Exquisite Journey Through Time via Modern Venetian Glass

Scarpa’s striped Rigati e tessuti glass pieces (1938–1940). Sources: private collection; Carraro Collection (Venice); European Collection

Scarpa’s striped Rigati e tessuti glass pieces (1938–1940). Sources: private collection; Carraro Collection (Venice); European Collection

The gorgeous art and design show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venetian Glass by Carlo Scarpa: The Venini Company, 1932–1947, is deceptive.

It’s a tribute to one of the top innovators in Murano glass, stepping visitors through more than two dozen styles and innovations that he brought to glass-making, but it also provides a brilliant introduction to the virtuosity that characterized decorative luxury items as far back as the first century B.C. See it before March 2.

Scarpa was inspired by 18th c. Chinese porcelain. Source: The Met

Scarpa was inspired by 18th c. Chinese porcelain. Source: The Met

Scarpa, a trained architect, began working as an artistic consultant at Paolo Venini’s glass factory in Venice right after he graduated, but soon his creativity and vision catapulted him into the job of artistic director and into the spotlight with every new collection he debuted at the Venice Biennale.

At the start of the show, you’ll see his Bollicine group (1932-1933) with tiny air bubbles incorporated into each white, blue, black, and green piece. In awe of the artistry of Eastern Asia, he fused this modern technique with a reliance on traditional shapes from one of his favorite periods of Chinese porcelain – the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), where ceramic artists crafted bold, dramatic single-color works. Check. Let’s take a page out of that book and put it to use in creating sleek, modern icons of Italian design.

At the far side of the circular Lehman Wing gallery, the Met curators have put together a shelf that fools you from a distance. You’ll think that the gorgeously modern works are all opaque glass masterpieces by Scarpa, but only half are. The rest are beautifully arranged works from 18th and 19th century China from the Met’s own collection.

Scarpa’s bubble-glass liqueur set (1935). Source: The Met.

Scarpa’s bubble-glass liqueur set (1935). Source: The Met.

Venini and Scarpa felt it was important to document the specific silhouettes that they created, and the Met has matched the archive shape with many of the modern glass works in the collection.

Just look at each label and wonder what the 18th century Chinese ceramicists would think of their shapes being transformed into glass marvels.

Working your way around the gallery, you’ll experience astonishing artistry resulting from dozens of technical approaches – for example, glass with rough, irregular surfaces (Corrosi 1936-1938), glass blown from thin slabs made of alternating clear and colored glass rods (Mecca filigrana 1934-1936), boldly striped pieces, and iridescent glass (Iridati, 1940). The variety and effects are astonishing and it’s easy to float dreamily through this art for art’s sake show.

Luxury Italian modern glass from the early 1st century A.D. Source: The Met, gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1881

Luxury Italian modern glass from the early 1st century A.D. Source: The Met

The curators also make use of the Met’s vast collection of ancient glass to remind modernists that the glassmaking tradition extends back nearly two millennia along the Mediterranean and Adriatic shores.

Be sure to look for the Met’s cast glass created in Greece between the 2nd century and 1st century B.C. and in Rome from the late 1st century B.C. to the early 1st century A.D. Glass was a super-high-end luxury item back in those days.

You’ll be blown away by how modern it all looks.

This mosaic glass dish may look like Italian 1980s, but it’s Greek from the 2nd-1st century B.C. Source: The Met

This mosaic glass dish may look like Italian 1980s, but it’s Greek from the 2nd-1st century B.C. Source: The Met

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2 thoughts on “Exquisite Journey Through Time via Modern Venetian Glass

  1. Wasn’t that a jaw-dropping glass exhibit? What about those fused glass rods?! Crazy ! How does anybody do all that stuff? I’m so glad the exhibit was still up while we were in NYC. You would have enjoyed my day today – I went to a used book sale at a circa 1790 museum home here, most books were $1 and $2, all under $20, thousands of books on every subject – needless to say I was in heaven. Then I went to see a traveling exhibit of Naploeon’s possessions and gifts he commissioned for Josephine and other family members at the Frazier – that was unbelievable. Good heavens, he so strongly influenced the arts and design. I thought of you many times today, knowing you and I would have had a big time together today! X, C.

    • I only wish I had been with you on your decorative arts adventure! I really felt that the glass exhibition was spectacular, and I’m happy to know that you saw it while you were in NYC. Truly a technology marvel. It was interesting to me that it was all going on throughout the run-up to WWII. I also thought it was interesting that after his time at Venini that Scarpa went back to architecture, which included working for Olivetti!

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