Venetian glass: exquisite link to Pilchuck School
By Matthew Kangas. Special to The Seattle Times (9/17/04)
Although “Murano: Glass from the Olnick Spanu Collection” is touring to three more museums after it leaves the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, nowhere will it have as much resonance as in the Pacific Northwest. Finally, visitors get to see the missing link in the Pilchuck Glass School story: Venetian glass in all its glory and influence. Without the famous Italian glassblowers whom Dale Chihuly and Benjamin Moore brought to Pilchuck from 1978 on, Pilchuck and American studio glass in general never would have reached the heights it has. Conversely, if the Murano masters had never come to Pilchuck to see the muscular, can-do young Americans at work, Venetian glass would still be in the doldrums. For that and many other reasons, “Murano” is a must-see. For one thing, it is possibly the most beautifully designed glass exhibition I have ever seen. With ingenious, backlit Plexiglas-covered cases by the giant of modern design, Massimo Vignelli, each of the 200 pieces gets its due. Arranged chronologically, the evolution of artistic styles, techniques and shapes from 1914 on is clearly laid out. Don’t expect a comprehensive history of Venetian glass (made on Murano Island in the Venice Lagoon since 1291) but a highly selective survey assembled by a New York couple, Giorgio Spanu and Nancy Olnick. We get their connoisseurs’ point of view rather than that of an art historian. Despite the ample treasures by 20th-century design giants like Carlo Scarpa, Giò Ponti and Vignelli, there are glaring omissions that keep the survey from being more than a cross-section of the Spanus’ taste. There is no Chihuly, no Robert Willson, no solid-glass sculpture at all, nothing from the famous Forge of the Angels Gallery where Picasso, Cocteau and others had work made, and nothing from S.A.L.I.R., the center of Murano engraving. Olnick and Spanu concentrate on the 1924-45 period which, interestingly, includes the Mussolini-era glass that inspired Chihuly’s famous “Venetians” series (1988-2004). he severe shapes, solid colors and allusions to the “machine age” of the 1930s are beautiful, if cold, but they mark a radical break from all the traditional frou-frous — filigree, engraving, lavish color — that characterize the prior 700 years of Venetian glass.
Once the island opened itself up to architects and others who admired glass but did not know how to make it, the rigid, blue-collar technicians were jump-started into executing the many facets of modern design. After art-nouveau, there are examples of art-deco influences, along with Chinese and Japanese art. After World War II, Scandinavian design, abstract expressionism, op art and the postmodern Memphis style were also felt. This exhibit is also a wonderful way to educate oneself up-close and personal about the somewhat complicated glassblowing processes used. Though everything begins on the blowpipe, a million things can happen before a piece reaches the showroom. Little colored canes or thinner filigree strands are added. Clear layers can be set over inner, colored ones, and walls can be changed with the introduction of tiny air bubbles. After cooling down in the annealing oven for a few days, the outer walls can be engraved, bathed in acid, or even chipped with a tool for special effects. Now, if only there were a couple like Spanu and Olnick in the Northwest so that our museums could also own and display the Italian glass that has been the hidden key to understanding the Pilchuck revolution.
Article © The Seattle Times 2004