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Czech Glass 1945-1980: Design in an Age of Adversity. Helmut Ricke

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--- Quote from: LeCasson ---Czech Glass1945-1980: Design in an Age of Adversity.
Helmut Ricke (ed) Arnoldsche, Stuttgart, 2005 €75

This is the latest offering from Helmut Ricke, who both edited and contributed to the text. This is a weighty and erudite book which accompanies the current exhibition at the Dusseldorf Museum Kunst Palast which transfers to the United States in June. It is authoritative, drawing as it does, on essays from Suzanne Frantz, Antonin Langhamer, Tina Oldknow, Jan Mergl and others.

As Ricke asks: why this exhibition?

There is an assumption that European glass in the post-war period is only known for Scandinavian and Italian glass with little else (with the exception of Dutch glass) of note. It is to correct this impression that he feels it necessary to offer this view of Czech glass to the world. In that premise he is, to a point, correct. Not enough has been written outside Czechoslovakia, and much needs to be done to improve knowledge of this challenging period, and the lives of artists and makers. The essays, particularly those of Langhamer and Mergl, are of the highest standard, and reveal a level of information, that has been long overdue. Langhamer’s study of the nature of glass education, and Mergl on The Artist and Industry, are amongst the most rewarding, in terms of giving a greater understanding of conditions in Czechoslovakia during this period. Suzanne Frantz’s historical over-view is concise and to the point.

For me, this is, in my opinion, the first step in a much-needed re-assessment of Czech glass. I noted, with interest, Jan Mergl’s use of a quote from Professor Jan Michl, (University of Oslo) on design, yet I remain concerned that so few people have had access to UBOK’s archives that we have little idea of whether closed economies produce designs of measurable significance or importance. That said, much new information is available for the first time, and anyone reading this will have a far better appreciation of the period.

Milan Hlaves has done sterling work on the artists biographies. In addition there is a good glossary of terms, maps, showing production locations, and histories and details of both the factories and significant communist bodies.

Reservations, I have a few.

There was no space for work by Zemek or Kolman, Peceny or Rozypal. Too much relies on the Steinberg Collection, (but that facilitates an exhibition such as this, and perhaps that is far better than no exhibition at all) and by implication, if it’s not in that collection it is irrelevant. Thus Haartil glass is absent. Apart from possibly four artists, Sklo Union pressed glass production is virtually ignored, and the book appears to reinforce the denegration of design for the proletariat, in a manner similar to Petrova. The obsession with art glass, rather than production pieces, assumes that only in fine art glass is there worth, which if my memory serves me well enough, runs contrary to the teachings of Kaplicky, to paraphrase, “there is no great art on the one hand, and mediocrity in applied art on the other”. Yet there are a large number of production pieces included.

To say the major texts, on Czechoslovakian glass of the period in question, are principally Langhamer’s Legend of Bohemian Glass and Petrova’s Czech Glass is unfair, and fails to recognise the importance of J. Raban (Ed) Modern Bohemian Glass, for many years the closest that many an amateur of Czechoslovakian glass came, to a bible.

The major plus, as I see it, is Arnolsche’s decision to publish this book, with two CD-ROMs. One is a straight version of the texts in German. A sensible and smart move, suggesting that this publisher is at the fore-front of making knowledge available, to a much wider market. The second is a CD of design drawings held in the Rakow Collection at the Corning Museum. Here is an un-paralleled opportunity to follow design /thought processes.

This is a fine book, and if you take note of my reservations, it is a superb addition to any library on glass. At 448 pages, 696 images, of very high quality, as is to be expected, 44 signatures, biographies, and two CD-ROMs, this is a must have. Yes it is worth every penny of the price, and I highly recommend this to board members, in preference to Petrova’s “Czech Glass”.

I would be astonished if this book does not need a second or third print run.


Text © Marcus Newhall 2005
--- End quote ---

Thank you Marcus

Could you quote the "quote from Professor Jan Michl" ?
It would help me understand that paragraph.

The "Design" of the exhibition title should suggest consideration of a wider range than Art Glass and/or Glass Art.  Is there any attempt in the text to justify the lack of production items ?

You say "Yet there are a large number of production pieces included. " So not omitted entirely. Any idea of what % of the 360 pieces shown are production pieces ? (approx !!!)

Perhaps the view is that re-asessment of the contribution of Czech Glass needs to start with the "elite" before it can trickle down to us grunt collectors.... as tho establishing kudos (and high values) for the top slice will pull the rest up... somehow ....

I'm not suficiently experienced to say that has not been the case elsewhere but somehow I doubt it for companies such as Whitefrairs, Blenko and Fenton, three of the most widely collected by oridnary folk.
And here we are talking about a whole country of many makers, so how to compare ?

I guess if you look at the development of publishing in glass collectables even in recent history it would show the shift from the ancient and venerably old and highly valued,  to the newer, more modern and more easily available end of the spectrum.

It's hard to step back and realise how fast this change has happened when one is so hungry for more ..... to the extent that even very recently members of this board have lamented the preponderence of "museum" pieces in many glass books covering Murano and Scandinavian glass some of which, published very recently. 

I for one sincerely hope that this imbalance will be redressed very soon. Even within the confines of a single country, a well defined period and a concentration on production pieces, it is an enormous subject.

"Industrial production- and the industrial design deriving from it- functions effectively only within a society that permits private ownership in the fullest sense of the word, that is, a society that facilitates free enterprise not only for enterprising persons of artistic leanings but for all enterprising people in general." Prof Jan Michl, 2003

If one reads Mergl's essay, which uses the quote, then there is a discreet or implied reason for the concentration on art glass rather than design. By implication a closed economy does not allow for design.

@ 20% are production items, many from the small series runs 1200 units or less, some as "artist" series, runs of 5-10.

Reassessment of the elite, is difficult when, current re-assessment is overly critical of design on the one hand and not of the art. Czech art glass is sexy, it appears to fly in the face of an authoritarian regime, it sells exhibitions, books and art-work. Design is seen as some-how less significant. I can see at the moment two very different strands in the art-historical handling of Czech glass. The Czech critique, that "here is something of which to be extremely proud", and a "western" critique, which appears initially to carry a similar message, but arguably, is about the object and its place in the exhibition space, rather than its historical significance.

As I pointed out in the review of Petrova's book, I acknowledge that this period 1945-1990, was hard, and none outside Czechoslovakia and other communist regimes, can fully appreciate, what it was like to live and work there. Something must have been good about design, (one UK importer at least was selling Czechoslovakian glass under the Communists,(much now familiar to us as Sklo Union) in huge quantities in the 1960's - 1980's)  but I do realise why there is a reticence to examine this.

I stand by my assessment of Ricke's book, it is a worthy successor to Raban, and should be in the collection of those seriously interested in post-war Czech glass history.

Text © Marcus Newhall 2005

Industrial design was born in the twentieth century, with Peter Behrens being widely regarded as the first industrial designer.

Based on that anything prior to 1900 was designed according to pragmatic objectives or as an expression of decorative fashion. Peter Behrens came to the fore in Germany.

It is worth noting that a lot of the arts & crafts 'design' was by architects who designed objects to complement interior design.

However, from our modern perspective we tend to look at these earlier items to be the result of a 'designer'. I am not familiar enough with the theory of design history to address this apparent anomaly.

But surely Czechoslovakia could not be considered a true 'closed' economy as it certainly traded without its borders.

This is one of the inherent pitfalls of relying on an open v closed economic argument. As did many other soviet satellite states, and the USSR itself, Czechoslovakian production, and its export, was split. Inwards, towards Comecon, particularly for supplies of oil from the Urals and Siberia, externally, to the West, in order to earn "hard" currency for trading between the communist bloc and the "west".

I know from the on-loan unpublished manuscript on my desk, that, with regard to glass, one particular company did influence Czechoslovakian production, certainly before WWII, and knowing the quantities of glass imported by them, in the post-war period, if the design and, arguably, quality, was not good, they would not have bought it. They would most probably have sought suitable designers, and had the glass made elsewhere, much as did Wuidart. Thus solely looking at the "closed" sphere of economic activity, might well obscure what was happening, and provide the basis for the view that there was no good design.

It is perhaps a convenient peg, for suspending indefinitely, the examination of the role of the Communist Party, and its control mechanisms, and whether, rather than being wholly malign, there were some aspects that were beneficial. I think that perhaps the time is not yet arrived.



Text © Marcus Newhall 2005

nigel benson:

I meant to read this thread when it was first posted, but somehow I missed it out each time that I've gone onto the Message Board :oops:

I was waiting to see what you had to say, since you flagged it up that you were planning a review under another thread, and I already had a copy of the book. I am amazed that you have managed to plough through it so fast! I still haven't managed it, so I am most grateful for you review and the observations you have made, which seem both balanced and fair.

Your observations that yet again major works, that are largely unobtainable by us lowly mortals, are being used as the guide as to what might be attained are particularly apt. Even if one casually thumbs through this wonderful book the illustrations alone seem to confirm what you have said.

I also concur with you that at last Post War Czech Glass is getting the exposure that it so rightly deserves - something that I have been boring my close friends and partner about for more years than I care to mention.

Although the Steinberg Foundation's collection is well ahead of general thinking it would seem that it might well have been influenced by a number of other factors as well. For instance which artists were available to be approached during the time that the collection was being put together by Rainer Zietz? Indeed was his personal taste influential in choosing the artists and pieces by them? Although the acknowledgement on page 11 quite rightly praises Zietz for his forethought in putting the collection together and in buying “working drawings, studies and design sketches” that back up the items and reinforce its importance as a collection, I cannot help but notice that many artists that are referred to and illustrated in Raban have been ignored.

I would suggest that there is a paucity of cut glass within the exhibition (and therefore the book), which was addressed in Raban. In my limited knowledge on the subject people like Jan Cerney and Josef Pravec from the 1960’s and 70’s and later, Josef Svark are not represented, for instance. All of these designers’s have work that has been available from time to time in the UK and I am lucky enough to own a collection that includes their work amongst others – proving the possibilities I suppose.

I was delighted to see pieces of pressed glass by Frantisek Vizner, items 308a & b on page 340 (Sklo Union Glassworks), but feel strongly that an opportunity to draw attention to this area of design and collecting has overall been missed. I did use a couple of pieces in my small book on collecting 50’s and 60’s glass and believe that this is an area of Czech glass design that is both eminently collectable and exhibits a strong use of style that is so evocative of that period and links so directly to Central Europe in its ethos. Yet I note your comments about the reticence to examine this area of glass/design.

All in all though it is a wonderful book that helps to plug a gap in knowledge of the history of glass and the Czech’s place within modern glass design, which must be for the good. :D

As an aside, I feel that I should point out that it is now recognised that the Bauhaus owe a debt to Dr Christopher Dresser – both through design and the means of production. Dresser was in full swing when Peter Behrens was born in 1868 and ran a design office that could be recognised in the same way that one might link Terence Conran in a similar situation nowadays. Dresser died in 1904, only four years after Behrens had designed his celebrated goblets of clear glass with ruby stems during his period at Darmstadt. I have a feeling that we could all sight different precursors to industrial design, but I’m afraid I wonder whether Behrens is truly a contender.


(Edited out incorrect name within paragraph about cut glass 29 May 05)


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