Chihuly: Reflections on nature
Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Until 27 October 2019
“Glass is the most magical of all materials.  It transmits light in a special way.” –Chihuly

In the astonishing setting of Kew Gardens, the organic shapes and luminous colours of Chihuly’s glass sculptures stand out and merge with the landscape.  The viewer becomes an explorer that is engaged in a treasure hunt along the paths, among the flower beds and in the hot houses of the park.  Excitement for unexpected discoveries and aesthetic pleasure combine when the glass structures almost magically emerge from the ground, among leaves and reeds, hanging and floating in a symbiosis with the living plants and the choreographed buildings and gardens.

Dale Chihuly is an American sculptor who trained in weaving and glassblowing incorporating glass shards in his tapestry at first.  He studied and practiced his art at the University of Washington in Seattle and in the 1960s started experimenting in glass blowing both in the US and in Italy at the Venini factory on the island of Murano.  He founded Glass Schools, taught glassblowing and exhibited throughout the US.  His permanent exhibitions can be found in Oklahoma City, at the Bellagio (Las Vegas Strip) and in Seattle Center Park, Chihuly Garden and Glass.  He exhibited his work around the world as well, in Venice, Jerusalem, London, Montreal and Toronto.  The current exhibition, Reflections on Nature, is the second one at Kew gardens.  The first one, Gardens of Glass, was displayed in 2005.

Chihuly’s artwork is certainly highly innovative in his exploration of new techniques and in the expression of unconventional shapes and ideas.  Training and working at Venetian glass factories made him aware of the tradition of glassblowing that dates to the 13th century in Murano.  The luxury and perfection of Murano glasses combined the expertise of Aquileia glass makers with the ancient techniques of the Middle East.  They used secret recipes whose ingredients could not be disclosed, creating unique products made of lattimo glass, cristallo and goldstone, as well as producing the famous murrine, glass beads and chandeliers with garlands of glass flowers and leaves.  Venice glass production was extremely popular and expensive, exporting all over Europe, in the Mediterranean area and in the Americas.  The commerce had a peak in the 16th century and declined after Napoleon’s invasion in 1797 but had a revival after the unity of Italy in 1866.

Chihuly draws from this expertise and tradition, developing his shapes and ideas in audacious forms that are decorative and architectural at the same time.  His sculptures interact with the space around them and merge with it.  Their striking colours prompt an emotional involvement that focus the attention of the viewer evoking unexpected reactions.

Though the ingredients that make glass are inorganic (mainly soda lime glass mixed with other materials to add colour, such as cobalt, copper or iron), they can be also mixed with plants and sand.  This give a ‘natural’ quality to the artwork that appears ‘like it came from nature’, as Chihuly claims.  Therefore, he brings to life an apparently ‘cold’ material moulding it when it is hot (the temperature in a glass furnace is about 1600°C).  In this process he exploits gravitational and centrifugal forces so that the composition of the forms he achieves is in part spontaneous.

Meandering along Kew Gardens’ paths, the encounters with his blown glass sculptures are incredible.  ‘Paint Brushes’ and ‘Red Reeds’ emerge like flames from the bushes, similarly to ‘Birch Reeds’ that sinuously bulge and twist like birds in the mate season.  The striking ‘Summer Sun’ in front of the Palm House near the pond with red, orange and yellow curls hook the viewer revealing a recurrent pattern also present in the ‘Opal and Amber Towers’ positioned at the entrance of the Temperate House.  They mark the landscape with their tree shapes, showing an exquisitely and challenging alternative to the secular trees of the Gardens.  Flower-shaped forms elegantly decorate the pond of the Waterlily House; the ‘Ethereal White Persian Pond’ is an enchanting display of round white glass flowers looking like jellyfish underwater.  Sharp spikes shape the ‘Scarlet and Yellow Icicle Tower’ and the ‘Sapphire Star’ piercing the sky like needles of pine trees.  The unexpected bright colours make Chihuly’s sculpture catch the viewer’s imagination; they stand out against the blue and the greens of the gardens and suggest surprising hues, new possibilities.

More artworks are displayed at the Temperate House among exotic plants, intriguingly placed half hidden by leaves and roots.  ‘Fiori Verdi’ (green flowers), ‘Yellow Heron and Reeds’, ‘Beluga Boat’, ‘Turquoise Marlins and Floats’, ‘Ikebana’, and, suspended from the ceiling, two chandeliers (one of which, ‘Persian Column’, was created for this exhibition) catching the light from the glass roof.  One of the most famous Chihuly’s chandeliers can also be admired at the Rotunda of the main entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the ‘Ice Blue and Spring Green Chandelier’, installed in 1999.  It reveals and synthesises the artist’s ideas that combine Venetian glassblowing tradition, innovative shapes and striking unpredicted colours that engage the viewer in a challenging ‘natural’ vision.

The exhibition displays good examples of Chihuly’s collection of glass sculptures that perfectly blend with the neat and yet extraordinary landscape of Kew gardens.  His spectacular shapes entail traditional techniques of glassblowing, unique ideas and beauty.

Carla Scarano © 2019.

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