

In her book The Art of Describing, Svetlana Alpers notices a difference between the ‘narrative’ drawings and paintings of the Italian Renaissance, and the ‘descriptive’ drawings and paintings of the Northern Renaissance. The Italian tradition revolves around representation, whereas the Dutch tradition focuses on sensory perception. She links this observation to a general tendency among Dutch artists and intellectuals to link the thirst for knowledge to visual perception. According to Alpers, Huygens was convinced that objective representation of insects and microbes as seen through lenses led to scientific knowledge – just as geographical maps did – and a better understanding of universal truths. Similarly, Robert Hooke believed that careful observation of the ‘faithful eye’ and skilled recording of the ‘sincere hand’ are to serve as the basis of knowledge. Maybe less obvious as with the Renaissance paintings, looking through glass influenced the way of depiction and changed society’s perception of reality during the Enlightenment.

The importance of images steadily grew throughout human civilization. The next milestone was the magic lantern, a projector with lenses and mirrors that was used in the Baroque era in theatres as part of performances. This contraption no longer showed images of the real world but allowed projections of virtual images representing, e.g., demons and fantastical creatures. It became the precursor of the movie projector and the film industry. One could say that the magic lantern first yielded what we call visual effects today. By integrating lenses and mirrors, artists could create projections as stand-alone performances, or incorporate them into different forms of theater.

The birth of photography in 1839 and motion pictures in the late 1880’s dramatically changed people’s relationship with images. Up until then, most painters had created realistic depictions to convey their messages but now that chemical processes could ‘freeze’ light onto a substrate, paintings and drawings were no longer considered to depict reality as accurately as photographs or movies did. Painters could not but explore other avenues. Modernism introduced new ways of approaching reality. Meanwhile, photography was oscillating between science and art. Artists used this new medium to further question perceptions of reality. However, photography was so commonplace among journalists, commercial portraitists and even private individuals that it would take a long time until it was accepted as an artistic medium.

During the industrial revolution, window glass became cheaper and readily available. Size increased as well. These changes led to rethinking the concept of building. The Crystal Palace was one of the first examples. In 1911, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) built Fagus Werke, a factory near Hannover with a façade made of steel and clear glass. In 1914, Bruno Taut (1880-1938), inspired by Paul Scheerbart’s (1863-1915) ideas, built the Glass House at the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition. During the same exhibition, Gropius and Adolf Meyer (1881-1929) presented their curtain-wall, made of clear, transparent glass.

However, this use of glass in architecture was not merely a novelty based on industrial innovation. Avant-garde architects saw glass as a medium to redefine society. Scheerbart pictured a utopian society where coloured glass buildings would bring some kind of piece and harmony to their inhabitants. Our culture is in a sense a product of our architecture. If we wish to raise our culture to a higher level, we are forced for better or for worse to transform our architecture. And this will be possible only if we remove the enclosed quality from the spaces within which we live. This can be done only through the introduction of glass architecture. “Die gläserne Kette” was a utopian correspondence between likeminded architects and artists. Adolph Behne (1885-1948) argued that the postwar potency of glass culture should be measured by its practical ability to generate social transformation.It is not the crazy caprice of a poet that glass architecture will bring a new culture. It is a fact. New social welfare organizations, hospitals, inventions or technical innovations and improvements— these will not bring a new culture—but glass architecture will.”

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) constructed the German pavilion of the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. It was supposed to represent the new Weimar Germany: democratic, culturally progressive, prospering, and thoroughly pacifist; a self-portrait through architecture. The Barcelona Pavilion became an iconic modernist building. It is a striking example of how the outside was brought inside and visa versa, and a huge contrast with the small windows and dark enclosed interiors of the Bourgois. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) designed the St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers in New York – which inspired Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) for his Glass House film project – as a new way to build an open and positive society. 

Glass was the ultimate medium to radically fight the narrow-mindedness of the 19th century Bourgois. It became the symbol for transparancy, clarity, openness, honesty, democracy, justice, etc. Its influence is still tangible in the glass skyscrapers today. In many public buildings like parliament buildings or court houses that incorporate large glass walls, it is the visual transparency of glass that forms a powerful metaphor for openness, fairness, democracy, etc., Whereas in painting, printing and photography glass was the means to create a message, in architecture it became the message.

For Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) an artwork was perceived not by the eye but by the intellect. When he presented his work The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even, also called the Large Glass, in 1922, he was arguably the first visual artist not to use glass simply for its visual qualities but also for its conceptual potential. A subtitle for the Large Glass is retard en verre (delay in glass), indicating Duchamp was not only aware of the visual distortions that occur when viewing glass or viewing one’s surroundings through glass but also of the delay caused when light travels through glass.

In the late 1950’s, many visual artists started using glass in new contexts. In Europe as well as in North America, they experimented with the medium’s unique qualities. Some artists used factories to create their work, some used only industrial glass, some explored the medium by acquiring the skills to make their own work. This led to the start of Studio Glass.

For the first time in history, glass is now being used for the purpose of making sculptures and installations. However, the barriers between contemporary arts, crafts and decorative arts, initially divided the artists exploring glass as well. They all had their own backgrounds and traditions, and transitioning from one field into the other was problematic. Even introducing glass programs in North American universities didn’t counter these tendencies. The gestural impulse evident in the works of artists such as Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, Barry Le Va and Eva Hesse was chiefly deployed in the use of common industrial materials. Glass, when it was used, continued even then to be commercial plate or mirrored glass—and it was expressly void of ornamentation. Studio or sculpted glass in the decorative arts tradition was as yet not considered to have a place in advanced sculpture. For most of the modern period, the visual art world has had tacit, and sometimes highly articulated, prejudices against the decorative-art world, whose practice it often derides as ‘artsy’ and ‘craftsy’; and the decorative art branch of contemporary practice tends to regard its counterparts as academic and elitist. 

In the 20th century, only few artists were able to start within studio glass and make it in the contemporary art world. Similarly, few contemporary artists would take advantage of the vast potential that the glass tradition had to offer. Some factories had modest success inviting contemporary artists to create limited series. Egidio Costantini brought glass masters and highly respected artists together with mixed results.

It’s only since the beginning of the 21st century that more and more crossovers have taken place. Contemporary artists started working directly with craftspeople, studio glass artists find their way into large museums and galleries of contemporary art, and mutual respect and appreciation is growing. As a result, glass as a medium is much more visible within the arts today, a myriad new techniques are being developed, and glass as an artist medium is finally growing to maturity. For the first time, it’s no longer the painters, printers, photographers or architects using the optical qualities of glass, who take the lead but visual artists using the medium and all its qualities in a very direct way.

Glasstress 2019 is more than just another glass exhibition. It is the culmination of decades of work bringing artists, craftsmen and glass masters together. Adriano Berengo has helped break down the barriers and raised the prominence of glass within contemporary art: that’s what makes this show historically significant.