GLANC Goes To Prague!

It is easier to visit a country when one has a purpose to be there. The unifying theme of the visit to the Czech Republic was Cast Glass. From October 12th to 18th, GLANC members, along with other AACG regional members, were afforded a detailed look at the process, results and contribution of Czech artists to European glass. Most of the artists we visited had grown up during the period of Communist rule and the dictatorship had interfered with their development, but they are fully taking advantage of two decades of freedom.

The young people speak English, especially in a large city such as Prague, more so than in Paris. Nevertheless, traveling is much easier when arrangements have been made by experienced tour guides such as Al and Sue Weiner. And the trip was enhanced by the accompaniment of Habatat Gallery owners Ferdinand and Kathy Hampson, who have cultivated a longstanding relationship with the artists. Our interpreter was Lucas Hora, son of the renowned artist Petr Hora.

Arriving in the afternoon, we started with a bang. The group hopped on a bus and arrived at the Ledeburske Gardens of Prague Castle.  The previous week the Czech Republic had hosted the Association of Space Explorers XXII Planetary Congress. Artists Martin Rosol (Czech, living in Massachussetts) and his neighbor Josh Simpson, whose wife is an astronaut, had a wonderful exhibit designed especially for the conference attendees, and we were lucky enough to see it just before it was deinstalled. Josh’s blown glass worlds are breathtaking. Martin’s precisely cast, assembled and polished work was particularly apropos to the precision and clarity an astronaut must have. We then had the first of several wonderful dinners and got to know our new travel companions.

The next day we set out to the countryside of Southern Bohemia, first visiting the home of Frantisek Vizner where a large selection of his beautifully formed pieces was displayed, then the studio of Jan Exnar, known for his bold cast pieces. Both artists, and several more that we visited, use a glass casting factory in Novy Bor, which we later visited. The artists create the positive, or model, usually made of plaster. The factory makes the mold and casts the glass. Next comes the time-intensive coldworking  with diamond impregnated water-fed saws, grinders and polishers that require patience and precision. Extensive, beautiful polishing is a hallmark of Czech cast glass. The factory either finishes it to the artist’s specifications or the artist chooses to finish it him/herself. Several artists mentioned that the only manufacturer of optical glass in the Czech Republic had recently closed its doors, and they were now trying to make the adjustment to Chinese glass – optically beautiful with gorgeous colors, but harder and more brittle. Petr Hora treated us to a sumptuous lunch at his home/studio which had a stunning collection of his work. Optical glass does wonderful things with light. Most pieces had some color incorporated to different degrees, sometimes subtle, sometimes intense. We finished the day in old Prague where Galerie Meridian had mounted an exhibit of established and emerging Czech artists working in glass.

The following day we traveled to Northern Bohemia. The further north we went, the harder it snowed. We stopped at the magnificent house of Jan and Anna Frydrych. When the communists left in 1989, he obtained the abandoned mansion and lovingly restored it to its pre-communist elegance. It is now used for events, houses a gallery, their living quarters, and in the basement, Jan’s studio. He does all his own casting, assembling and polishing, creating optical illusions with his convex mirrored forms imbedded in beveled pyramids, cones and spheres.

Image of Glanc members in Prague

We visited the oldest school of glassmaking in the world at Kamenicky Senov. Since 1870 this technical high school has instructed approximately eighty 15 to 19 year olds from all over the country in practically every aspect of glassmaking, along with other basic high school subjects. In fact, most of the artists we visited had been students here. Unfortunately the school is experiencing extreme financial difficulties and may close this year. Our schedule had us next visiting the country studio of Milan Handl and his wife Stanislava Grevenickova. However, the snowstorm became more and more intense and the bus could not negotiate the long country road covered with snow and ice that led to their home. The driver backed up for what seemed like miles before intersecting a major road to head back to Prague. Quite an adventure for the California crew!

Thursday the group took time to visit the Jewish Quarter with its ancient synagogues dating back 700 years. During the Nazi occupation Hitler wanted to preserve the area as “a museum of the extinct race”. The Jewish museum was particularly moving, with first account stories of Jewish Czech citizens imprisoned in Terezin concentration Camp.

Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts has a historic glass collection, and the senior curator took us through the Glass Archives, not open to the public. Thousands of significant objects are housed here due to lack of public display space, and I thought Ferdinand, who has great interest in the history of glass, was going into rapture.

In the afternoon we visited two more artists’ studios. Jaromir Rybak creates large cast work that references the ancient gargoyles adorning Prague’s oldest buildings. He literally dug his studio underneath his home, and the skylights lighting this subterranean space are walkways in the garden above. We visited the home/studio/gallery of Bohumil Elias Jr., a young artist whose famous father and namesake has recently passed away. The gallery was so packed we could hardly walk around the stacks of art. The work was of both father and son, and both had flawless technique, primarily large scale lamination.

Continuing our breakneck pace, on Friday we traveled north again to the glass region of Zelezny Brod. But first we stopped at a fabulous restored stone barn to find the delightful work of Ivana Sramkova, a student in Stanislav Libensky’s “last class”. Her life size cast farm animals seem completely at home in their rustic country surroundings. Continuing deeper into the countryside, we visited artist and teacher Bretislav Novak Jr. He specializes in cutting and beveling glass at odd angles and sumptuous curves, then laminating them together to create large scale multi-colored sculptures. The group was particularly captivated by the optical qualities his polishing produced.

One of Friday’s highlights was a tour of the Novy Bor glass factory. Many of the prominent Czech artists have their work cast and finished here, as well as the Bay Area’s own Latchezar Boyadjiev. This is also the factory that Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova used, and in fact there were several unfinished Libensky pieces scattered around propped against walls, gathering dust. Vladamira Klumpar took us through the journey of her artistic process: conceiving, casting and finishing her very large pieces for her exhibit at Imago Galleries this winter. She escorted us through the various rooms of the factory where burly workers were polishing the work with large hand-held machines. Several pieces were finished and on display, so we got a really stunning preview of the Imago show.

Prague glass studio

Vladimira Klumper explains her work

Our last stop was at the home/studio of Ivana Houserova. Her cast work differs from the other artists as she combines smooth polish with highly textured areas. She also designs for a glassware manufacturer and has a very successful line of functional work. Because of the snowstorm, both electricity and heat were out at Ivana’s home so she provided us with powerful flashlights to see how the light plays on the glass.

Our first stop on Saturday was at the Prague studio of Tomas Hlavicka. Though trained as an architect, he had worked with his father-in-law, the late artist Pavel Hlava, for 25 years, and has his own prize-winning body of work. His forms are created from layers of glass with cut metal foils on each layer, cast, coldworked and polished into shapes resembling water, penguins and other sea life. Next the bus took us to a group of soviet-era apartments. During the Communist occupation, all the buildings were gray; there was no money for paint. Now many of them sported pastel or bright colors in an attempt to lighten up the monolithic structures. In a tiny apartment 10 floors up a dealer had 4 fabulous Libensky works to sell. We had the chance to walk around them, even touch them.

While some of the group used the remainder of the day to shop in Prague’s many boutiques, others toured 1000 year old Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral and Charles Bridge. The history of these structures also is the history of Prague. We learned a new term – “defenestration”. Through Prague’s history a number of politicians were assassinated. The preferred method was “defenestration”, or pushing the unsuspecting person out an upper story window.

Our farewell dinner was a thrill. We knew we were eating at “La Perle de Prague”, but were surprised when the bus pulled up to the famous Frank Gehry “Dancing House”. Our restaurant was a single large table in a private room on the top floor, overlooking the Charles River and Prague Castle. Gehry had designed this minimalist space so that the small globes of the chandelier reflected infinitely on the glass walls surrounding us, giving the feeling we were in the center of the Milky Way. Eating an excellent dinner “in the middle of the universe” with new-found friends, then stepping out on the balcony to see the sumptuously lit Prague Castle was a perfect finale to an extraordinary tour.

[Susan Longini, Muni Barash, Sue Weiner]