The Art of Libensky and Brychtova

By William Warmus

Note: The text of this essay was delivered as the first Rakow Award lecture for Excellence in the Art of Glass, October 1984, at The Corning Museum of Glass. It was published in Neues Glas magazine and the New Glass Review in 1985. It w

 

Libensky and Brychtova at SOFA Art Expo, New York City, May 31, 2000

   

“Glass has the ability to express all human feelings”

 

Stanislav Libensky in an interview with Robert Kehlmann (Glass Art Society Journal 1981). (1)

 

 

  The joint artistic work of Jaroslava Brychtova and Stanislav Libensky is significant because they have persevered courageously and mastered, on a monumental scale and with demanding technology, their chosen medium: Glass. In individual objects this mastery is evident as a tension between the inherent properties of the medium and its expressive potential. Libensky has said: "I personally feel more comfortable working non-figuratively .... The purpose of my art, like so much work in Europe and America, is optical and kinetic. But also, naturally, as a citizen of the Czechoslovakian Republic, I have certain tasks which I must solve."(2) Brychtova and Libensky, in the best of their work, have fulfilled these dual obligations without muddying complexity or trite sentimentality--indeed, with ever increasing simplicity and forcefulness of symbol. In doing so, they have explored the true limits of glass as an artistic medium and opened the way for future generations of artists.

 

  They were not always together. Libensky, born in 1921, is the son of a metalsmith. He studied glassmaking and painting at the schools in Novy Bor and Zelezny Brod and in 1944 graduated from the Secondary Art School in Prague. After 1945 he not only taught at Novy Bor but also was an artist at Bor studios working with painted glass. He graduated from the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague (1950) where he had studied with Professor Josef Kaplicky. If you look at Kaplicky's work  you will see that he was first a realist sculptor and painter influenced by cubism and other trends in the fine arts, and only afterward head of the glass program at the School of Applied Arts, an influence that has carried over to Libensky, who became head of the department of glass in Prague in 1963. From 1953 until joining the faculty in Prague, Libensky was headmaster of the secondary school of glassmaking at Zelezny Brod. It was there that he began cooperating on cast sculptures with Jaroslava Brychtova.

 

  Brychtova studied with Karel Stipl at the Prague School of Applied Arts and also at the Academy of Arts there with J. Lauda. From 1943 to 1 950 she experimented with casting glass with her father, Jaroslav Brychta, the co-founder of the glassmaking school at Zelezny Brod and well-known for his fanciful "Star Wars" lampwork creatures. Her cooperation with Libensky started in 1955.(3)

 

  Before they met, each had dealt with animal themes, Brychtova creating a series of five reliefs in 1950 (4) relating to fish ponds, while Libensky produced a whole series of enameled pieces depicting an octopus, bulls, etc. Of course, they did other things also: Brychtova made The Hands of Glassmakers in 1948, and Libensky included abstract decoration and even religious scenes (a crucifixion) in his enameled bowls and vases. He also designed functional pieces including a tea service.

 

  These early projects may be understood as tentative postwar ventures which served to reestablish the strong traditions of Czech glass culture. We shouldn't forget that this was done in the midst of extremely difficult conditions: "Our glass industry being seriously damaged by the 1930-37 crisis suffered even more from the broken connections among various firms both in frontier and inland territories due to occupation and many restrictive means of war, from gradual closing of some firms, loss of foreign markets and total lack of raw materials, destroyed equipment, and furthermore from a very complicated situation in European transport.” (5) This early work should also be seen as preparation for the color and casting techniques used in future pieces.

 

Above: Detail of Head, c.1959

 

At this stage we see the two asserting the individual characteristics they will bring to working as a team: Brychtova, the sculptress, expressing a pioneering interest in cast reliefs and following in the footsteps of previous masters such as Navarre and Lalique; Libensky, the painter,applying his abilities to enamels while paralleling the careers of Gallˇ and Marinot who had also begun their work in glass in a similar fashion. With their interests and limitations thus becoming clearly defined at this time,it was lucky fate that they met, for it is through their collaboration that the limitations of each were transcended and something truly new appeared in the history of glass.

 

  The first major project on which they collaborated was for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. Zoomorphic Stones were set into concrete partitions for the Czech pavilion. They combined the casting experiments of Brychtova with the color and painting skills of Libensky. The "embedded" animals are somewhat reminiscent of prehistoric cave paintings, but they also have the simultaneously surreal and whimsical qualities we have come to associate with the work of Erwin Eisch in glass.

 

  In this work, something exceptional appears - negative modeling: "In this new conception the real plastic work becomes the matrix and the former mold the object. The transparency of glass, which formerly used to be a hindrance-- now assists in achieving surprising results."(6) In the pieces with interior modeling and a smooth exterior surface" . . . Light and shade produce-- in a uniformly colored mass, a multitude of hues, light or dark-- which underscore the actual depth of the negative plasticity." (7) With this process the first tentative glimmer of a feeling for the expressive potential of glass shines forth.

 

  In the years ahead, Libensky and Brychtova confronted the  opportunities offered by glass as a medium for sculpture: it could be a vase, a wall-- a divider, a window --but also things previously undreamt of: a river-- meteor, pyramid. We see them grow from the more traditional early works such as the table sculpture submitted to Glass 1959 or the mosaic like Bird with Cherries to the free-standing, monumental sculptures of the seventies and early eighties such as The Corning Museum of Glass lobby sculptures, and finally their first tentative  explorations of environmental work in the eighties.

 

  Who will help us understand their profound handling of the medium? Early in the 1960s, a notable article appeared in the Czechoslovakian Glass Review titled "Physics of Beauty" by Milos Volf (8) His ideas about the essential characteristics of glass as a medium for art are like the prophesies of an oracle predicting the future of Czech glass.

 

  For Volf translucency and luster ". . . represent the value of Bohemian glass as an artistic material." Luster is light reflected from the surface of glass; without it glass would be dull: "Let us submerge a glass object in water. All its beauty vanishes . . ." as luster disappears. Transparency is a much more familiar term, but Volf has a special insight here too-- reminding us that transparent glass has no internal shadows: ". . . what we see on the photographic print as shadow or darkness is therefore, only a light vacuum where the light ray has been absorbed by the material itself. This phenomenon underlies the optical paradox of glass. Glass reverses laws of plastic representation." No doubt the Libenskys intuited this in their "negative modeling." Within a mass of transparent glass, ". . . the total reflection on the walls of bubbles evokes a particular charm," for "The bubble has become an optical lens" (think of Tom Patti's work here, too). Of this same mass of glass, as a hot liquid that has cooled, Volf writes: "Poetically said, glass is petrified movement."

 

  During the next two decades, we will see how Brychtova and Libensky explored all these ideas, in the process revealing the true nature of glass as an artistic medium. In 1963 Libensky assumed his present position as professor at the School of Applied Arts in Prague. Thus began a period of achievements both as a glass artist and as a teacher. Libensky's international stature as an artist is paralleled by his reputation as a teacher. An insight into the intimate connection of these two activities is given by Libensky himself: "Respect for a professor as an excellent artist creates the student's relation toward him and also establishes the necessary authority.” (9) Nevertheless, Libensky wonders " . . . if I devoted my endeavors solely to artistic activity-- my results would perhaps be more convincing, (10) but goes on to say that he now regards his teaching activities as a mission he would not be able to give up.

 

  Libensky's students generally enter his program at age 19 or 20 and finish by age 25 or 26. They begin with classes in life drawing with charcoal later progressing to paint - generally producing life-size images. During their stay they will actually make glass only a dozen times, (11) but they have ample opportunity to work through theoretical problems and to use the coldworking facilities at the school.

 

  Libensky's method is revealing: "I adhere to the principle of first progressing from the simple to the more complicated and, in the next phase, from the more complicated to the most simple. I try to create the conditions governing a wide glassmaking base on the foundations of shape, which has its own philosophy of origin, its own laws, its own standards, and its own structural tension. Shape is later joined by the factor represented by decoration in the good sense of the word. The composition of a decoration on glass must show unity and respect for the relations and laws governing proportions. Our students also engage in the design of spatial compositions with light and optical qualities, thus working with the basic, inimitable properties of light . . . From here [they progress] to the third sphere, i. e. to the application of glass in architecture, glass as its structural and crowning component.” (12) In some ways this procedure parallels the formation of Libensky's own career.

 

  The decade of the 1960s may be characterized as a time of increasing abstraction in the collaborative work of Libensky and Brychtova, coupled with a simplification of the color palette and increasingly sophisticated use of the optical properties of glass. Freestanding works in an architectural context become the backbone of their work. Color becomes more subtle, more refined. While in a work like The Bird with Cherries from the 1950s color is used thematically (red cherries, for example)-- in the 1960s it is used like litmus paper to indicate variations of form and to modulate light: "Light, color, the height of relief, all affect each other-- mutually and jointly at the same time. The basic color at a certain height of the relief - as if by magic - suddenly changes its color into another one; the green, plastically (i. e., sculpturally) refined stone loses its uniform coloring and acquires a multitude of color tones and shade.(13)" In this way, a single cast object made from one color of glass and with a smooth surface can appear polychromatic as the internal surface of the medium varies - a unique property of glass and plastics, related to Volf's "optical paradox."

 

  The large windows for the St. Wenceslas Chapel in Prague (1966 1968)  and the Sao Paulo Biennale compositions in blue and gray (1965) are major indicators of the Libenskys' increasing trend toward simplicity and abstraction. For the former a special austere palette of "gothic" colors was developed - notice too that the composition has become non-realistic. The Sao Paulo works, such as Gray Composition, are for me their earliest mature works: rigorous-- non decorative-- and freestanding. They exhibit many characteristic strengths that we see in all the later work up to today: a sense of the mosaic tradition-- and even the "window in a wall" tradition as something superseded-- something left behind - these works now stand on their own. Formally, the embedded lenses appear and we begin to find structures resembling fiber optical light tunnels embedded within masses of dark and heavy glass; the tendency to draw in the glass and produce tight arcs, sharply cresting wavelike forms and overlapping ribbing begins now too.

 

  Glass was exciting at the extremely successful Czech pavilion at Expo '67 in Montreal and Brychtova/Libensky submitted three major pieces: The Sun of Centuries, Blue Concretion, and Crystal Column (Pyramide).  The Sun of Centuries illustrates how the color and optical potential of glass are used expressively:

 

  "The colors change from green-gray tones in the lower part to yellow tints in the upper part which shine like the sun. This toning of colors was achieved from a single mass by varying the thickness of the layers of glass The refraction of light rays is greatly increased by a system of lenses fused in the sculpture. These lenses at the same time reflect the surrounding world absorb it and thus multiply it." In similar fashion the Pyramid uses optical effects to create an ". . . infinite interior repetition of penetrating pyramids" symbolizing ". . . the limitlessness of thought.” (14)

 

With these key works in the 1960s the Libenskys begin to master abstract formal concerns and put them in the service of expressive symbolism as when a lens structure is meant to bring to the mind thoughts about eternity.

 

  In the 1970s their mastery becomes complete, and brilliantly so with The River of Life created for the World Exposition in Osaka in 1970. Somewhat different interpretations exist as to the symbolic meaning of this 22 meters long, 4.5 meters tall monument consisting of 200 reliefs.(15) Like most rivers, it starts out high (one can walk beneath it) as many smaller streams. This part represents joy and the life of the individual. Next, the river descends, becomes more powerful, and is revealed to contain youthful "naiads" representing beauty but also anxiety and the life of nations. Finally the river turns to ice, or rather glass (remember Volf's "petrified liquid"), representing hope and the destiny of the world. The overall theme is resolved graphically by the introduction of realistic elements such as two nude female figures.

 

  From a distance and in photographs the River looks like a fish skeleton in its overall form, with "bones" emerging from a central "spine." Complex interlocking or opposing forms are the flesh, and within we see the trapped naiads who peer out longingly with sad faces. At the end there is still the river, shivering and freezing but perhaps even more radiant with light and therefore hope.

 

  The Osaka work typifies monumental achievements in the 1970s and early eighties including the pieces for the Czech Parliament (1969), the Stockholm Embassy (1971 -1972), the Intercontinental Hotel (1974-1975) and The Corning Museum of Glass (1979-1980). All these works show related characteristics including increasing simplicity of form, clarity of medium, and a sophisticated, highly expressive fusion of abstraction and symbolism.

 

  The critic Clement Greenberg anticipated aspects of Brychtova's and Libensky's work and provides us with a new vocabulary and a way to approach their aesthetic quality. Writing in Art and Culture he says: "The new construction-sculpture points back, almost insistently, to its origins in Cubist painting: by its linearism and linear intricacies, by its openness and transparency and weightlessness, and by its preoccupation with surface as skin alone, which it expresses in blade or sheet-like forms. Space is there to be shaped, divided, enclosed, but not to be filled. The new sculpture tends to abandon stone, bronze and clay for industrial materials like iron, steel, alloys, glass, plastics, celluloid, etc., etc., which are worked with the blacksmith's, the welder's, and even the carpenter's tools. Uniformity of material and color is no longer required, and applied color is sanctioned. The distinction between carving and modeling becomes irrelevant: a work or its parts can be cast, wrought, cut or simply put together; it is not so much sculptured as constructed, built, assembled, arranged. From all this the medium has acquired a new flexibility in which I now see sculpture's chance to attain an even wider range of expression than painting.” (16) Many of these terms apply to the Libenskys: transparency, surface as skin alone, blade-like forms, cast and constructed works. But what is the point? The point is that in this way sculpture may attain a "wider range of expression."

 

Above: Detail of sculpture, 1990s

  It is my theory that the quality of Brychtova and Libensky's work rests in its successful application of the formal elements inherent in glass to expressive ends in a way that transcends traditional uses of glass and exceeds the potential of painting (at least of Libensky's type of painting). In using abstraction with realism they sometimes parallel the progress of British sculptor Anthony Caro, an artist Libensky says he admires. The painter Walter Darby Bannard has said of Caro's work that he ". . . set about in full reflection and ease to assemble sculpture in which figuration - still the soul of the art - is sublimated and transformed, so that instead of seeing a figure we feel what a figure feels. And we feel it magically, for it springs from plain non-figurative physical fact.” (17)

 

  Doesn't this statement about Libensky-Brychtova's work confirm the idea? “It is almost paradoxical how the utmost spirituality is created by highly material means--the colorfulness of the glass mass, the shape of its edges and its very gravity.” (18) Or, as Volf said of glass: “In light rest its ethical and aesthetical mission.” (19)                                                                           

 

 Once we begin to think of glass simultaneously as a raw material, with formal properties, made expressive when manipulated by an artist and endowed with an ethical mission, we can see in all the Libenskys work the pursuit of excellence through the successful integration of these elements. Prime examples are the panels in the Intercontinental Hotel in Prague ( 1974) where they say they ". . . achieved  a high concentration of light...” (20) and the Sphere in a Cube ( 1970) which ". . . discovers the infinity of shapes, increasing with the purity and simplicity of the composition of the work.” (21)  We also see it in the most recent projects including the facing for the National Theater in Prague (22) and in the environmental installation for the Space 1 exhibition. Moreover, we see it in their influence on such diverse figures as Harvey Littleton (think of his cut loops as optic tubes), Erwin Eisch (remember his emphasis on the painting of glass and compare with Libensky's early enamels), and Dale Chihuly and Jamie Carpenter (their early large-scale environments).

 

Jaroslava Brychtova and Stanislav Libensky are exceptional artists; they have created for future generations an expressive idiom in glass based directly on the formal properties of the medium - something that never existed before and that opens the way for glass as high art. And they have done this while remaining "youthfully curious." (23) What better examples could we have to follow?

 

Ithaca

October 19, 1984

 

A note about this text: Originally published simultaneously in New Glass Review 6 and Neues Glas 2/85, 1985, this essay is based upon the lecture delivered in Corning in October, 1984. Written during the cold war, the language of the essay was consciously infected by the peculiar vernacular of such official publications as the Czechoslovak Glass Review.  References to illustration numbers have been deleted.

   

End Notes

Stanislav Libensky: Born March 27, 1921, deceased February, 2002

Jaroslava Brychtova: Born July 17, 1924

1- Interview conducted by Robert Kehlmann with Stanislav Libensky, “A Talk with Stanislav

 Libensky,” Glass Art Society Journal, 1981, p. 28

2. Ibid, p. 29

3. From an unpublished essay (anonymous?), (n. d.), p 2, in collector of Rakow Library.

4. Antonin Langhammer, “The Molten Sculptures of Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova,” Glass Review, v.33, no.8, 1978, p.2.

5. From an unpublished essay, “Teaching Activities of Stanislav Libensky, (anonymous), (n.d.), p.1 . Archives of Studio Glass, Lansing, NY.

6. Arsen Pohribny, “The Glassmakers of Zelezny Brod,” Czechoslovak Glass Review, v 17, no. 7,1962, p. 32.

7. "Stanislav Libensky, " Czechoslovak Glass Review, v. 19, no. 1, 1964, p 15.

8. Milos Volf, "Etude Physique de la Beaute,” Czechoslovak Glass Review, v. 16,no 5,1961, pp 152-153.

9.  Pavla Drdacka, “Stanislav Libensky, Pedagogue,” Czechoslovak Glass Review, v 36, no 3,1981,p.25.

10. Ibid.

11. See note 1, pp.30-32.

12. See note 9,p.25.

13 Jana Hofmeisterova, "New Possibilities of Glass use in Architecture, Czechoslovak Glass Review, v. 15, January/February, 1960, p. 10 .

14. Jaromira Marsikova, "Monumental Glass For Expo Ō67, Czechoslovak Glass Review, v. 22 no.5, 1967, p.148.

15.  See J. Marskova, “Expo Ō70,” Revue de Verre (Czechoslovak Glass Revue), v.25, no.3, 1970, pp 65-71 and Jana Hofmeisterova, “Osaka 1970,” Revue du verre, v. 25. no 9, 1970, pp. 257-262.

16.  Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture; Critical essays. Boston: Beacon Press 1961, p. 142.

17. Walter Darby Bannard, "Anthony CaroÕs New Sculpture, Arts, v. 58, no 10,  Summer 1984, page p. 128.

18. Arsen Pohribny, "The Poesy of Glass in Architecture," Czechoslovak Glass Review, v. 20, no 5, 1965, p 151,

19. See note 8 above, p. 153

20. Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova, "A 40-Year Retrospective - Czechoslovakian Art Glass " Neues Glas. no. 1,1982,  p. 10.

21. Miroslav Klivar, "Art Glass in the Architecture of the National Theater," Czechoslovak Glass Review, v. 39 no 1, 1984, pp. 2-7.

22. See Arsen Pohribny, no. 8 above, p. 149

 

 

 
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