Art

Through a glass brightly

JOANNE KATES October 31 1977
Art

Through a glass brightly

JOANNE KATES October 31 1977

Through a glass brightly

Art

Dear Mr. Markovic, the letter read, thank you very much for the goblet that was made for Stalin. The letter, in late September, was from Stanley Marcus, big boss of Neiman-Marcus, the Dallas, Texas, department store that makes Eaton’s look like a five-and-dime, and it was the signal that Joseph Markovic, 53, had finally arrived. For not only was he selling glass sculptures to Neiman-Marcus for the opening of a new store in Washington, DC, but Marcus himself was acknowledging the gift given him by the immigrant from Yugoslavia.

Markovic is a slight man, quiet and serene behind his bifocals. He reigns over a crystal kingdom on Toronto’s Wellington Street, earning his money from the sale of carafes, cruets and wineglasses, and finding his joy in collecting the finest glass being made in the world today. The art of glass is dying, but it’s at its peak—“the sun just before it goes down,” Markovic explains—in Czechoslovakia. So it is that he collects only Czechoslovakian glass, some of the finest examples of which are now in the display cases outside the Royal Ontario Museum. They’re all his: The Bull, which was in the Czech Pavilion at Expo 67; a stunning amber crystal sculpture that multiplies the sun’s rays; a dozen goblets, each engraved with a sign of the zodiac. All his—and why, he wonders aloud, isn’t the museum keeping them dusted?

The Markovic pieces are the ROM’s promotion for A Gather Of Glass (now until year’s end)—a show, long in reach but short in grasp, which takes the viewer on a scattershot, Cook’s Tour history of glass from its discovery to the present. In 1564 B.C. Egyptians discovered that sand and other common materials could be melted to produce a thick liquid with magical properties, and the ROM shows their riot of glass production from perfume jars to funerary urns. The Pharaohs’ craftsmen found that they could dip a metal rod into molten glass and some glass would adhere to the rod. This is the glassmaker’s “gather.” At the time of Christ in imperial Rome, men put gathers on the end of hollow tubes and started blowing. Out of the ends of their tubes came a wondrous assortment of hollow things, giving birth to the glass container industry.

Rome fell. Glass endured.

Christian Europe believed that transforming sand into glass by fire was the alchemy of the Devil, so most of the glassmakers in Europe during the Middle Ages

were Jewish. Because society was so unstable, they made glass in forest workshops, the only places where they were assured a steady supply of wood for their melting furnaces. Their work in the show is primitive and rough, but, as with all glass, it carries the mysterious power of light.

At the same time, glassmaking flourished in the sultans’ courts of the Islamic Middle East. Perfume bottles were important because sanitation was so poor, and the ROM show features many haunting Syrian flacons. One, a tiny blue perfume bottle, utterly exquisite, from the third century in Syria, still smells faintly—and incredibly—of rose. The collection includes a magnificent display of tiny Chinese glass snuff bottles—most made to resemble semi-precious stones. It was easier, for instance, to make glass “jade” than to find the real thing, and the Chinese were sure that the evil spirits who feared jade would never know the difference.

From China to Venice, where 1 lth-century craftsmen learned glassmaking in Egypt and brought it home rococo, in an ornate glory of serpents crawling their way up the stems of goblets: madly impractical, quite magnificent. Then to the more practical, pragmatic England of 1680 for toasting glasses, goblets with huge thick stems and bases the better to bang on tavern tables for toasts and summoning barmaids. The catalogue explains that in 1745 parliament levied a tax on the raw materials for

glass, and in the next display case we see the results: thinner, more delicate ware. In 1785 more taxes were imposed on glass in England, but not in Ireland, which needed industry. And voilà, the Waterford crystal of Ireland began.

At the start of the 19th century, cut glass was developed; for the English, puffed up with pride over the Napoleonic Wars, ornate cut glass became an important status symbol, displayed at the ROM in case after case of cut-glass glitz looking like nothing so much as Woolworth’s best “crystal.”

In France a century later René Lalique began making perfume bottles for his friend François Coty in 1907. When La-, lique died in 1945 his factory carried on, spreading fine glass in ever-widening ripples, making it for the first time a broadly accessible art — as, for instance, the Lalique goblets for sale on Bloor Street.

Lalique’s Bacchantes vase is an object lesson of how to harness technology to art: the ROM’s display of American glass is a lesson in what happens when technology conquers art. In 1825, craftsmen in Pittsburgh found that molten glass could be mechanically pressed in iron molds, one after another. Eureka!—mass production, illustrated at the ROM by some good examples of pressed glass, but with surfaces so uniform and flat that the magic of light shattered into a thousand rays is just a memory.

Canadian glass has always been responsive to the economy. The first Canadian glassworks opened at Mallorytown, eastern Ontario, in 1839. Because the railroad was not yet built, the only glass worth making was for local market, so Mallorytown made windows and containers, not art. In 1858 John L. Mason of the United States patented the preserving jar, and Canadians went into the bottle business in a big way, changing forever the state of the Canadian dinner table in wintertime.

But glass has always been a form born of both art and utility. To mirror this A Gather Of Glass tries to show the beauty of art glass and the history of a technology at the same time. The concept is grand; what a pity that it loses its verve in the translation to reality. Neither history nor beauty is well served. The glass objects sit in buff wooden display-cases, lit for utility rather than beauty. The historical information, the visual contexts that could make the history come alive, are too sketchy to register. It is a historian’s exhibit, a gather of glass from 80 galleries in the museum, a collection culled entirely from pieces already owned by the ROM, most of them gifts. Perhaps that’s the trouble. “We wanted to honor our donors,” said the ROM’s Peter Kaellgren, who organized the show. In that the ROM has doubtless succeeded: the exhibition is a broad survey of 3,500 years of technology, but for the highest standards of loving acquisition translated into art, the viewer need look no farther than Joseph Markovic’s display-boxes outside the museum’s entrance. JOANNE KATES