THE murmur of a small crowd pierced the silence of Galeri Petronas where a group of people stared longingly at the display.
Their chatter, heavy with gleeful whispers, echoed throughout the gallery’s vast corridors as they leaned in to take a closer look at the exhibits.
Some were completely astounded by the stunning detail of the sculptures while others shook their heads in disbelief.
The sparkle in their eyes were both figurative and literal as they marvelled at the sublime beauty of glass art works crafted by the hands of the Czech Republic’s most respected artists.
Concerto Glassico: The Czech Art of Glass, which ended on June 11, was not merely a display of age-old craftsmanship — the exhibition was also a testimony to the kind of limitless potential the material holds for the future.
Glass is one of the most versatile materials in the world. It’s also one of the oldest, with a history dating back 4,000 years.
Mesopotamian craftsmen were said to be the first to discover glass, a luxury decorative and functional item only found in the mansions of the privileged.
The item remained firmly in the hands of the wealthy in ancient Egyptian and Roman times until a major discovery was made in 1 BC: glass could be shaped by blowing into a hallow pipe.
The technique altered the future of glass forever. It eased the process, made it more accessible and allowed craftsmen to explore the infinite possibilities of the material, shaping glass as far as the artist’s imagination could stretch.
The Phoenicians may be acknowledged as the first glassblowers but the craft eventually found a home in North Bohemia, then a part of Czechoslovakia.
The Central European plains, blessed with an abundance of quartz, potash from the forests and wood for making furnaces, was an ideal area to produce glass.
In The Legend of Bohemian Glass: A Thousand Years of Glassmaking In The Heart of Europe, author Antonin Langhamer noted that Bohemia was already an established location for European glass manufacturing by the 13th century.
Three hundred years later, the combination of expert artistic skills and quality material made Bohemian glass the finest produced, challenged only by the refined skills of Venetian glassmakers.
GROWING UNDER GLASS
But the real creative evolution of Czech glass, as curator of Concerto Glassico, Professor Miroslav Vojtechovsky points out, started to emerge after World War II — a time considered the nation’s darkest years.
Under Soviet Communist rule from 1948 till 1989, western art was deemed as decadent.
“Communists had been ideologically guarded by classical art — paintings and sculptures. But they underestimated and allowed applied art: glass, ceramics and design,” he reveals.
While all other art schools in the country were closed down during the Soviet’s 40 year rule, Prague’s School of Applied Arts, which focused on ceramics, glassmaking, wood carving, metal working and textiles, was allowed to operate.
To the Communist, the other materials, including glass, were seen as functional tools, not an expression of fine art.
Within those walls, renowned Czech artist Joseph Kaplicky was hell-bent on making sure the future of Czech glass art was kept afloat.
In his classes, he encouraged his students to think out of the box, asking them to apply their preferred mediums to glass.
As one of Czech glass’ most illustrious artists, Rene Roubicek once explained: “There were other people there who wanted to become painters and they worked with glass, although it was not originally their intention. They used glass to realise their ideas, which were the ideas of painters.”
The results were startling. “There’s no doubt the first break occurred in the late 1950s and 1960s,” Vojtechovsky shares, referring to The 1958 Universal Exposition of Brussels.
“It was a success not only in glass but also in the whole area of culture,” he says of the award-winning Czechoslovakian Pavilion, a modern, simple architectural wonder built from glass and steel — a rare display of creativity for a country under Communist rule.
Since then, the country has experienced a slew of major events which have changed the course of history. The Velvet Revolution crushed the Communist regime and later Czechoslovakia came to an amicable split, giving the birth to two new nations — the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.
What hasn’t changed however, is how important and influential glass remains to the Czechs.
“Glass is our national heritage,” says says Jiri Pacinek, a glassmaker, whose glass sculptures were displayed at Concerto Glassico.
Pacinek, who runs his own studio north of Prague, is one of 12 artists who Vojtechovsky handpicked to join the exhibition.
“We need more young people to become craftsmen and women to continue the legacy,” he confides.
Both Pacinek’s sons are now taking up the age-old art form.
“My sons are living proof of a love for this tradition,” he remarks, adding that the craft is one which involves creativity, arduous hard work, skill and team work.
The process of glassmaking as Vojtechovsky explains, is a wonder on its own.
Glassmakers take molten hot liquid from a furnace and like a well-oiled machine, choreograph the process with perfect ease: some blow glass and some mould pieces with metal tools.
The change of hands is so quick, it looks almost effortless. Each piece is then sent to another section to refine the material and the glass blowing before moving on to the glass-cutting process, often considered the most intricate and time-consuming process, in order to produce the finest details on the glass object.
“This is why when someone gets into the glassworks anywhere in the Czech Republic and has the opportunity to watch the glass blowers or the engravers in the workshop, he’s immediately fascinated by craftsmanship and creates a relationship of respect,” says Vojtechovsky, noting that designers are now working with glassmakers, pushing the boundaries of glass.
The majority of these skilled glassmakers and designers have undergone extensive training at many of the country’s glass schools.
The first was established over a 150 years ago and there are at least six other renowned glass-making schools, which continue churning out highly-skilled craftsmen like Pacinek’s sons.
“It isn’t easy finding younger glassmakers so I hope to inspire more young people to take up glassmaking,” says Pacinek, who fell in love with the art form at age 14.
As Professor Josef Drahonovsky of the School of Applied Arts Prague stated in his 1936 speech at the International Glass Convention in London: “Glass is a material that absorbs rays, breaks them up and scatters or gathers them and is full of reflections and wonderful light. It bears shadow on its light side and light on his shaded side, turning the laws of sculpture on their head and forcing the artist into new ways of working.”
How far he must have seen into the future.