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Freedom of expression found in glass

The remarkable story of Czech glass and its originality from the end of World War II until 1980 is told in an exhibition currently at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. The exhibition's subtitle "Design in an Age of Adversity" refers to the time when what is now the Czech Republic was scarcely freed from Nazi rule before being under Communism.

Political repression, which interfered with modern expressions in painting and sculpture, was less of a factor when glass was the medium. Through it Czech painters and sculptors freely developed individual visions.

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Glassmaking was a traditional craft. Artists produced untraditional works that were proudly exhibited abroad. Furthermore, the paradoxical need to emphasize national characteristics in the face of foreign rule encouraged the exploration of techniques and concepts that can now be seen as typically Czech.

Over the decades, with comparatively little influence from glassmaking in other countries, Czech glass artists shifted this means of expression from craft to art and from utilitarian objects to aesthetic sculpture. Mostly, in the initial postwar decades, they did not claim to be "artists." But to look at the two pieces shown here, there is little doubt that, in essence, one is sculpture and the other is painting.

The catalog for this exhibition points out that two particularly strong Czech practices were painting on glass and mold-melting. Vladimír Kopecky's 1965 "Vase" is three dimensional abstract color painting. It exploits the translucency of the medium - of both the enamel paint and the glass "canvas." The multiplicity of viewpoints makes for visual possibilities unknown to more conventional painting.

The 1958-59 "Head I - Tall Head" by two of the other outstanding Czech glass artists of the period, Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtová, is sculpture by any definition. The figurative features of the head are actually inside the smooth exterior of the whole glass form, and can be seen only when the piece is penetrated by strong light. Such complex and enigmatic investigation of the interplay of inner and outer forms could be done solely with glass. These collaborative artists had moved beyond glassmaking in lieu of sculpture to glass sculpture in its own right.

The exhibition is at the Corning Museum of Glass until Nov. 27. It will be at the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art in Tacoma, Wash., Jan. 14 to June 18, 2006.