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Masters of Studio Glass: Jiří Harcuba

All About Glass

Heritage means to select the most valuable thing from history and hand it over to the next generation ... Prehistorical rock engravings are closer to our contemporary artistic views than classical art. Other manifestations of the primary art of Australia, Africa, and Oceania as well as folk art belong to the most precious heritage.
    –Jiří Harcuba

Jiří Harcuba is a widely respected artist and educator whose specialty is portraiture in engraved glass. Whether the subjects of his portraits are friends, renowned artists, or historical personalities, Harcuba treats them all in a similar fashion, using spare sculptural cuts and subtle optical effects to create their individual profiles.

Internationally known for his expert cutting and engraving techniques, Harcuba has also been recognized for his understanding of sculpture, specifically as applied to the design of coins and medals. In 1988, he was honored by The American Numismatic Society for lifetime achievement in the art of medals.

Portrait of Dominik Biemann Jiří Harcuba

Harcuba was born in 1928 in Harrachov (Nový Svět) in what is now the Czech Republic. He learned engraving as an apprentice at the Harrachov glassworks (1942–1945), and then he continued his training at the Specialized School of Glassmaking in Nový Bor (1945–1948). At the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague, he studied with Karel Štipl, and then he continued his postgraduate studies while working as Štipl’s teaching assistant (1949–1961). From 1961 to 1971, he taught at the Academy, and he also taught at the Royal College of Art in London (1965–1966).

In 1971, Harcuba was removed from his teaching position and held as a political prisoner for designing a medal that openly criticized the 1968 invasion of Prague by Soviet troops. Although he chose to pursue a career as an independent artist after 1971, he did not stop teaching. He was reinstated at the Academy of Applied Arts in 1990—as head of the metal, jewelry, and glyptic department—by Václav Havel, then the president of Czechoslovakia. Harcuba became a chancellor of the Academy in 1991, and he stayed there until 1994, when he resumed his full-time artistic career.

Harcuba works in an abstract style that is inspired by the pureness and simplicity of prehistoric art. “By engraving,” he says, “we leave traces, traces of ourselves.” He adds, “I show the relationship between prehistoric carving and contemporary art...linking the past and the future.” Harcuba sees himself as an innovator and as a guardian of tradition, which is a perfect description of his approach to his art.

Before I had studied Zen for 30 years, I saw mountains as mountains and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains and waters are not waters. But now that I have got the very substance, I am at rest. For it is just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.
    –Ch’ing yuan Wei-hsin, Zen master, T’ang Dynasty (618–970)

We do not strive for perfection. The task of a teacher is to bring closer the most valuable, to discover the worthy. I say this to my students, if you do something it has to be something important.
    –Jiří Harcuba

For his Masters of Studio Glass exhibition at the Museum in 2010, Harcuba requested that only three pieces from the Museum’s collection be displayed. The Museum owns 15 examples of Harcuba’s engraved vases and portraits in glass, dating from 1958 to 2009, and 12 early design drawings, dating from 1958 to 1961. However, the artist chose to pare down and simplify the presentation of his work to three objects which, he believes, reveal the essence, or soul, of his work.

Portrait of Václav Havel and Vladimír Kopecký Jiří Harcuba

The objects Harcuba has selected for his exhibition include the double portraits of Václav Havel and Vladimír Kopecký that he created in 1995 for the Museum’s Rakow Commission, a special commission that is awarded annually to one artist.

In the Rakow Commission sculpture, Václav Havel (b. 1936), the prominent Czech playwright, poet, and political dissident, is portrayed with minimal, spare cuts (95.3.60). An inspiring leader, he is a powerful symbol of political and personal freedom. After the fall of communism in 1989, Havel was president of Czechoslovakia (1989–1992) and then the Czech Republic (1993–2003) during its important first decade of independence.

The other personality that Harcuba honors in the Rakow Commission is the respected Czech artist Vladimír Kopecký (b. 1931). An innovator and an accomplished painter and sculptor in glass and mixed media, Kopecký represents freedom in art and in glass for Harcuba, who depicts the artist with a mass of energetic cuts (95.3.61).

The third object in the exhibition is a portrait that Harcuba made in 2009 while he was teaching in Corning at the Museum’s Studio. It depicts a personality famous in glass history: the Bohemian engraver Dominik Biemann (1800–1858). In his engraved portraits, Biemann dispensed with elaborate decorative borders and other motifs characteristic of the period, preferring to focus on his finely executed and precisely detailed profiles (2009.4.89). Harcuba’s portrait of Biemann is, in Harcuba’s words, “my latest version of Dominik Biemann, with whom I have an eternal dialogue.”

Jiří Harcuba’s recommended reading:

Frederick Franck, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing: Meditation in Action, New York: Bantam, 1993.

Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, Point Reyes, California: Imperfect Publishing, 1994.

Zen drawing, which is beyond our control, discovers our innermost contents. It transforms reality into abstractions which are ideal starting points for compositions of engraving projects. They are a step forward on one's own journey.
    –Jiří Harcuba

Published on October 19, 2011