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Antique Austrian Glass

Nineteenth-Century Artisan Johann Loetz Established a Factory in Austria that Defined a Genre of Glass Art
Nicholas M. Dawes
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

The word glass is derived from the ancient Celtic glas, meaning bluish green, which refers to the color of woad, a body dye popular with warring ancient Britons. With the exception of some soccer fans, the British have refrained from painting themselves blue before combat for several thousand years, but the bluish-green color is as ubiquitous in glass making today as it was in the ancient world.

Few glassworks have exploited the bluish-green combination of cobalt, copper and iron more successfully than that founded in 1840 by Johann Loetz in Klostermuhle, Bohemia, which was within the Austro-Hungarian empire during most of its period of operation. Even though Loetz died in 1848, the Loetz works was initially operated by his wife under the name Glasfabrik Johann Loetz-Witwe (the Widow Johann Loetz Glassworks). It retained that name until its closure during the Second World War.

By the early 1880s the Loetz works had acquired a reputation as a manufacturer of fine glass, produced under the direction of Loetz's grandson Max Ritter von Spaun. He modernized the works and introduced innovative glass types and production techniques, several of which he patented. By 1889, Loetz glassware was well enough established to exhibit at the Paris International Exposition, held under the newly constructed Eiffel tower. The Loetz pieces won critical acclaim for the "Onyx" range and other lines of highly polished, opaque glass with contrasting veining that simulated natural hard stones.

The Paris Exposition of 1889 was the launching pad for many of the century's finest glassworks and it is widely accepted as the birthplace of Art Nouveau. Émile Gallé's earliest artistic glass was shown there. While Loetz was technically compatible with Gallé works, the Loetz glass was clearly out of its artistic depth when compared with the French glassmaker's art. However, Loetz glass showed potential for following in Gallé's footsteps with its display of ornate, free-blown "Octopus" vessels applied with tentaclelike slivers of opalescent glass. Within a few years of the exposition, the Loetz-Witwe works became regarded as one of the finest and most progressive producers of Art Nouveau glass in the world.

The breakthrough for Loetz came in the mid-1890s when Spaun, encouraged by successes at the 1893 Columbia World's Fair in Chicago, concentrated his efforts on developing iridescent finishes. In 1898, after several years of experimentation with reduction firing, he patented a technique to produce the deep blue or gold metallic luster that has been unrivaled. It still serves as the most identifiable and most sought-after feature of Loetz glass. Spaun celebrated with an impressive exhibition of vessels he designed for production in the new technique in Vienna, Loetz's closest and most receptive marketplace.

Vienna was a thriving imperial capital at the turn of the century with an artistic and intellectual population that tolerated the Secessionists, appointed Gustav Mahler director of the city's opera and provided clients and dreams for Sigmund Freud. The affluence of Austria and Hungary before the First World War absorbed much of the output of the Loetz factory, which reciprocated by employing or commissioning prominent members of Vienna's creative community to design vessels.

According to Michael Playford, owner of Two Zero C Applied Arts in London and an expert in Loetz glass, most Loetz glass was made to commission for outside designers, and the best pieces were produced by the union of Loetz and Viennese talent. "Several of the most progressive designers associated with the Wiener Werkstatte designed vessels which were produced at Loetz," Playford says, referring to the avant-garde decorative-arts workshops allied to the Vienna Secession Art movement, "including Josef Hoffman and Koloman Moser [the Wiener Werkstatte founders], Otto Prutscher, Michael Powolny and Dagobert Peche." The appeal of Loetz derives largely from its subtlety of form, together with the advanced technical and artistic achievement in use of color. However, Playford admits that attribution to a respected designer is highly important in determining value.

The forms of Art Nouveau Loetz are as varied as the minds that conceived them and, like the most creative of minds, they are rarely dull. The principal staff designer for Loetz between 1903 and 1914 was Maria Kirschner, who was born in Prague but studied and practiced in Paris and Berlin. Kirschner favored subtle forms of elegant simplicity with little decoration beyond applied handles.

Kirschner's work contrasted with the French Art Nouveau forms, including gooseneck vases and pinched, organic shapes, sometimes applied with tendrils of iridescent glass produced from the late 1890s. Kirschner designed more than 200 vessels for Loetz, some of which are signed with her monogram--not to be confused with the capital letters mk engraved, the mark of Moser (Koloman). Her forms and scale are not unlike the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose career in glass making parallels that of Loetz and whose style shows a clear Austrian influence, perhaps learned as early as 1889, when Tiffany admired Loetz's display at the Paris Exposition. It is widely believed that glass workers from Loetz and other Bohemian factories defected to Tiffany's works in New York City, which would have been a welcome haven for emigrant artisans in the uncertain years of the early twentieth century.

In contrast to the fully evolved Art Nouveau spirit of Kirschner's Loetz, the designs by Josef Hoffman and his followers tend to be of controlled, almost architectural proportion. The combination of bold simplicity of form with vibrant, lustrous color and organic, pitted surface treatment makes the best of Loetz what Playford calls "real art glass." It is glass designed by artists of the highest order to be admired by the most sophisticated of people as works of decorative art.

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