Curiously, glass is both delicate and strong. Glass was used on the floor as mosaics as early as Hellenistic and Roman times.

Fabulous glass flasks out-lived other Etruscan accoutrements in the hills above Florence: Shields are shards of rust. The ancient art of blown glass has morphed into a multitude of techniques. As early as the 7th century, glassmakers on the island of Murano in Venice, renowned for quality glass, were developing multicoloured glass (millefiori) and milk glass (lattimo). From the late 19th to mid-20th century, one of the most famous names in glass, Louis Comfort Tiffany, worked with stained glass. Inspired by Roman and medieval glass, he developed many different techniques, the most famous being favrile glass. Patented in 1880, it gives a superficial iridescence to opaque glass. By the mid 20th century, American factories were producing both functional and artistic pieces for Steuben and Fenton. Contemporary glass art truly began in the 1960’s with the American Studio Glass Movement, in Toledo, Ohio – a city referred to as the Glass Capital of the World.

Transforming through the centuries, glass has been elevated to a 21st century art form. In 2007, an eight-ton glass piece was installed on the Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar Square. Created by the German artist Thomas Schutte, the massive Model for a Hotel was made of panes of red, blue and yellow glass. On a smaller scale, Canadian-born glass artist Carol Milne ‘knits’ glass, using the lost wax method. Montreal’s Galerie Elena Lee has exhibited glass art for over 30 years, showcasing artists such as Andrew Kuntz, whose glowing amphora-shapes recall Hellenic forms, and Mel Musen, whose multicoloured millefeuille pieces are a marvel.

One of the most famous glass artists today is American Dale Chihuly. In the site-specific exhibition of his glass sculptures at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts he captures the medium’s haunting fragility amidst solid strength. Created according to the Museum’s interior architecture, the massive pieces show how Chihuly revolutionized the ‘arts and craft’ of glass, elevating it to a medium of contemporary art. ‘‘My work takes people to a different place,’’ Chihuly has said. This show does exactly that. His glass is an Alice in Wonderland fantasy, an elegant enchantment. This accomplished master of the medium uses repetition and layering; playing with colour, reflections and organic forms in this made- to-measure exhibition, consisting of eight impressive environments, four of them created specifically for the Museum. His four installations are A Persian ColonnadeMille FioriGlass Forest # 6 and The Ruby Pineapple – a lost chandelier made anew for the show. Just like glass vessels of yore, the original Pineapple was lost at sea in a storm in 1997. Chihuly recreated it for the exhibit. His other spell-binding pieces are Sun, (a round five-meter tower of rays in primary colours); Turquoise Reeds, (a fabulous turquoise forest of soaring spear-shaped forms, ‘growing’ from the trunks of old red cedar trees – a contrast of textures and colours); Persian Ceiling, Chandeliers and Towers, (resembling bright stalagmites and stalactites); Boats, (containing bright flowers and spheres, developed after the artist’s visit to the Niijima Glass Art Centre in Japan) and Macchia Forest. The Macchia series, launched in 1981, led the artist to work with the full range of 300 colours of glass produced by the German company Kugler. These large sculptural bowls have undulating sides and rims, a result of gravity because of their huge size. They recall his much smaller coffee table-sized pieces that have rippled rims as flirty as a Marilyn skirt. The installations’ accompanying descriptions enhance the viewing of the works. For example, information on the Boats recalls the artist’s installation Chihuly over Venice (1995), as well as glass floats used by Japanese fishermen. Throughout the exhibit, one can see the strong formal connection between objects and Chihuly’s design: they serve as a springboard for his imagination.

Dale Chihuly has taken a simple medium – we see through windows of glass every day – and elevated it to another realm. ‘‘My work revolves around a simple set of circumstances: fire, molten glass, human breath, spontaneity, centrifugal force and gravity.’’ But this ‘‘simple set of circumstances’’ produces powerful pieces included in 200 museum collections worldwide. Glass is pretty basic – made of sand and fire, yet what magic is wrought by Dale Chihuly with these prosaic components. Transformed into contemporary art by the alchemy of Chihuly’s creative vision, this show reveals the plastic potential of this ancient medium. 

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
June 8—October 20, 2013