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Twentieth-Century Glassmakers

The Translucent Masterpieces of Twentieth-Century Glassmakers Offer Collectors a Shimmering Array of Choices
Andrew Decker
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

Art glass is a medium of intriguing paradoxes. It is translucent yet dense. Dark and opaque until brought to brilliant life through illumination. Brittle in form yet fluid in appearance. And, of course, it is at once delicate and robust. But whatever its appearance, art glass is sublime for its intricate details.

Christie's glass specialist Lars Rachen is at the auction house, sitting amid hundreds of pieces of glass. He selects two made by the Tiffany Studios and places them on a table. Both are onion vases, with round, bulbous bases and long, slender necks. While their form is the same, they could never be mistaken for identical twins. Both were treated with powdered colors to create iridescence (a bright reflective sheen

that is lightly textured), but one is orange and the other is gold. Logically, the rich gold-colored vase would be more expensive. But in the glass market that isn't always the case. Tiffany used the color gold more often, and the workmanship on the orange vase is better.

"The gold is worth $15,000 to $20,000, the orange one is $20,000 to $30,000," says Rachen, who heads Christie's 20th Century Decor-ative Works of Art department. "The color is brighter and more rare. If you look at the gold one, the iridescence is less consistent--it's flaky. The orange one has a lovely purple sheen to it. And look at the green stripes inside the glass"--trails of green that were embedded into the molten mix and stretched to suggest the stalk of an onion plant. "In the gold one they were never executed in the base. Maybe they had a bad day at the factory."

Rachen is joking, of course, but glass is not an easy medium. To complicate matters, the turn of the century brought a new aesthetic and new standards on how glass should be decorated. Two movements came out of this effusive, ebullient time: Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Flaws were part of the package, but so were masterpieces.

Now, decades later, Art Nouveau and Art Deco glass are nearly as coveted as when they were fresh and new, though the prices are much higher. While one exceptional Tiffany lamp sold for $2.8 million last December, there are numerous smaller and more commonly found pieces that are inspiring for their exuberance or elegance, their whimsy or power.

The works of Emile Gallé, the Daum family, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Rene Lalique can be viewed and appreciated at many museums, but increasingly American collectors are stepping into a market that has stabilized after being pushed to record heights by the Japanese collecting boom of the late 1980s. The issue now, notes avid glass collector and dealer David Weinstein, involves "the question of taste--whom do you want to take home?"

In the middle-to late-nineteenth century, glassmakers, like painters, found themselves at a crossroads. Glassmakers throughout Europe had gained the upper hand on their craft through a number of techniques bred by the Industrial Revolution. For decades they turned out picture-perfect replicas of Grecian-style urns, Romanesque vases, Renaissance Revival goblets and other works modeled on historic forms. The designs incorporated symmetrical garlands and swags, and they were celebrated for their cool and refined sense of proportion.

But to some, the works had become boring and repetitive. What was missing was a decidedly unique approach to glass. Just as the impressionists Edouard Manet and Claude Monet rejected the rigidity and finicky detail of the French art academy, so glass artisans throughout Europe began to reject the traditional styles that had been reworked and repackaged for decades. Further, they felt that mass-produced works in glass were of middling quality, lacking the more refined and exacting touch of individual handiwork.

The French branch of the movement became known as Art Nouveau, after a shop of the same name in Paris. Among the most accomplished of the Art Nouveau glassmakers was Emile Gallé, whose father had married into a glass-making family. Gallé was privileged to have had a good education, studies and travels in England and Germany (where he met Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner), and the good fortune to be around during a time of invention and individuality.

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