Decades ago, I asked a respected art critic where the next generation of big names in painting would come from; Scotland and three names were cited – regrettably I forgot and so missed out - their pictures were then selling for around £1,000. Those artists’ prices have since gone into orbit.
The top end of Czech/Bohemian art glass has seen eightfold increases in prices in the last few years as the artists’ skills have been internationally recognised. The owners of the largest yachts are invariably canny and have their contacts and advisors with the architects, stylists, etc. and they have led the way. It is no surprise that one of the most active art glass firms; Crystal Caviar has supplied 66 superyachts with an overall length of 4,450m; all within six years. There is still good potential as there are some really accomplished artists who have yet to make their names. However, the main reason for buying works of art should really be for personal enjoyment with the up-lift in value a bonus, or a pat on the back for having the foresight to recognise true quality in design and execution.
Czech/Bohemian glass has always earned respect whether it is a bowl, mantelpiece ornament or something more significant. As an aside, much of the work cutting and etching of the pieces made by glass artists in Murano has quietly been carried out in the former Czechoslovakia. Today, things have changed with pieces costing 100,000s Euros featuring frequently in collectors’ acquisitions; one yacht owner has 17 pieces on his yacht.
Crystal Caviar’s owner, Marek Landa and his wife have been most influential in the development of both the market and pushing forward the new technology in Bohemian art glass. Marek was born in the area of the Czech Republic where much of the glass art is made and so was brought up with glass making in his blood. However, he studied engineering and progressed to be the chief engineer on one of Roman Abromovic’s yachts for eight years before being drawn back to the glass industry.
I like his initiative in achieving what was described as impossible by several glass makers; to make glass with a stream of bubbles throughout the piece. He put coloured plastic balls into a container, filled it with water and then then froze it. The frozen block was then polished and photographed, the result was then presented to glass makers with the comment that a glass company had only been able to make small pieces but he wanted large quantities. The rest is history and the name of his company reflects the appearance of the glass which is used extensively in their modern chandeliers.
The sea can be cruel to the extent that storms can even distort cruise liners to the extent that pipes can break under the strain. Chandeliers made for houses would be destroyed in no time on yachts so they make them strong enough to survive extreme sea conditions, their weight can be massive so safety is paramount. Their test rig was demonstrated; it shuddered and shook to such an extent that I laughed out loud. Needless to say, there has never been any warrantee work or repairs to their chandeliers.
Crystal Caviar is based in a national park in the north of the Republic that has little tourism despite having beautiful unspoilt scenery; historically it was the second wealthiest area to Prague as it was a major producer of textiles. Production in the Far East saw the end of that trade and there are now many abandoned factories, grand houses and villas all around the area. However, Crystal Caviar is about to finish a faithful restoration of a factory that now includes large galleries as well as glass and metal workshops, plus more than a dozen kilns. The large number of kilns gives the wrong impression of the volumes produced as cooling large pieces, some around 200 kilos, can take over a month in total as the temperature has to be reduced by only one degree per hour from 980 degrees. The pieces then have to be polished again and again; it is a very long and labour intensive process. Marek bought a formerly enchanting derelict church nearby which had planning permission for demolition. However, he was captivated by the church’s potential charms and decided to undertake a total restoration, which was only achieved after the planning authority nearly drowned the project in bureaucracy ending up with the file growing to six inches thick. The end result was well worth the effort as it is delightful and makes a great showroom. He now plans to build an extension made entirely out of glass including the beams; there are no bounds to his energy.
Ever the businessman, Marek is acquiring dwindling supplies of the crystal glass, supplying some 70 artists, then selling the finished pieces. It is not straight forward, the world’s military has moved on from using visual means using crystal glass to electronic, digital devices so some glass colours are no longer made and supplies are drying up. Marek sells the raw material to the artists at a favourable price on the premise that Crystal Caviar has first option on pieces produced.
A key to serving the top end of the market is that each client is sold unique pieces, collectors are put off by seeing identical pieces; a good case in point is the very popular Dale Chihuly who made the chandelier in the lobby of the V & A. Chihuly’s production runs are extensive as his pieces are very desirable, however, that puts off many collectors, Marek is frequently asked for the Chihuly style but for one-off pieces. I saw an example which had the very effective addition of platinum threads running through the piece.
There is a good diversity of styles but there are two outstanding artists of very differing styles which cannot be overlooked. Vlastimil Berenak creates large pieces of quiet calm, the soft flowing but complex curves are highlighted by the differing thicknesses of the glass. The translucency varies from intense and deep hues to the subtlety of the thinner areas near to the edges. Relating it to moods, totally relaxing, they would be a superb feature to have whilst practising yoga.
Currently, there are two themes that Vlastimil is developing; a series where the flow of glass seems to wrap around in an intimate way. It brought to mind the foetal position, whilst the pieces can be moved around into different positions; the balance of the piece is cleverly maintained on its mount. The other style is again very restful; I related it to a gentle flow of water coming from a slowly moving propeller despite the fact that most pieces are set in the upright position.
I am sure that many people will have a very different interpretation but it is stimulating to gaze and conjecture. A variation on the theme is that Vastimil has used wooden maquettes for his glass pieces; these have proved very popular and so have been developed to his high standards of finish. Whilst I prefer the extra dimension which glass offers, an appealing point is that they are made of oak from Kazakhstan and these otherwise would probably finish up as stocks for Kalashnikov guns.
There is boundless energy, precision, clarity and complexity in the work of Jan Frydrych, his work also has its intrigue with illusions within the composition. Your mind tries to work out how it all comes together yet the refractions and reflections change as you move around. The clarity comes from using optical glass but it is far harder to work with. The technique is that each work comprises numerous pieces of glass, I asked about one I particularly admired – there were eleven elements in the piece. The precision of the shaping and polishing takes an inordinate length of time; there are eight grades of polishing alone for each element then the whole piece has to appear as one. Quite how Jan has found the time to collect 1,200 Czech watches, 460 clocks and draw upon draw of music box mechanisms, I do not know. It helps that Jan restored a roofless, very grand villa into his home and workshops, including a fully equipped watch maker’s workshop – the tools alone are works of art. His latest work involves making optic glass cases for chronometers and he alluded to a watch that he has designed, from a brief outline, it will be exciting to behold.
It is frustrating that photographs do not do justice to these art glass artists’ work, seeing them in situ reveals so much more in colour, depth as well as intrigue. Follow their exhibitions or, if you can, take the opportunity to visit them in the Czech Republic. It will be rewarding.