I was sorting out a huge pile of magazines the other day as it was raining, and found last summer’s edition of Kew Magazine which featured an article on Dale Chihuly and his glass sculptures, a large number of which were installed to spectacular effect in the gardens at Kew last year.
I’d been to see the exhibition wondering how can something so fragile as a glass sculpture could survive in a garden environment and almost asking why would you bother anyway. After all glass isn’t a particularly natural material and it clearly wasn’t go to blend in like David Nash’s giant wooden installations from a few years back.
Instead Chihuly’s work does exactly the opposite and stands out like a beacon or maybe for some people like a sore thumb. Based on plant forms but with colours, at least as strong as the brightest flower, some of the pieces almost screamed because of their sheer size and enormity. Others clashed and contrasted as well as complementing their green surroundings or their architectural setting. Whatever you think of his work it went down well with the public at Kew and with over 900,000 visitors it was their most popular exhibition ever at that point.
So when I was lucky enough last October to visit friends who have moved Seattle, we just had to visit Chihuly’s Garden and Glass Exhibition which is, according to Trip Advisor, Seattle’s No. 1 tourist attraction.
The photos are mine unless linked otherwise
But before we get there, here’s a bit of background about Dale Chihuly.
He was born in Tacoma, not far from Seattle in 1941. He studied interior design at the local University of Washington [the state not the city] and while there he experimented with melting and fusing glass, and applying what he learned to other artistic media such as weaving. A trip to Europe in 1962 introduced him to the stained-glass windows of mediaeval cathedrals and churches and in 1965 he attempted glassblowing for the first time. This soon turned into his life’s work.
In 1966 he began studying on a pioneering new glass programme at the University of Wisconsin and then was given a Fulbright Fellowship, to study on the island of Murano, the centre of the Venetian glass trade, the first American glassblower ever to be accepted there. In 1969, he joined the staff of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, and set up a glass programme. This led to summer schools and workshops back in Washington which eventually became formalised as the Pilchuck Glass School, which is now the most comprehensive centre for glassmaking in the world.
A serious car accident in England in 1976 cost him an eye, and inevitably any sense of depth of vision. This impacted on his work and when three years later he suffered an accident to his shoulder he was forced to stop blowing glass altogether, and change roles. Like a dancer transmuting into a choreographer he recruited and developed a team of highly skilled assistants to do the physical work while he designed and directed the work. This allowed him to be even more ambitious.
He drew and developed ideas, and worked alongside his team to create not only several major themed series of pieces but also much larger-scale installations, which were often site-specific .
Natural forms, especially plants, have always been central to his designs. For instance one of the earliest themed series, beginning in 1989, was inspired by Ikebana, the traditional Japanese art of flower arranging.
Instead of the floral abundance we’re used to in the west, Ikebana is founded on a simplified and stylised aesthetic in which the flowers, stems, twigs, leaves, and even the container are all important elements of the composition, which must create a harmonious whole. Often these arrangements are based around the shape of a scalene triangle, whose three points are symbolic of heaven, earth, and man.
They can be used outside as well as in, as in this example in Atlanta Botanic Garden.
This was not the first time he had created imaginary botanically-inspired pieces. In the 1970s, he was approached by Jamie Carpenter a botanical artist also at Rhode Island School of Design, who wanted him to collaborate on creating botanical forms in glass inspired by the Blaschka Collection of glass flowers at Harvard University’s Museum of Natural History. This is an extraordinary collection of over 4,300 models, depicting nearly 800 plant species, which was created by Czech glass makers father and son, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka between 1887-1936. They also did sea creatures which might explain Chihuly’s Seaforms series. It might all sound a bit dull but just look at the images of their work and you’ll see why Chihuly was impressed. It was not particularly because the pieces are so botanically accurate -although they are – but because they were made of glass and showed its almost infinite potential .
Even when the series were not directly botanically inspired there’s no doubt you can easily imagine that they were. “Follow nature” underlies his approach and allows him to innovate often using experimental techniques.
Macchia is a particular technique used to create rather blotchy asymmetric forms that, to me, resemble distorted giant flowers, or perhaps shells [but this is a garden related blog so I’m sticking with flowers] and whereas he says his Persians were meant to recall Byzantium and Venice, and evoke the sense of wonder experienced by early European explorers such as Marco Polo, to me they just look like a completely different set of brightly coloured slightly distorted flowers! It was a set of blue Persian forms that were hung in the Temperate House at Kew.
But it’s the large scale installations for which Chihuly is most famous. Beginning in 1991 Niijima Floats were among the largest pieces of hand-blown glass ever made.
They were followed in 1992 by the first of his famous Chandeliers series for the Seattle Art Museum. He really began to be recognised internationally when Venice was transformed in 1995-6 while his installation Light of Jerusalem broke records when it drew over a million visitors to the city’s Tower of David, in 1999. [Google Chihuly Venice and/or Jerusalem to see lots more photos]
But alongside these huge city-wide installations he was also thinking of his other great passion apart from glass itself: Plants, or rather where the two combined, in botanic gardens, and particularly in their conservatories and hothouses, the oldest of which were glazed with hand blown glass.
The first of these installations was in 1995 and surprisingly perhaps not in America but at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland at Glasnevin on the outskirts of Dublin. He constructed his exhibition in the Curvilinear Range which dates from 1848 and which had just been beautifully restored. It was designed by Richard Turner who also worked with Decimus Burton, on the Palm House at Kew, which Chihuly has described as his favourite conservatory. Sadly I cant find any images.
He returned to Ireland the following year working with Waterford Crystal but also installing pieces in the grounds of Lismore Castle, the Irish seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. Apart from the pieces in the gardens he had another in the Vinery, a small glass conservatory designed by Sir Joseph Paxton. [Again sadly I can’t find any images]
These successes made him contemplate a major new project the Garden Cycle which ended up involving 11 major exhibitions at 11 different sites, 10 in America and Kew. It allowed him to rework material and ideas in different settings.
First up was Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago in 2001, and it was followed by two more installations in America, Franklin Park Conservatory in Ohio in 2003, and then Atlanta Botanical Garden in 2004 before his first exhibition at Kew in 2005. Richard Deverell, Kew’s director, said the show was “a really important turning point for Kew in terms of being seen as a destination for world class art.”
Since then Chihuly has gone exploring the relationship between plants in the natural world and plants in their “captive” environments and has now worked across every climatic zone in America, adapting his pieces to cope with the woods of New England, the tropical lushness of Florida, and my favourite from the photographs I’ve seen, the deserts of Arizona.
I’d hoped to go this year to see his work in the Phoenix Botanical Gardens where somehow the harshness of the light and heat, and the sharp angular forms of the plants seems to work well with the glass.
As you can probably tell there’s no attempt to copy the natural world or make pieces directly based on specific plants but its clear that the forms and colours are inspired by real plants. Installing pieces in the landscape or amongst plants must throw up all sorts of problem for the artist and in someways for the viewer too.
An exhibition can last for months but most plants are continually changing, so while a piece might complement the foliage, its colour might clash with the flowers, or its shape might look out of place with the seed heads. I’m sure we’ve all seen garden exhibitions where sculptures have been placed seemingly at random and not really integrated with the plants. Yet somehow Chihuly is good at doing it. Probably because as Peter Fischer, a Swiss museum curator, said about Chihuly’s Mille Fiori “These encounters between two worlds were staged with great care, and it is interesting to observe how the glass objects settle into their plant environment, as though they have grown there naturally, while at the same point creating distinctive counterpoints and also benevolently breaking through the systematic order with which a botanical garden tames its tropical vegetation.”
That certainly the case at Kew. Chihuly and his team spent months deliberating where pieces should be installed around the garden, although it was the glass houses which inspired most discussion, especially the newly restored Temperate House.
There he suspended a spectacular 10m long sculpture of blue, green and yellow flower-like shapes from the ceiling, with several other pieces dotted around at ground level.
I think this use of massive colourful glass sculptures as eye-catchers would have appealed to Princess Augusta and Queen Caroline the real founders of Kew, and their designers, had they had the opportunities.
But I should add a few more words about his base in Seattle which he opened in 2012 – Chihuly Garden and Glass, where he has continued to push the boundaries between glass and the landscape.
It’s in a prominent site next to the city’s iconic Space Needle a building designed 50 years ago for the 1962 World fair by architect John Graham, for whom Chihuly once worked as an interior designer.
Apart from the eight galleries, lecture hall, conservatory, and the usual commercial add-ons such as a shop and cafe, there is also a garden and a small glass-blowing studio housed in a small van where staff give demonstrations.
His love of the conservatories in botanic gardens led to the creation of the 4,500 sq ft 43 ft high Glass House which houses an enormous swag made up of about 2,000 individual glass “Persian” forms in oranges, reds and yellows, one of the biggest suspended pieces Chihuly and his team have ever put together.
Between the galleries and the Glass House there is a small thickly planted garden, which serves a showcase for more sculptures, more densely placed than is the case in most installations in botanic gardens.
Mark McDonell, former chairman of the Glass Department at the California College of the Arts, wrote: “Nature and natural processes do not progress in an idealised manner. In gardens and conservatories, plants are pruned, shaped, and espaliered into submission in much the same way that molten glass has been made to assume symmetrical shapes. Chihuly may have intuitively understood this when he made his own break with history and encouraged glass to drift off-centre. There would almost seem to be a synergy in the way that Chihuly’s forms evolve and how nature grows when left to its own devices. I suspect this helps to explain why his installations integrate seamlessly with their natural surroundings.”
Let’s leave the last word to Chihuly himself from the interview he gave to Kew Magazine: “I always hope that people who love gardens will gain a deeper appreciation of art, and in turn I hope that those who love art will find love and appreciation for our most historic and treasured gardens.”
For more information on Chihuly and his work the best place to start is his website, which has links not just to explanations of his work, but his books etc. There are also plenty of video clips of his work and interviews with him.