Art of Libensky and Brychtova
By William Warmus
Note: The text of this essay was delivered as the first Rakow Award lecture for Excellence in the Art of Glass, October 1984, at The Corning Museum of Glass. It was published in Neues Glas magazine and the New Glass Review in 1985. It w
Libensky and Brychtova at SOFA Art Expo, New York City, May 31, 2000
has the ability to express all human feelings”
Libensky in an interview with Robert Kehlmann (Glass Art Society Journal
The joint artistic work of Jaroslava Brychtova and Stanislav
Libensky is significant because they have persevered courageously and
mastered, on a monumental scale and with demanding technology, their
chosen medium: Glass. In individual objects this mastery is evident as a
tension between the inherent properties of the medium and its expressive
potential. Libensky has said: "I personally feel more comfortable
working non-figuratively .... The purpose of my art, like so much work in
Europe and America, is optical and kinetic. But also, naturally, as a
citizen of the Czechoslovakian Republic, I have certain tasks which I must
solve."(2) Brychtova and Libensky, in the best of their work, have
fulfilled these dual obligations without muddying complexity or trite
sentimentality--indeed, with ever increasing simplicity and forcefulness
of symbol. In doing so, they have explored the true limits of glass as an
artistic medium and opened the way for future generations of artists.
They were not always together. Libensky, born in 1921, is the
son of a metalsmith. He studied glassmaking and painting at the schools in
Novy Bor and Zelezny Brod and in 1944 graduated from the Secondary Art
School in Prague. After 1945 he not only taught at Novy Bor but also was
an artist at Bor studios working with painted glass. He graduated from the
Academy of Applied Arts in Prague (1950) where he had studied with
Professor Josef Kaplicky. If you look at Kaplicky's work
you will see that he was first a realist sculptor and painter
influenced by cubism and other trends in the fine arts, and only afterward
head of the glass program at the School of Applied Arts, an influence that
has carried over to Libensky, who became head of the department of glass
in Prague in 1963. From 1953 until joining the faculty in Prague, Libensky
was headmaster of the secondary school of glassmaking at Zelezny Brod. It
was there that he began cooperating on cast sculptures with Jaroslava
Brychtova studied with Karel Stipl at the Prague School of
Applied Arts and also at the Academy of Arts there with J. Lauda. From
1943 to 1 950 she experimented with casting glass with her father,
Jaroslav Brychta, the co-founder of the glassmaking school at Zelezny Brod
and well-known for his fanciful "Star Wars" lampwork creatures.
Her cooperation with Libensky started in 1955.(3)
Before they met, each had dealt with animal themes, Brychtova
creating a series of five reliefs in 1950 (4) relating to fish ponds,
while Libensky produced a whole series of enameled pieces depicting an
octopus, bulls, etc. Of course, they did other things also: Brychtova made
The Hands of Glassmakers in 1948, and Libensky included abstract
decoration and even religious scenes (a crucifixion) in his enameled bowls
and vases. He also designed functional pieces including a tea service.
These early projects may be understood as tentative postwar ventures which served to reestablish the strong traditions of Czech glass culture. We shouldn't forget that this was done in the midst of extremely difficult conditions: "Our glass industry being seriously damaged by the 1930-37 crisis suffered even more from the broken connections among various firms both in frontier and inland territories due to occupation and many restrictive means of war, from gradual closing of some firms, loss of foreign markets and total lack of raw materials, destroyed equipment, and furthermore from a very complicated situation in European transport.” (5) This early work should also be seen as preparation for the color and casting techniques used in future pieces.
Above: Detail of Head, c.1959
At this stage we see the two asserting the individual
characteristics they will bring to working as a team: Brychtova, the
sculptress, expressing a pioneering interest in cast reliefs and following
in the footsteps of previous masters such as Navarre and Lalique; Libensky,
the painter,applying his abilities to enamels while paralleling the
careers of Gallˇ and Marinot who had also begun their work in glass in a
similar fashion. With their interests and limitations thus becoming
clearly defined at this time,it was lucky fate that they met, for it is
through their collaboration that the limitations of each were transcended
and something truly new appeared in the history of glass.
The first major project on which they collaborated was for
the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. Zoomorphic Stones were set into
concrete partitions for the Czech pavilion. They combined the casting
experiments of Brychtova with the color and painting skills of Libensky.
The "embedded" animals are somewhat reminiscent of prehistoric
cave paintings, but they also have the simultaneously surreal and
whimsical qualities we have come to associate with the work of Erwin Eisch
In this work, something exceptional appears - negative
modeling: "In this new conception the real plastic work becomes the
matrix and the former mold the object. The transparency of glass, which
formerly used to be a hindrance-- now assists in achieving surprising
results."(6) In the pieces with interior modeling and a smooth
exterior surface" . . . Light and shade produce-- in a uniformly
colored mass, a multitude of hues, light or dark-- which underscore the
actual depth of the negative plasticity." (7) With this process the
first tentative glimmer of a feeling for the expressive potential of glass
In the years ahead, Libensky and Brychtova confronted the
opportunities offered by glass as a medium for sculpture: it could
be a vase, a wall-- a divider, a window --but also things previously
undreamt of: a river-- meteor, pyramid. We see them grow from the more
traditional early works such as the table sculpture submitted to Glass
1959 or the mosaic like Bird with Cherries to the free-standing,
monumental sculptures of the seventies and early eighties such as The
Corning Museum of Glass lobby sculptures, and finally their first
tentative explorations of
environmental work in the eighties.
Who will help us understand their profound handling of the
medium? Early in the 1960s, a notable article appeared in the
Czechoslovakian Glass Review titled "Physics of Beauty" by Milos
Volf (8) His ideas about the essential characteristics of glass as a
medium for art are like the prophesies of an oracle predicting the future
of Czech glass.
For Volf translucency and luster ". . . represent the
value of Bohemian glass as an artistic material." Luster is light
reflected from the surface of glass; without it glass would be dull:
"Let us submerge a glass object in water. All its beauty vanishes . .
." as luster disappears. Transparency is a much more familiar term,
but Volf has a special insight here too-- reminding us that transparent
glass has no internal shadows: ". . . what we see on the photographic
print as shadow or darkness is therefore, only a light vacuum where the
light ray has been absorbed by the material itself. This phenomenon
underlies the optical paradox of glass. Glass reverses laws of plastic
representation." No doubt the Libenskys intuited this in their
"negative modeling." Within a mass of transparent glass, ".
. . the total reflection on the walls of bubbles evokes a particular
charm," for "The bubble has become an optical lens" (think
of Tom Patti's work here, too). Of this same mass of glass, as a hot
liquid that has cooled, Volf writes: "Poetically said, glass is
During the next two decades, we will see how Brychtova and
Libensky explored all these ideas, in the process revealing the true
nature of glass as an artistic medium. In 1963 Libensky assumed his
present position as professor at the School of Applied Arts in Prague.
Thus began a period of achievements both as a glass artist and as a
teacher. Libensky's international stature as an artist is paralleled by
his reputation as a teacher. An insight into the intimate connection of
these two activities is given by Libensky himself: "Respect for a
professor as an excellent artist creates the student's relation toward him
and also establishes the necessary authority.” (9) Nevertheless,
Libensky wonders " . . . if I devoted my endeavors solely to artistic
activity-- my results would perhaps be more convincing, (10) but goes on
to say that he now regards his teaching activities as a mission he would
not be able to give up.
Libensky's students generally enter his program at age 19 or
20 and finish by age 25 or 26. They begin with classes in life drawing
with charcoal later progressing to paint - generally producing life-size
images. During their stay they will actually make glass only a dozen
times, (11) but they have ample opportunity to work through theoretical
problems and to use the coldworking facilities at the school.
Libensky's method is revealing: "I adhere to the
principle of first progressing from the simple to the more complicated
and, in the next phase, from the more complicated to the most simple. I
try to create the conditions governing a wide glassmaking base on the
foundations of shape, which has its own philosophy of origin, its own
laws, its own standards, and its own structural tension. Shape is later
joined by the factor represented by decoration in the good sense of the
word. The composition of a decoration on glass must show unity and respect
for the relations and laws governing proportions. Our students also engage
in the design of spatial compositions with light and optical qualities,
thus working with the basic, inimitable properties of light . . . From
here [they progress] to the third sphere, i. e. to the application of
glass in architecture, glass as its structural and crowning component.”
(12) In some ways this procedure parallels the formation of Libensky's own
The decade of the 1960s may be characterized as a time of
increasing abstraction in the collaborative work of Libensky and Brychtova,
coupled with a simplification of the color palette and increasingly
sophisticated use of the optical properties of glass. Freestanding works
in an architectural context become the backbone of their work. Color
becomes more subtle, more refined. While in a work like The Bird with
Cherries from the 1950s color is used thematically (red cherries, for
example)-- in the 1960s it is used like litmus paper to indicate
variations of form and to modulate light: "Light, color, the height
of relief, all affect each other-- mutually and jointly at the same time.
The basic color at a certain height of the relief - as if by magic -
suddenly changes its color into another one; the green, plastically (i.
e., sculpturally) refined stone loses its uniform coloring and acquires a
multitude of color tones and shade.(13)" In this way, a single cast
object made from one color of glass and with a smooth surface can appear
polychromatic as the internal surface of the medium varies - a unique
property of glass and plastics, related to Volf's "optical
The large windows for the St. Wenceslas Chapel in Prague
(1966 1968) and the Sao Paulo
Biennale compositions in blue and gray (1965) are major indicators of the
Libenskys' increasing trend toward simplicity and abstraction. For the
former a special austere palette of "gothic" colors was
developed - notice too that the composition has become non-realistic. The
Sao Paulo works, such as Gray Composition, are for me their
earliest mature works: rigorous-- non decorative-- and freestanding. They
exhibit many characteristic strengths that we see in all the later work up
to today: a sense of the mosaic tradition-- and even the "window in a
wall" tradition as something superseded-- something left behind -
these works now stand on their own. Formally, the embedded lenses appear
and we begin to find structures resembling fiber optical light tunnels
embedded within masses of dark and heavy glass; the tendency to draw in
the glass and produce tight arcs, sharply cresting wavelike forms and
overlapping ribbing begins now too.
Glass was exciting at the extremely successful Czech pavilion
at Expo '67 in Montreal and Brychtova/Libensky submitted three major
pieces: The Sun of Centuries, Blue Concretion, and Crystal Column (Pyramide).
The Sun of Centuries illustrates how the color and optical
potential of glass are used expressively:
"The colors change from green-gray tones in the lower
part to yellow tints in the upper part which shine like the sun. This
toning of colors was achieved from a single mass by varying the thickness
of the layers of glass The refraction of light rays is greatly increased
by a system of lenses fused in the sculpture. These lenses at the same
time reflect the surrounding world absorb it and thus multiply it."
In similar fashion the Pyramid uses optical effects to create an ". .
. infinite interior repetition of penetrating pyramids" symbolizing
". . . the limitlessness of thought.” (14)
these key works in the 1960s the Libenskys begin to master abstract formal
concerns and put them in the service of expressive symbolism as when a
lens structure is meant to bring to the mind thoughts about eternity.
In the 1970s their mastery becomes complete, and brilliantly
so with The River of Life created for the World Exposition in Osaka
in 1970. Somewhat different interpretations exist as to the symbolic
meaning of this 22 meters long, 4.5 meters tall monument consisting of 200
reliefs.(15) Like most rivers, it starts out high (one can walk beneath
it) as many smaller streams. This part represents joy and the life of the
individual. Next, the river descends, becomes more powerful, and is
revealed to contain youthful "naiads" representing beauty but
also anxiety and the life of nations. Finally the river turns to ice, or
rather glass (remember Volf's "petrified liquid"), representing
hope and the destiny of the world. The overall theme is resolved
graphically by the introduction of realistic elements such as two nude
From a distance and in photographs the River looks
like a fish skeleton in its overall form, with "bones" emerging
from a central "spine." Complex interlocking or opposing forms
are the flesh, and within we see the trapped naiads who peer out longingly
with sad faces. At the end there is still the river, shivering and
freezing but perhaps even more radiant with light and therefore hope.
The Osaka work typifies monumental achievements in the 1970s and early eighties including the pieces for the Czech Parliament (1969), the Stockholm Embassy (1971 -1972), the Intercontinental Hotel (1974-1975) and The Corning Museum of Glass (1979-1980). All these works show related characteristics including increasing simplicity of form, clarity of medium, and a sophisticated, highly expressive fusion of abstraction and symbolism.
The critic Clement Greenberg anticipated aspects of
Brychtova's and Libensky's work and provides us with a new vocabulary and
a way to approach their aesthetic quality. Writing in Art and Culture he
says: "The new construction-sculpture points back, almost
insistently, to its origins in Cubist painting: by its linearism and
linear intricacies, by its openness and transparency and weightlessness,
and by its preoccupation with surface as skin alone, which it expresses in
blade or sheet-like forms. Space is there to be shaped, divided, enclosed,
but not to be filled. The new sculpture tends to abandon stone, bronze and
clay for industrial materials like iron, steel, alloys, glass, plastics,
celluloid, etc., etc., which are worked with the blacksmith's, the
welder's, and even the carpenter's tools. Uniformity of material and color
is no longer required, and applied color is sanctioned. The distinction
between carving and modeling becomes irrelevant: a work or its parts can
be cast, wrought, cut or simply put together; it is not so much sculptured
as constructed, built, assembled, arranged. From all this the medium has
acquired a new flexibility in which I now see sculpture's chance to attain
an even wider range of expression than painting.” (16) Many of these
terms apply to the Libenskys: transparency, surface as skin alone,
blade-like forms, cast and constructed works. But what is the point? The
point is that in this way sculpture may attain a "wider range of
Above: Detail of sculpture, 1990s
It is my theory that the quality of Brychtova and Libensky's
work rests in its successful application of the formal elements inherent
in glass to expressive ends in a way that transcends traditional uses of
glass and exceeds the potential of painting (at least of Libensky's type
of painting). In using abstraction with realism they sometimes parallel
the progress of British sculptor Anthony Caro, an artist Libensky says he
admires. The painter Walter Darby Bannard has said of Caro's work that he
". . . set about in full reflection and ease to assemble sculpture in
which figuration - still the soul of the art - is sublimated and
transformed, so that instead of seeing a figure we feel what a figure
feels. And we feel it magically, for it springs from plain non-figurative
physical fact.” (17)
Doesn't this statement about Libensky-Brychtova's work
confirm the idea? “It is almost paradoxical how the utmost spirituality
is created by highly material means--the colorfulness of the glass mass,
the shape of its edges and its very gravity.” (18) Or, as Volf said of
glass: “In light rest its ethical and aesthetical mission.” (19)
Once we begin to think of glass simultaneously as a raw
material, with formal properties,
made expressive when manipulated by an artist and endowed with an ethical
mission, we can see in all the Libenskys work the pursuit of excellence
through the successful integration of these elements. Prime examples are
the panels in the Intercontinental Hotel in Prague ( 1974) where they say
they ". . . achieved a
high concentration of light...” (20) and the Sphere in a Cube (
1970) which ". . . discovers the infinity of shapes, increasing with
the purity and simplicity of the composition of the work.” (21)
We also see it in the most recent projects including the facing for
the National Theater in Prague (22) and in the environmental installation
for the Space 1 exhibition. Moreover, we see it in their influence
on such diverse figures as Harvey Littleton (think of his cut loops as
optic tubes), Erwin Eisch (remember his emphasis on the painting of glass
and compare with Libensky's early enamels), and Dale Chihuly and Jamie
Carpenter (their early large-scale environments).
Brychtova and Stanislav Libensky are exceptional artists; they have
created for future generations an expressive idiom in glass based directly
on the formal properties of the medium - something that never existed
before and that opens the way for glass as high art. And they have done
this while remaining "youthfully curious." (23) What better
examples could we have to follow?
October 19, 1984
note about this text: Originally published simultaneously in New Glass
Review 6 and Neues Glas 2/85, 1985, this essay is based upon
the lecture delivered in Corning in October, 1984. Written during the cold
war, the language of the essay was consciously infected by the peculiar
vernacular of such official publications as the Czechoslovak Glass
Review. References to
illustration numbers have been deleted.
Stanislav Libensky: Born March 27, 1921, deceased February, 2002
Jaroslava Brychtova: Born July 17, 1924
Interview conducted by Robert Kehlmann with Stanislav Libensky, “A Talk
Glass Art Society Journal, 1981, p. 28
Ibid, p. 29
From an unpublished essay (anonymous?), (n. d.), p 2, in collector of
Antonin Langhammer, “The Molten Sculptures of Stanislav Libensky and
Jaroslava Brychtova,” Glass Review, v.33, no.8, 1978, p.2.
From an unpublished essay, “Teaching Activities of Stanislav Libensky,
(anonymous), (n.d.), p.1 . Archives of Studio Glass, Lansing, NY.
6. Arsen Pohribny, “The Glassmakers of Zelezny Brod,” Czechoslovak
Glass Review, v 17, no. 7,1962, p. 32.
"Stanislav Libensky, " Czechoslovak Glass Review, v. 19,
no. 1, 1964, p 15.
Milos Volf, "Etude Physique de la Beaute,” Czechoslovak Glass
Review, v. 16,no 5,1961, pp 152-153.
9. Pavla Drdacka, “Stanislav Libensky, Pedagogue,” Czechoslovak
Glass Review, v 36, no 3,1981,p.25.
See note 1, pp.30-32.
See note 9,p.25.
Jana Hofmeisterova, "New Possibilities of Glass use in Architecture, Czechoslovak
Glass Review, v. 15, January/February, 1960, p. 10 .
Jaromira Marsikova, "Monumental Glass For Expo Ō67, Czechoslovak
Glass Review, v. 22 no.5, 1967, p.148.
See J. Marskova, “Expo Ō70,” Revue de Verre (Czechoslovak Glass
Revue), v.25, no.3, 1970, pp 65-71 and Jana Hofmeisterova, “Osaka
1970,” Revue du verre, v. 25. no 9, 1970, pp. 257-262.
16. Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture; Critical essays.
Boston: Beacon Press 1961, p. 142.
Walter Darby Bannard, "Anthony CaroÕs New Sculpture, Arts, v.
58, no 10, Summer 1984, page
Arsen Pohribny, "The Poesy of Glass in Architecture," Czechoslovak
Glass Review, v. 20, no 5, 1965, p 151,
See note 8 above, p. 153
Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova, "A 40-Year Retrospective
- Czechoslovakian Art Glass " Neues Glas. no. 1,1982,
Miroslav Klivar, "Art Glass in the Architecture of the National
Theater," Czechoslovak Glass Review, v. 39 no 1, 1984, pp.
See Arsen Pohribny, no. 8 above, p. 149