In the Czech Republic the story of glass in design and the arts is one that goes back centuries. Its famous Glassmaking School in Kamenicky Senov, north Bohemia, was established way back in 1856, 150 years ago, and was the first vocational school of its kind in the world. Even today it continues to train students at the secondary school level teaching technical expertise and providing balanced and wide-ranging artistic direction to potential artists of tomorrow.
Artist and glassmaker Pavel Werner is the school's principle:
"If we're taking about modern Czech glass, it's impossible to ignore the influence of our glassmaking schools, in Zelezny Brod, Novy Bor, and our own in Kamenicky Senov. Like any kind of art school, they all serve a definite role in preparing students for future artistic careers. Our approach at the secondary level has a certain pedagogical logic: we expect our students to continue on at the undergraduate and graduate levels, so we try to give them - early on - guidance in forming their opinions and a certain world view. Basically, we're talking about [four years] in a 10 - 12 year process, when one emerges from university, with a complex knowledge of glass."
Understanding glass also means studying one' surroundings - stressed strongly at the Kamenicky Senov school:
"We study nature and natural surroundings to get a sense of the character of materials, then apply that knowledge in stylised ways. Students study from the age of 14 to 18 and the last two years focus on original proposals and independent projects. Throughout their studies, they learn different applied techniques for forming, shaping, and working with glass. Basic techniques include painting on the surface, sintered glass - basically a kind of baking of the material but not to melting point. We have a number of different types of furnaces for the job, the necessary technological equipment. Electric furnaces are used to melt glass, and students also learn to use grinders to alter materials' surface and shape."
The results are impressive, and now, easy to see thanks to the opening of a new exhibition at Prague's Museum of the Decorative Arts this week. Titled "Glass and Light", it marks Kamenicky Senov's Glassmaking School's 150th anniversary, and follows in a tradition by which professors and former graduates exhibit some of their best work together. Once again, Pavel Werner:
"We wanted to get a sense of how former graduates had done as well as find out what they were doing now. At first we had group exhibitions at a gallery in Kamenicky Senov but this show takes it to another level. The number of former graduates - a lot of whom did not go on to study at the university level - have since gone on to become professional artists and have done very well. This show gives us an idea of how our graduates have exhibited both here and abroad - including the US. I'd say one of the branches of Czech 20th century glass is well represented in this show."
Some of the names are a Who's Who among Czech artists specialising in glass, and all told, this might just be one the finest exhibition of its kind in Prague this season. The show, for example, is beautifully laid out over two floors, well-spaced and open to contemplation: some pieces reveal shards and slivers of light, others blobs or dribbles.
Different periods in the 2nd half of the 20th century are particularly exciting. There are also utilitarian objects that are anything but ordinary: engraved vases and plates, drinking glasses, bowls, and lamps. But, there are also strictly decorative objects.
"Above all each author or artist has a style and direction which they follow, develop, build-on in terms of what they want to express through glass, in the material. Whether it is for a general public or specialists in glass. There are plenty of different works to see but one interesting piece is by Ivo Rozsypal which combines grinding of glass with layering, so that the result is a contemporary work that says something about the technological state of the world. "
Some newer pieces also mix different key materials:
"Certainly there is a trend here of mixing different materials: glass, wood, metal, stone, rough natural materials, iron, combined with glass. Sometimes glass is used to a lesser degree within an overall concept, within a sculpture but there's no question with these artists [that glass is the binding element]. Regarding presentation? I'd say that what you can see here is exceptional and atypical of Czech commercial glassmaking as a whole: there are only a few firms that are really willing to invest in innovation in design. But, those that do approach artists such as these, knowing that the result will be studio glass that can compete on the international level."
"Glass and Light" continues at Prague's Museum for the Decorative Arts until September 17th.