Melting glass over a flame, the 19th-century Czech father-and-son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka replicated in fragile detail specimens of the natural world. Their flowers made for Harvard University are sometimes celebrated as the “Sistine Chapel of the glass world.” Before those 4,000 botanical models, the Blaschkas created a whole glass menagerie of invertebrate sea creatures.
A group of those models — long hidden away in storage — went on view at the Harvard Museum of Natural History last year, after an extensive eight-year restoration under the direction of Elizabeth Brill. Brill is based in Corning, New York, where another gathering of the Blaschka sea creatures is on permanent view at the Corning Museum of Glass — which will also open an exhibition titled Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Models of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka in May 2016. Back in 2007, the museum held an exhibition featuring the Blaschkas’ glass flowers, on loan from Harvard, alongside a small selection of meticulous preparatory drawings from the over 900 in the Corning’s Rakow Research Library. The flowers are undeniably beautiful, with their lifelike petals and winding stems, but it’s good to see that the less traditionally attractive sea slugs and squids are getting the equal recognition they deserve, having brought the ocean and its biodiversity to public attention at a time when it was still a largely unexplored part of the planet.
The Blaschka family’s glasswork goes back to the 15th century, but their practice in the 19th century coincided with a widespread enthusiasm for natural history — you could skin and stuff a tiger for museum display and still get a relatively accurate depiction of the animal. Yet invertebrates were trickier to preserve, losing their color and collapsing into grayish blobs in alcohol, a process that barely suggested their living anatomy. The Blaschkas made hand-colored glass octopi, jellyfish, anemones, sea squirts, and just about any spineless ocean creature known at the time, and sold them through Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, Inc. (You can see a catalogue digitized on the website of the Harvard University Library.) Thanks to the Blaschkas, scientists, students, and curious Victorians could all get a close look at an Atlantic white-spotted octopus, for example, while scuba diving and submarines were still rudimentary in design.
The Corning also has some of their glass-working tools on display, part of the museum’s 1993 joint acquisition, with Harvard, of the surviving Blaschka studio materials. Hefty and harsh with their metal barbs and pliers, the tools are a contrast to the elegantly waving tentacles of a nearby pair of squids. Employing a flameworking, or lampworking, technique, the Blaschkas melted glass over an alcohol lamp and then bent it with these tools, later connecting parts with copper wire or glue and hand-painting the details. Initially they pored over natural history drawings before making their own designs, and sometimes did dissections, but later they kept aquariums in their Dresden studio. The liveliness in their little models, each between only one and eight inches long, reflects a passionate enthusiasm for discovering the often alien-looking creatures of the underwater world.
Leopold died in 1895, and his son Rudolf in 1939, but their names endure in the glass-art world; the Corning’s new Contemporary Art + Design Wing contains a giant flower sculpture by Anne and Patrick Poirier as a tribute to the Blaschka flowers. Today we have no shortage of high-resolution images of underwater sea creatures, but the Blaschkas’ skill in creating these models, which often include natural imperfections, remains remarkable.
View digitized selections from the Blaschka Archive at the Corning Museum of Glass online. The Fragile Legacy exhibition on the Blaschka glass specimens will be held at the museum May 16, 2016 to January 8, 2017.