The Tradition of the Avant-Garde: Bohemian Glass, 1820–1935

The Tradition of the Avant-Garde: Bohemian Glass, 1820–1935

What is your first association with the term “bohemian”? Does it evoke a fine beer-brewing tradition, or connote unpronounceable town names? Germans have a saying: “lauter böhmische Dörfer” (nothing but Bohemian villages), referring to something completely incomprehensible, because of the odd spellings of Bohemian towns. The expressions “Vie de Bohème” or “bohèmien” originated in mid-19th-century France, in loose reference to the old and erroneous idea that the gypsies, freedom-loving travelers, mostly came from Bohemia.

When used in reference to glass, “bohemian” is often used to describe 19th-century faceted and engraved, bright-colored beakers, bowls, goblets and vases, that were available throughout Europe, America, and many other parts of the world. Bohemian glass became a type, such as Venetian glass, or English cut glass.

The history of glass in Bohemia dates from the 13th century, but it didn't became internationally known until the early 18th century when the Bohemians established a trade network, with merchants distributing the glassware throughout Europe, as well as to Jesuit missions in South America. This dependency on export led to a severe economic crisis during the Napoleonic wars. It took the glassmakers more than a decade to regain a leading position within Europe.

The Museum’s 2005 West Bridge Gallery exhibition, The Tradition of the Avant-Garde: Bohemian Glass of the 19th and 20th Centuries, was dedicated to that period of success beginning in about 1830 and lasting until German occupation and World War II brought it to an end around 1938. The show focused on the Bohemian's strong tradition of standing in the front line of art glass technology and style.

After the relatively long Biedermeier period, a time (from about 1815 to 1850) marked by a sense of peace and comfort, styles and fashions began to change rapidly. This was partly due to the fact that the Bohemian glass industry was scattered into various enterprises—from powerful factories down to innumerable, independent glass decorators—and all of them were compelled to stay innovative to be competitive. Also, beginning in 1851, World Fairs allowed glassmakers to learn about the art industry in several countries at once. Meanwhile, producers responded to the various demands and spending power of international customers. The result was an ongoing outburst of new decorative features and other glassmaking improvements.

This innovation ideally would have brought a constant perfecting of glassmaking and its products. Instead, as soon as a novelty was brought to market, a few competitors turned it into a luxurious fashion, and soon thereafter, less gifted rivals took it into cheap mass production. Bohemian glass was produced by the tons, and it is a challenge to sort out the masterpieces—almost like picking pearls out of a pile of gravel. But the pearls are worth the trouble, as we hope to demonstrate with the West Bridge show.

Lithyalin Vase

For example, due to his unique and lively rendering of portraits, Dominik Biemann (1800–1857) ranks among the greatest glass engravers of all time. His blanks were made of a colorless and flawless crystal in the glasshouse of the counts of Harrach in Neuwelt, Northern Bohemia . This factory, as well as the glassworks which were set up by Joseph Meyr (1731/32–1829) and Count George of Buquoy (1781–1851) in Southern Bohemia, maintained their importance throughout the 19th and into the 20th century.

A key figure for innovative glass decoration in the mid-19th century, Friedrich Egermann (1777–1864) operated one of the countless “refineries” in Northern Bohemia that specialized in decorating glass from the factories. In the late 1820s, he became famous for his “Lythialin,” a glass with a marbled surface that resembles semi-precious stones. However, Egermann's greatest success was to stain glass vessels with a ruby color, beginning in the 1840s. The process was so delicate that Egermann's rivals broke into his workshop to steal his notebook in order to accomplish it themselves.

One of Egermann's early collaborators, Josef Lobmeyr, later became famous as the most important glass trader in Central Europe. He founded his company in 1823 in Vienna, and acted as a distributor, selling Bohemian glass. But because he also established contacts between artists and glassmakers, Viennese art exerted a high influence on Bohemian glassmaking throughout the 19th and into the 20th century.

The second half of the 19th century was marked particularly by the companies of Moser in Karlsbad/Karlovy Vary, and Loetz in Klostermühle/Klášterský Mlýn. Moser became fashionable with its late 19th-century historicist style and its sumptuous table glassware. Loetz made its breakthrough somewhat later in the Art Nouveau style, which was contemporary and similar to the glass of Louis C. Tiffany in America. During these years, Moser became the principal location for the work of freelance artists, and thereby paved the way toward art glass after World War II.

While Bohemian glass of the 19th century is deeply rooted in German and Austrian culture, the beginning of the 20th century saw the awakening of an independent Czech art. Jan Kotěra (1871–1923), a pupil of the Viennese architect Otto Wagner, was among the first to focus on functionalism. The years from 1908 to the 1930s saw a boost in Czech avant-garde applied arts, and the country eagerly adapted the French Art Déco and Cubist styles. It is not surprising that Czechoslovakia was second only to France in the number of medals won at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1925.


Dedo von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk
Former Corning Museum of Glass curator of European glass
Head of the Glasmuseum Hentrich, Stiftung museum kunst palast, in Dusseldorf, Germany

Published on October 5, 2011