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The US gets a look at the famed 'Czech glass'

The mention of Czechoslovakian, or Bohemian, glass brings to mind richly cut lead crystal, glimmering crystal chandeliers, and tall, thin goblets. Czechoslovakia, a socialist republic since World War II, is still exporting its famous glass to more than a hundred countries, and the term "Czech glass" continues to produce a certain lyricism among lovers of fine crystal anywhere in the world.

Americans are getting a comprehensive look at this middle European country's past and current production through the exhibition, "Czechoslovakia Presents Ceska, the Art of Glass," which opened May 30 at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, where it will be shown throuh Aug. 31. The exhibit includes 500 items, the work of nearly 70 of the country's foremost glass artists, and many priceless historic pieces that have never before left the country. It was shown earlier this year in Chicago and will travel later to other cities.

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The exhibition is a reminder that glassmaking has been a Czecholovakian tradition for over a thousand years and continues today as the country's third most important industry. Glass was being made there in the 9th century, and the oldest glass manufacturing facility, Chribska, has been in continuous production since the 13th century.

The term "Bohemian glass" came into usage about 300 years ago because most of the glassworks were in the sector of the country called Bohemia, and the type of glass produced there involved intricate cutting, engraving, and painting on both clear and colored glass.

Although the Bohemiam colored glass had been used in many of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, it was not until the 17th century that Bohemian glass gained its first success in world markets and was chosen by royal families for palaces in many countries and demanded by the aristocracy for both table and decorative use. Even the Sultan of Turkey had to have Bohemian glass for his palaces, and it went as well into famous public buildings such as the La Salle Opera House in Milan.

The first cargo of Bohemian glass arrived in the US in 1806, and Czech glass has been coming ever since, despite wars, various other catastrophies, high import duties, and bureaucratic tangles of the present government.

The entire Czech glass industry was nationalized in 1945 and has been under government control since. This has been stifling in some ways, but it has opened up a systematic development of production and a renovation and expansion of some of the ancient factories where glass is still handblown as it was centuries ago.

Today there are 110,000 skilled glassworkers in the country and at least 100 creative artists who specialize in the medium of glass. The government is seeing to the survival of the industry by a training program of high school students in three special glassmaking schools in the country and by special glass departments at the Academy of Applied Art in Prague and the Academy of Art in Bratislava. This glassmaking educational system dates back to 1856 when the first school of glassmaking in the world was opened in North Bohemia.

The country now has 60 glassworks, and despite the schools, they have experiences a labor shortage in recent years.

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The golden age for Bohemian glass was the latter half of the 19th century when 99 glassworks were turning out products to be sold in ports all over the world. With the coming of the industrial age and mass production, glass production has been broken into two segments, functional glass and art glass. Many of the country's glass artists now handshape the material themselves and also engrave, cut, etch, and paint their own glass. Innovative forms and techniques have resulted. Individual creativity is noted in the areas of engraved and sandblasted glass, and in the combination of glass and molten metals.

Bohemian glass has been, it is said, the glass of presidents and kings, emperors, maharajas, and popes, and the glass of common people as well.

The current exhibition in Los Angeles is a joint presentation of Czechoslovakian foreign trade organizations and the US-based Ceska Art Glass.

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