Bohemian Glass: An interview with Caterina Tognon and Sylva Petrová

The mark the beginning of The Venice Glass Week and the exhibition Bohemian Glass: The Great Masters at Le Stanze Del Vetro, on the Island of San Giorgio in Venice, we interviewed curators Caterina Tognon and Sylva Petrová. The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague and is dedicated to Bohemian glass after the Second World War, featuring the works by six major artists of contemporary glass sculpture: Václav Cigler, Vladimír Kopecký, Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová, René Roubíček and Miluše Roubíčková.
by Lara Morrell
Lara Morrell
Caterina Tognon, Sylva Petrovà

LM: What was the genesis of your collaboration and how did this project at Le Stanze del Vetro come about? 

SP: We met some thirty three years ago, I was leading curator of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, and Caterina Tognon, already a leading Italian gallerist, was keen to engage more profoundly in Czech glass. I had shortly before that organised the very first exhibition of a Dale Chihuly project called “Venetians”  in my museum. The pieces were blown in Venice by Lino Tagliapietra who came to install the show in Prague. This legendary Italian master, whom I met again in Pilchuck, became the mediator of our very first encounter. 


Caterina undertook a research trip to the Czech Republic and visited the museum, thanks to Tagliapietra’s advice to see our famous collection of glass, namely modern Czech glass. It was a really crucial and busy time for us, full of enthusiasm because travelling across the iron curtain after many years was finally possible. We had many visitors at that time, so I do not remember that specific visit in detail. However we met repeatedly with my  visits to Venice in 1992 or 1996, when then I collaborated on various glass projects there, and also abroad at the SOFA New York , or in Sunderland in the UK.  I observed and admired Caterina Tognon’s activities related to Czech glass artists with huge respect, however we had never collaborated on the same project. This is probably due to the fact that I left the museum for academic research in glass for a relatively long time.


Being back in a curatorial museum job in 2019 and upon hearing about the offer made by Dr. David Landau and Caterina Tognon from the museum director to take part in Bohemian Glass: The Great Masters project, I was happy and honoured to do so. The idea for my involvement was probably propelled forward by Jean-Luc Olivié, a member of Scientific  Committee of the Stanze del  Vetro, as we co-curated an exhibition of Czech glass masterpieces at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in  1989.

CT: My research for the project all began in 1990, but the draft of project for the exhibition came about during the Pandemic, the execution began in January ’21, only a year and a half ago, so it was all relatively quick! We did very well and we installed on time to be able take pictures for the catalogue, which is an unusual goal for an exhibition.


My interest in Czech glass began in the late ’80s, I had noticed that in Murano there was a great moment for design, but there were no artists per se working there. There was of course the Sottsass group and postmodern design and the Sottsass Studio in particular were doing fantastic things in Murano but it was otherwise more focused upon the decorative arts – than art.


My adventure into the extraordinary world of Bohemian glass began at the home of Maestro Lino Tagliapietra, who is the only glassblower familiar with Czech Glass, Lino suggested that I go to Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts. It was here that I first met Sylvia Petrovà and she showed me through the storerooms of the museum, in the attic were the twentieth-century store rooms: no everyday or decorative objects, just numerous pieces, often made from clear glass and large in scale, abstract forms and a potent visual impact, sculptures in all their intent and purpose. Ever since I have returned to the Czech Republic at least once a year, because in this region of Central Europe, which I first came to know in a state of poverty and frustration, I have always encountered an extremely contemporary cultural climate.


 In 1998 I curated an exhibition in Bergamo with Vittorio Fagone and Cristina Rodeschini, the director and chief executive of GAMec, we held an exhibition featuring twenty monumental works by Libensky and Brychtová, who are presented in this show.

LM Could you tell me a little more about the glass casting technique, pioneered by Libensky and Brychtová, which allowed them to make such large-scale glass sculptures?

CT Yes, it’s a technique that all began with Jaroslava Brychtova and her father Jaroslav Brychta. Her father was a sculptor and glassmaker who also founded a local school in Zelezny Brod that taught glassmaking techniques and is still running today. He was a major influence on her life, he sought to develop samples or ideas for the craftsmen there and with his daughter, he began doing little fusions in clay molds. Brychtova then went on to expand on this technique and met her husband and collaborator Stanislav Libensky, who became the mind behind the projects. Libensky made the paintings and drawings, while Brychtova translated and interpreted his designs, through her refined technique using plaster and creating moulds to perfect the shapes and surfaces. They began with little pieces, such the little green head that you see at the entrance of their room in the show and then they went on until they created the bigger pieces which were intended to stand alone without a pedestal, they achieved it with the Vestments, a series made in the late 1990s.


Murano at the time was more into decoration and the use of colour, mostly on a small scale, because the furnaces in Murano are small. While in Czech Republic, because they developed this technique of cast glass, they were treating pieces of glass like rock and engraving or cutting it whilst recognising the material’s character. They were creating sculptures and because of the transparency of the media, the artists needed to elaborate a vision of the piece of art where the transparency took on a meaning. Libensky would say “With my sculptures I’m lucky because they have a fourth dimension – transparency”. In Murano, the artists approached glass as an abstract painter might, think Carlo Scarpa or Riccardo Licata for example.

LM What about colour, Murano is famed for its diverse and unique colours, was/is the same variety of colour available in Czech Republic?

CT Colour is unique to Murano. Some very important important critics say that the famous Venetian Renaissance paintings with their beautiful colours, is thanks to the diverse colours of glass in Venice, because with the light, the colour becomes much more intense. So while in the past, they thought that Murano’s drive and capability to create brilliant colours was inspired by Venetian painters, with the likes of Tiziano and Tintoretto and so on, some other curators and critics say it was the other way round! The painters were familiar with the intensity of the colours of glass because quite often, they created sketches for mosaics in glass, such as those in St Mark’s Catherdral or Torcello. In Czech Republic there is less variety of colour and they are less intense.


LM: What was it that accelerated the development of artistic glass and new modes of glassmaking in Czechoslovakia, ahead of other countries in the 1940s and 1950s? 

SP: It is rather a long story to explain. Studio glass for talented and highly educated people meant the chance to escape from a doctrine of Social Realism, also other historical contexts played a significant role. It is generally known that  Czech people are  equipped with enormous creative ability, this became the ”personal genes “ of a majority of Czechs, due to the fact that historically the country has suffered numerous times by war conflict, following  occupations by various nations. To be creative meant the chance to live, to  survive.

More specifically the reasons for early individual glass production was due to a long tradition of glassmaking in the territory going back for centuries, the preservation hand craft mastery was still very important for the socialistic economy (automatic production was introduced in the local glassworks in the 1970s).  Essential also was a highest quality of education developed into a network of specialised schools of glassmaking operating  in Kamenický Šenov,  Železný Brod,  Jablonec, etc,  followed by university studies in Prague after 1946. During German occupation the higher education was closed and studies became restricted, so many talented people went to study glass in Prague, which remained uninterrupted.  The situation escalated after the end of World War II, Czech glass schools and industry around the borders which were partly destroyed by losing  workers, strategy, markets – cried  for help. The help was found soon after 1945  in young graduates from Prague who were  very talented and artistically very progressive (for example Stanislav Libenský and René Roubíček).  These young artists started with utility glass designs, however Czech glass industry after 1948 in the communist regime very rarely accepted those designs for a serial production. So frustrated artists turned towards other modes of the production  –  studio glass. This production became famous, it quickly found collectors abroad and the Czech glass scene split into two currents:  studio glass and design, which unlike studio glass had suffered up to 1990s.   

LM How did you come down to the choice of the six artists in the exhibition?

CT They were the pioneers, well actually there were more than six but I had to make a selection as since the beginning I knew that I wanted to put together a show which was straightforward and not to throw too much into the mix. In actual fact there should really be 10, but because almost every room represents one artist – maximum two – there was not enough space – so the title should have been ‘Some of the Great Masters’!.

There was an exhibition in New York in 1983 a project by Meda Mládek held at the American Craft Museum, considered by many experts to be the turning point which introduced the contemporary Czech glass scene to the American audience and contributed to its popularity, which was presented seven of these pioneering artists. Then there was another in Prague at the Museum Kampa in 2016 called ‘7+1 Masters of Czech Glass’ which this time included the works of Jaroslava Brychtová. I was inspired by both of these shows.

A few of the pioneering artist I was also unable to show here as their pieces are incredibly difficult to transport, such as those of Věra Lišková.

LM What about the addition of photos by Czech photographer Josef Sudek, the Poet of Prague?

CT What is important about these images is that they haven’t, as yet, been published. They are images from the exhibition in 1970 ‘Contemporary Czech Glass’ organised on the occasion of the 5th Congress of the International Association for the History of Glass and meeting of the International Academy of Ceramics. It was the largest and most representative exhibition of these artists to date, of whom Sudek was friends with. He took the photos for himself, he wasn’t commissioned to do so, he was mostly interested in the reflections of light than the artefact themselves and included these shots in ‘Glass Labyrinths’, a long term photographic project which focused on the artistic culture of glass in Czech Republic. His images really are so poetic.

LM What about the glassmaking community today in Czech, how has it evolved since? Who are the main players in Czech glass art today?

SP It is important to say, that almost everything in the Czech glass scenes changed after the 1989. One of the most important changes is that studio glass no longer originates from “the emanation of the national spirit”, but is created by multinational group of people living and working in the Czech Lands. Apart from the Czechs, artists from Slovakia, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, the United States, Sweden, Mexico, Cyprus, Brazil, and Canada have settled in the Czech Republic or have lived here for a significant period. These artists belong to a small minority. From the artistic viewpoint, however, this group displays quite different artistic expressions, than was ever  typical for Czech ideas before.  Today young people studying glass in Prague´s,  Zlín´s, Liberec´s and Ústí nad Labem, i.e. universities with glass programmes and specialised schools of glassmaking at more than four places can travel abroad, which was not common before 1989. And even their schoolmates are very often foreigners. So young artists are  inspired by many sources, and their ideas are “global”.  An extended group of product designers broke in the scene, they have never studied glass , and that group naturally changed the trends in Czech glass also.  

The trends in current  Czech studio glass cannot be defined exactly as they overlap and intersect. At a certain level of simplification, however, Czech glass artists can be included in three main circles: modernists, postmodernists and innovators who apply new scientific disciplines and technologies to their studio work. Young glass artists are professionally good and are therefore often awarded in prestige international competitions. Who is the most influential of them is not easy to say, to a certain extent these are the professors at the university glass programmes. In my opinion the generation of the Czech glass pioneers presented in the show are still very influential, role models still being valued and adored by youths. It might be that I am not fully objective, spending so much time with all of them and admiring everything they achieved!

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