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Through a glass, brightly

Across the water from the Venice Biennale a small exhibition of Carlo Scarpa’s glass work offers more coherant viewing

It is hard to beat Venice in the late autumn with the shadowy silhouettes of Palladio’s churches floating in the mist like ghostly ships. The last day of the Biennale was relatively quiet so you could get around quickly. The theme of ‘common ground’ did not inspire much architectural invention but amid the usual mediocrity some things stood out, starting with Alvaro Siza’s zigzag walls around some trees at the far end of the Arsenale and finishing with Toshiko Mori’s beautifully understated installation comparing her own architectural details with those of major architects’ works she has accompanied with pavilions, not least the Martin House in Buffalo, NY, by Frank Lloyd Wright, for which she designed the transparent visitors’ centre.

The Italian Pavilion was one of the few to actually make an exhibition into a coherent space, while a quiet show of black and white photographs by Hélène Binet of Hawksmoor’s London churches (curated by Mohsen Mostafavi) introduced a welcome historical perspective. Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion, now half a century old, with its slender concrete beams floating in light over a void, never lets you down, and is a silent reproach to the trends which come and go. Maybe the next Biennale should just be devoted to timeless and beautiful buildings for a change?

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More substantial and durable than the sprawling show of the Biennale is a compact and exquisite exhibition just across the water in the newly inaugurated Stanze del Vetro or ‘Rooms for Glass’ of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, just behind the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. This is devoted to glassware designed by Carlo Scarpa between 1932 and 1947 when he was director of the Venini glassworks in Murano. There are around 300 pieces in all: some one-off creations, others prototypes for more extensive production. They are grouped around 30 different types and techniques so that you can appreciate the difference between lustrous red curved surfaces and aqueous green volumes which are slightly ‘corroded’ in the process of fabrication in a manner suggesting ancient Roman glass that has been under the sea for centuries.

Scarpa had an eye for ornament and precious materials, but was also inspired by nature, and certain of the pieces even resemble exotic marine creatures such as jellyfish speckled with dots. This was an artist with a liquid imagination who could capture light in transparent lenses or in mirrors resembling fragments of mosaic. Some of the pieces are like microcosms distilling Venetian memories.

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Beyond matters of decoration and technique, are questions of form, and here Scarpa reveals his mastery of volume, silhouette, profile, line and detail. The glass objects themselves are accompanied in some cases by the artist’s sketches which capture the essential spirit of each design usually by evoking the profile. Some of them are jewel-like and opulent, others are classic and restrained in geometry. For his epitaph, Scarpa chose to describe himself as ‘a man of Byzantium who came to Venice by way of Greece’.

This exhibition of plates, vases, bottles, flasks and pitchers in different colours and forms, suggests that Scarpa was also inspired by the ceramics and pottery of ancient China and Japan. Beyond individual works he aspired to pure types. Working with a style of his own, he sought out timeless shapes. Glass stands between the mineral and liquid worlds and is fused in fire. There is something alchemical about this process which in the Veneto is rooted in traditions lost in the mists of time. As in his architecture, so in his design of objects, Scarpa attempted to tap the underlying streams of the past but in forms of haunting modern abstraction.

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Carlo Scarpa Venini 1932-1947

Venue: Le Stanze del Vetro, Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice
Dates: until 6 January

 

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