Glass works tell tales from BohemiaAfter North Korean leader Kim Jong-il held up his wine glass for a toast during the summit of the two Koreas in June 2000, observers were surprised to learn that his glasses were made by Riedel, a high-end stemware maker originally from Bohemia.
For centuries, Bohemian crystal has been a symbol of luxury and class. It has been used in chandeliers for the Kremlin and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and in ornaments in jewels, decanters, bowls, vases and wine glasses.
Swarovski, an Austrian crystal company founded by Czech Daniel Swarovski, has won over Koreans with its elegant baubles and housewares, adorning the aisles of local department stores and duty-free shops with flashy hairpins, jewels and lavish tableware. So it’s no surprise that a grand display of Bohemian crystal was chosen to celebrate the diplomatic exchange between Korea and the Czech Republic.
The exhibition, titled “The Light of Prague ― Bohemian Crystals,” opened June 25 at the Hangaram Museum in the Seoul Arts Center and runs until Sept. 5.
Bohemia refers to an area in Europe in the northern Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia), north of Prague, between the German and Polish borders. The way the Bohemians valued unique glassmaking was similar to the Renaissance-era predilection for antique cut stones.
Experts say the oldest glass items found in Bohemian-area countries, such as bracelets and beads, were probably imported from Celtic regions near the third century B.C. Typical products made in ancient times were decanters, carafes, bottles and simple goblets.
The tradition of glass production in Bohemia largely owes to the easy access to natural resources there. The rich mineral mountains and woods near the region made it possible to heat glass in ovens. The backing from Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612), who invested much of the state budget on alchemy research and imported Milan rock crystal engravers to Prague, also strongly influenced Czech art because he resided in Prague.
Much of Czech glass was made from a greenish glass mass called “forest glass.” In contrast to German glass, which was dark green, Czech glass was light green, closer to clear crystal in later years. During its heyday in the 14th century, the glass became so popular that huge amounts were exported to Germany, France and Flemish countries.
This glass is often characterized by slender flutes and bulbous cups, decorated by spiral threads and pearl shapes. These decorative techniques were invented in the Near East and spread to Central Europe in the 13th century until it was adopted by Czech glassmakers.
But unlike the Venetian glassmakers, who freely adopted techniques and formal influences from outside due to the active international trade scene in Venice, experts note that Czech glassmakers resisted such foreign influences in their techniques.
A significant number of items in the Seoul Arts Center exhibition are traditional Bohemian glassware dating back to the 14th century, on loan from the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague.
The pieces on display include crystals that have been shaped by classical hand-cutting, stemware produced by various blowing techniques, and cups, pitchers and decanters with elaborate etchings of landscapes and emblems, set off with golden paint.
Some of the most interesting items in the Seoul exhibit are the stone and glass vessels from the 14th century that were owned by European aristocrats. To prevent cups from slipping from diners’ hands, which were slick with the oil from the meat (before forks and knives were commonly used), the surface of these cups had an intricate layer of tiny bumps made out of stones.
One exhibit features a Willkommen’s cup, glassware decorated with elaborate drawings and scribbles of the butcher’s guild. The glassware was traditionally used during the feasts of merchants in meat distribution, one of the wealthiest groups in the medieval period that flaunted its power by conspicuous consumption.
Hyalith glass commissioned by an Austrian count in 1823, also on display, is one of the first examples of colored glass in Bohemian regions. The vanguard of this new kind of black glass bowls was Friedrich Egermann, who died before passing on his technique.
The advent of black glasses were followed by more elaborate items, such smooth-cut ruby glasses that were decorated with copper and golden enamel, crystal mirrors and tableware with portraits of the prince, tailored for royal families in 1890.
Modern works are featured as well. The highlight of the show is a collection by Stanislav Libensky and his wife, Jaroslava Brychtova, two of the world’s most respected contemporary glass sculptors from the Czech Republic.
Mr. Libensky is an art celebrity whose reputation in the glass art world rivals Picasso’s among painters. Included in the Seoul exhibit is the couple’s “Green Eye of the Pyramid,” a stunning work that glows in the dark by radiating an extremely bright light of green and yellow.
The exhibition also offers interesting insights into the history of Bohemia, a region unfamiliar to many. For example, one learns that Rudolph II, who was notorious for being indifferent to political affairs, favored glassmakers and alchemists so much that he exempted people in the two industries from statutory labor, giving them special rights for meat distribution.
The display also explains that masters of glassmaking in the Bohemian region still go by the guild system, adding that crystal conglomerates such as Swarovski moved to Austria, mainly because machine-cut crystals were considered beneath the glassmakers at home.
by Park Soo-mee
Admission costs 12,000 won ($10), 5,000 won for students. There is a special discount every Monday for female guests who visit the museum with their mothers; one person will be admitted for free. For more information, call (02) 582-7795.