Dear Readers, this week I went to Kew Gardens with my friend J to see the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures. I visited Kew for Chihuly’s previous exhibition in 2005 and remember sharing the photos with Mum, so it was bittersweet, but then everything seems to have the flavour of remembrance this year. Still, it is impossible to be melancholy in the presence of these sculptures, which blaze with colour and life even on a dull day with rain threatening. The first sculpture, ‘Sapphire Star’, looks as if it is about to explode, the transparent glass on the outside held in by gravitational pull of the heavier blue centre.
I knew little about Chihuly, other than that he is considered to be the absolute master of blown glass, so here is a potted history. He was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941, to a Hungarian/Czech father, and a Swedish/Norwegian mother. His brother was killed in a navy flight-training accident in 1957 and a year later, his father died of a heart attack aged 51, leaving Chihuly and his indomitable mother alone. Chihuly started his studies in art and interior design in 1960 but he was soon frustrated, and travelled extensively in Italy and the Middle East. His first experiments in glass were in a weaving class in 1963, where he incorporated glass shards into textiles, but he didn’t blow his first glass until 1965. In 1966 he joined the first ever glassblowing course in the United States, at the University of Wisconsin.
Glass had become Chihuly’s primary source of artistic expression, and he went from strength to strength, winning a Louis Comfort Tiffany grant to extend his studies. He became the first American to ever work in Murano in Venice. He taught glass blowing and art for many years at a variety of alternative colleges, closing one down to protest the American involvement in Cambodia in 1970. Throughout his life he collaborates with other artists, and in the 1970’s begins his environmental pieces, designed to be placed outside.
While in England in 1976 he suffers a catastrophic car accident, which leaves him with 256 stitches in his face and a permanently damaged right leg and ankle. He is also blinded in his left eye. Undaunted, he returns to the US to take up his role as head of the Department of Glass at Rhode Island School of Design. For the first time, some of his pieces are bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which introduces him to a much wider public.
In 1977 Chihuly starts to experiment with the organic forms that have informed his work ever since. In 1979, however, he damages his shoulder in a bodysurfing accident, and gives up the role of personally blowing all his glass. Going forward, his works are a collaboration between his vision and technical skill, and those who actually do the physical labour. He has mentored many of the up and coming glass artists in the world, and is incredibly prolific, with several exhibitions in different parts of the world every year. One of which, of course, is the one that I’m at Kew to see.
The influence of the natural world on Chihuly’s work is everywhere evident, but it is the natural world transformed – everything is bigger, brighter, more colourful than the original. It feels a little as if Disney’s ‘Snow White’ was seen by someone on LSD. And yet, I was definitely cheered up by Chihuly’s pieces – the sheer exuberance and colour lifts the spirits however Eeyore-ish one is feeling. And with some of them, I was actually left speechless. Like the new installation in the recently refurbished Temperate House, for example.
The spheres remind me of playing marbles when I was a little girl, and I like how varied and understated they were. The gravel is scraped into a circle around each piece, and the whole thing has a serene, surprising aspect, as if a giant has been playing marbles and has just stepped outside for a moment. I could have looked at it endlessly.
I rather liked this piece too, which is called Neodymium Reeds and Turquoise Marlins, the ‘Neodymium’ referring to the rare-earth metal that is used to produce the incredible lavender colour (which the photo hardly does justice to). The pieces are arranged on either side of King William’s Temple, which was built in 1837 and contains images of British victories from Minden in 1759 to Waterloo.
But my very favourite place in the whole of Kew is the small, hot, usually crowded Waterlily House. Whenever I visit the plants seem at the very pitch of perfection, and I can only imagine the work that it takes to keep them that way. But this time it has been ‘invaded’. Take a look.
And how beautiful these white and glass forms are. Yesterday, I was gobsmacked by them, overwhelmed by their presence. And yet. Have a look at the waterlilies and lotuses that shared the pond with them.
I don’t know, maybe I’m being a curmudgeon, but there is something about some of Chihuly’s work that seems to overwhelm rather than complement. It says ‘look at me’ rather than ‘look at us’. And sometimes, that bright, brashness is just what I want and need, and I don’t care that it punches me in the nose.
But as I get older, I feel like there is a bit too much over-confidence, and not enough hesitancy. I am becoming an admirer of the subtle, the nuanced, the uncertain. Maybe that’s why I liked the ‘marbles’ piece more than the piece in the waterlily house, or some of the other more colourful, assertive works.
If you have a chance to visit the exhibition, do – Kew is always such a delight, and the trees in particular are splendid at the moment. Plus I had no idea that Kew had active badger setts, which cheered me up no end. And do let me know what you think. There is no doubt in my mind that Chihuly is a master of his art, an innovator and a mentor, and I admire him tremendously. But I think I would like his work more if it didn’t overwhelm the plants quite so much. Maybe that’s why I have no problem with his pieces in places like the lobby of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Context is everything.
Photo One by By Bryan Ohno – Chihuly Studio photography collection, Seattle, Washington, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5664073
Photo Two by Rod Allday / Chandelier in the rotunda of the V & A museum