Twentieth Century Czech Glass: Design in an Age of Adversity

Twentieth Century Czech Glass: Design in an Age of Adversity

In  2005, the Museum presented three exhibitions of Czech and Bohemian glass. The exhibition, Design in an Age of Adversity, showcased a wide array of rare, colorful, and provocatively original vessels and sculptures—blown, hot-worked, engraved, etched, carved, and enameled. The pieces brought to light an important but neglected period in mid-20th-century design. They also demonstrate the unintended consequences of the Communist repression of abstract art and its promotion of Socialist Realism, an ideology based on the principle that the arts should only glorify the political, social, and cultural goals of Communism.

With the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Socialist Realism was heavily promoted for the arts and compulsory for public commissions. Painting, sculpture, and graphic design were used to illustrate political ideology, and artists who rejected the state-approved direction ran the risk of persecution. The heritage of the Czech avant-garde—which included early 20th-century Czech Cubism and Functionalism—was dismissed as “decadent.” Contemporary art in the West, particularly abstract art, was held in contempt. Information was restricted behind the Iron Curtain, and Czechoslovak artists gradually became isolated from artistic developments in the rest of the world.

Because glass was considered a decorative medium for functional use, it was not as closely monitored as painting and sculpture. Unlike painters, sculptors, and graphic designers, artists working in glass, ceramics, and textiles were allowed to continue their work relatively unhindered, and in certain cases, encouraged to be experimental. Young artists, many of whom trained as painters and sculptors, were drawn to the relative freedom of glass. Glass was not considered to be an expressive or potentially subversive medium. How could a political statement be made in the design of a vase?

Other elements also contributed to the ascendancy of postwar glass design in Czechoslovakia. Since the 19th century, the Czechs had maintained an exemplary system of secondary art and technical schools and university programs devoted to glassmaking and the other applied arts. Many idealistic young artists and designers, returning home from World War II to the devastation of their country's glass industry, revived these schools. Young professors and their students formed groups with names like “The Block of Czech Glass,” with the aim of forging uniquely Czech expressions in a medium already bound to their cultural identity. The Czechs' isolation from the West stimulated a spirit of artistic cooperation and optimism that was reflected in the innovative approaches of these artists to style and process.

Design for a stained glass window Zdenka Strobachová (b. 1932)

One of the reasons that experimentation in glass was encouraged was because the Communist regime needed contemporary, forward-looking products to showcase at major international expositions. Participation in these exhibitions allowed Czechoslovakia to burnish its image abroad, attract foreign currency, and compete in the cultural arena with the West. Many of the objects on view in Design in an Age of Adversity were, in fact, commissioned for international expositions, beginning with the Milan Triennale in 1957. The relatively open period in Communist ideology after the death of Stalin, which lasted from about 1957 to 1968 in Czechoslovakia , resulted in more permissive attitudes. Experimental Czech glass sculpture was prominently displayed at Expo '58 (the World's Fair held in Brussels, Belgium) and at Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada. These were especially influential and successful exhibitions for Czechoslovakia. It was thus a strange duality—government repression and support—that fueled the extraordinary burst of invention evidenced in this exhibition.

Often subjects appeared in glass—such as Stanislav Libenský's evocation of the Easter scene in The Three Marys (1947)—that, only a year later, would not be allowed in painting or sculpture. Given greater latitude than other visual artists, artists working in glass drew inspiration from a seemingly endless array of sources, from the human figure, flora, and fauna, to industrial machinery, folk motifs, and ancient and tribal art. One of the more intriguing pieces is a mold-blown and cut vase with animals, designed by Vladimír Žahour in 1949, that was inspired by the discovery in 1940 of the Ice Age cave paintings at Lascaux, in France.

One of the artists pivotal in new Czech design was Jan Kotík, who turned to glass when he was no longer allowed to exhibit his paintings. Kotík generated considerable notice in Brussels with his nearly 20-foot high stained-glass sculpture that was described as an heroic effort to create architecture in glass—to “shape space by means of light.” Design in an Age of Adversity includes five pieces by the artist, including Three Nudes (1957), a mold-blown, acid-etched, and engraved colorless glass vase that features an abstract interpretation of female figures. Even though it was “harmless” glass, the style of the vase—which was clearly at odds with the tenets of Socialist Realism—drew unfavorable attention from Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, at an exhibition in Moscow in 1959.

Many of the objects shown in this exhibition are prototypes, while others only were produced in limited numbers. Although the cultural authorities were content for the outside world to believe that the designs displayed in the international expositions of the Cold War years accurately represented the state of glass production in Czechoslovakia, this was far from the case. In actuality, common production consisted of prosaic, cheaply produced wares. The artists whose works were promoted internationally were managed by state-run agencies. They rarely knew where their work was exhibited, how it was received, if it sold, or for what amount.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, glass design in Czechoslovakia was closely related to developments in contemporary painting and sculpture. Surprisingly, it continued to have this close, albeit different, relationship during the Communist period.

In spite of some restrictions, the opportunity to explore abstraction was among the most important of the freedoms experienced by Czech artists working in glass. This exploration is most clearly demonstrated in original design drawings of the period, created in watercolor, tempera, gouache, charcoal, ink, and pencil. The design drawings vary from straightforward concepts for tableware to small abstract paintings overlaid with mats cut into glass shapes. The drawings show how Czech artists transformed abstract ideas into glass, and they provide insight into the ways in which an artist develops an idea in two, and then three, dimensions.

After the punitive invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, Czechoslovak artists were once again forced to teach and to work under highly repressive conditions. In the 1980s, some of these artists were allowed to travel and to teach abroad, influencing the development of studio glass internationally, especially in cast glass sculpture. It was not until after the Velvet Revolution and the dissolution of the Soviet bloc in 1989, however, that Czech artists and designers working in glass were able to pursue truly individual and free expression in their work.

The role of Czech glass design as an outlet for artistic exploration in a period of political repression has lasting importance for the history of 20th-century glass. A similar crossover from painting and sculpture to a decorative arts medium occurs nowhere else. In other totalitarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe , there was neither the strong craft tradition nor the long history of glassmaking that Czechoslovakia possessed. This was a unique situation that arose from the intersection of several key factors: the political repression of the fine arts; strong painters and sculptors who brought their ideas, through teaching, into the applied arts; an excellent educational system in the applied arts; a government that funded and promoted exploration, experimentation, and international exhibitions in glass; the relative isolation of Czech artists from the outside; and the spirit of artistic cooperation, ambition, and optimism that was honed by political adversity.

Published on October 18, 2011

About the Author

Tina Oldknow, Curator of Modern Glass
Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Glass
Tina Oldknow has been the curator of modern glass since 2000 and she is responsible for all curatorial aspects of the glass collections dating from 1900 to the present. During her time at the Museum, she has reinstalled the Modern Glass and...
more