Art and Design in Glass in Communist Czechoslovakia

Art and Design in Glass in Communist Czechoslovakia

Czech glass, also called Bohemian glass, has been produced since the Middle Ages. Bohemia was a kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire, and from 1867 to 1918, a province of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the dissolution of Austro-Hungary in 1918, Bohemia was incorporated into the independent republic of Czechoslovakia. Generally, the term "Bohemian" glass is used for glass produced in Czechoslovak lands until 1918.

Glass has always been one of the region’s leading exports, and glass in Czechoslovakia has had a particularly interesting history throughout the 20th century when it has been closely tied with artistic movements in painting and sculpture. The innovative and original designs that characterize Czech art glass and commercial design reflect the Czech desire to create a strong, national identity for its glass.

Glass made in Communist Czechoslovakia dates from 1948 to 1989. In Czechoslovakia’s general election of 1946, the Communist Party gained the majority, becoming the strongest political party in the country. In February 1948, the Communist Party took full control. Czechoslovakia remained a Communist country until the Velvet Revolution of 1989; the independent Czech and Slovak Republics were formed on January 1, 1993.

After the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, plans were immediately undertaken to build a political system based on one party, to nationalize all private property, and to change the orientation of the economy toward heavy industry and arms production.

René Roubícek and Petr Novotny

The advent of this new Communist dictatorship soon forced all forms of artistic expression into ideological molds. The Marxist-Leninist worldview was presented as a complete and valid political and social system, and Socialist Realism, a strictly representational, narrative style meant to inspire the working class, became the required approach in all the arts. The heritage of the Czech avant-garde and the contemporary international art scene were dismissed as "decadent Western culture." Abstract art was held in contempt.

The notion of the State as a generous sponsor of art and culture was a keystone of early Communist support of the arts. However, it soon became clear to artists that such support extended only to activities that served the Communist Party. A rigid conformity was demanded of all artists, and all artistic expression was expected to reflect the Socialist Realist style that governed approved art. Czech artists soon became isolated from artistic developments in the rest of the world. Painting, sculpture, and graphic arts served to illustrate the political regime.

It is significant, in this context, that many Czech artists and designers working in glass were not as artistically repressed. Unlike painting, sculpture and graphic arts, glass design was overlooked, and artists working in the medium were allowed to continue relatively unhindered. Glass was considered a functional and ornamental medium, not an expressive one: How could a political statement be made in the design of a goblet? Many painters and graphic artists took refuge in glass and other applied arts as a way of escaping harassment and retaining a modicum of creative freedom.

Tina Oldknow, the Museum's curator of modern glass, spent several weeks in the Czech Republic interviewing artists who worked in glass during the Communist era. Here are some excerpts from her interviews conducted in Prague and Nový Bor in February 2004.

“When I am asked why I started to work with glass, I say that it was because of Hitler. All of the universities were closed, but not the School of Applied Arts. 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 realize their ideas, which were the ideas of painters.”

– René Roubícek

“We were searching, searching for new ways of expression. Perhaps others were doing this, but we didn't know about it. Glass was not considered a fine art. It was applied art—plates for eating and drinking, decoration. So, we were freer than painters to do what we wanted.”

– Bohumil Eliáš

“We were very isolated, and everyone had to look for inspiration within themselves.”

– Václav Cigler 

The locus for the development of new ideas in glass during the postwar period was the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague. Josef Kaplický, a charismatic teacher, was a crucial figure in the development of postwar Czech glass and his enormous influence is acknowledged by many artists. An accomplished painter, sculptor, and graphic artist, he advocated a broader, artistically holistic approach to glass.

“We were taught that a plate had to be monumental, like ancient Greek coins. When you enlarge a Greek coin, you don't know if it is a coin or a plate or a monumental relief sculpture because the composition and design are so perfect.”

– Dana Vachtová 

“The professor told us, ‘You can't only do glass.' He said that if you didn't have ideas about art in general, you were like a horse with blinders. We had to have a wider view of the arts in order to move glass forward, to develop art in glass. It was necessary to know architecture, sculpture, and painting, but not to take too much inspiration from one source.”

– Bohumil Eliáš

“Professor Kaplický was great, especially from an intellectual point of view. He allowed us to do anything; he gave us complete freedom. He thought that what was going on in the applied arts was very surface-oriented, that there was very little depth. He showed us Greek, Sumerian, Egyptian, Gothic, French, Chinese, and African art. He took us to various parts of Czechoslovakia and showed us Romanesque art. He told us, ‘Modern art is called modern now, but in 50 years, it will no longer be modern. Art should be very deep so that, after 50 years, it will still have something to say.'”

– Vladimír Kopecký 

“Glass was not considered to be a fine art, and it was easier to work in glass. If the same sculpture was made in bronze and in glass, the bronze could not have been exhibited. No one was interested in the ideas behind glass, so it was able to be exhibited.”

– Václav Cigler 

“ Art was used as ideological propaganda for the regime, but we were lucky that glass was useless for this purpose. We could make abstract designs for glass because, for the regime, glass was not art. Our drawings were made in a free way, as in the fine arts, but the designs were used for glass. It was not possible to exhibit the drawings as fine art, but they could be exhibited as glass. It is wonderful that in any regime you can find a way for creation.”

– Karel Wünsch

Published on October 4, 2011