CORNING, NY — The 19th-century glass models of marine invertebrates created by father-son duo Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka were intended to capture as accurately as possible the delicate bodies of underwater creatures. They’re now a record of an earlier ocean. Those narratives of scientific art and environmental conservation are fused in Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, on view at the Corning Museum of Glass.
The majority of the 70 models in Fragile Legacy come from Cornell University, which purchased around 500 of them in 1885 for marine biology instruction. Later forgotten, when photography and video rendered them obsolete, they were unearthed from storage in the 1960s. Decades of conservation on the frangible jellyfish, anemones, and other specimens followed, much of it led by glassworker Elizabeth Brill. Broken octopus tentacles and snapped sea slug tendrils were carefully mended. Many of the restorations are on view for the first time in Fragile Legacy.
The Dresden-based Blaschka family’s work in glass dates back to the 15th century. While much of their practice involved common glasswork like artificial eyes and jewelry, a society-wide enthusiasm for natural history in the 19th century inspired Leopold and Rudolf’s unconventional focus on science. Marine invertebrates are notoriously difficult to preserve — they lose their shape out of water and their color when kept in alcohol — so the Blaschkas managed to provide the most accurate models possible of these evasive animals.
“Our 150-year-old Blaschka collection is a time capsule, pulling us back to explore the biodiversity of a bygone era,” writes Drew Harvell, Cornell professor and curator of Blaschka marine invertebrates, in the accompanying publication A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas’ Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk. “This was not only a time of plentiful seas, before the Industrial Revolution, but also the age of natural history.”
The book focuses on Harvell’s international journey to track down living examples of the Blaschka models. A film by David O. Brown, also called Fragile Legacy and screening in the exhibition, further explores how more than a century of change in the ocean has impacted these animals so exquisitely portrayed in glass. The context reinforces the initial scientific purpose of the Blaschka models — to portray the biodiversity of a place mostly inaccessible to the public in the 19th century — and emphasizes how both glass and the living ocean can be so easily shattered.
“The species represented here are in many cases under threat,” Marvin Bolt, curator of science and technology at the Corning Museum, told Hyperallergic during a tour of Fragile Legacy. “It’s a way to make people aware of the broader picture.” In one display, a video clip showing the tentacles of orange cup coral, endangered by the warming of the ocean as well as acidification, is joined by a luminous Blaschka model of the creature.
In the United States, people tend to be more familiar with Harvard University’s Blaschka glass flowers, which recently returned to view in a newly renovated gallery, than they are with the invertebrates. The flowers were the pair’s later work, following the production of hundreds of invertebrate models sold as teaching aids and private curios around the world. “This was the proving ground — this is what got them the expertise and the fame,” Bolt said.
The Corning showed some of the startlingly realistic flowers, which even have touches of artificial decay in their design, in the 2007 exhibition Botanical Wonders. Yet as Executive Director Karol Wight explained, Fragile Legacy — along with another current exhibition focused on microscopes — is part of a new emphasis on science in the museum. “We really want to bring more stories of science and technology into the galleries,” she said.
Process is very much present in Fragile Legacy, which includes 21 of the hundreds of gorgeous drawings and paintings that the Blaschkas created as studies for their models. These were at first based on natural history illustrations, later on living specimens that they kept in a saltwater aquarium in their studio. A flameworking table, used to bellow extra oxygen onto a lamp over which the glass was melted and formed, joins heavy tweezers and other glass tools in the display, all part of the museum’s 1993 joint acquisition with Harvard of the Blaschkas’ studio materials. Smaller readymade components that quickened the mass production of the models, like glass eyes and shapes, are exhibited nearby.
“Looking closely at these, we were able to discover a lot more about how they made them,” said Associate Conservator Astrid van Giffen.
Even if you can see how they did it, the creation of the creatures — from the thinness of the glass to the hand coloring — is still incredible. The Corning is offering “Make Your Own Glass” projects in conjunction with the exhibition, and I can say from just one tiny flameworking attempt at a sea slug that it is no easy task: the melting glass felt like it was constantly about to slip off, and every ripple on the slug’s body became a precarious piece of possible destruction. Even for expert glassmakers at the Corning, who are creating a Blaschka-themed “aquarium” in the hot glass amphitheater, achieving lightness in a jellyfish or fluidity of movement in a sea worm is a challenge. Whether it’s a squid lifting its arms as if caught in motion or a sea jelly whose trailing tentacles are as elegant as a crystal chandelier, each Blaschka model is a radiant depiction of an elusive creature of the deep. And today these ocean animals are in as precarious a position as the most fragile work in glass.
Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka continues at the Corning Museum of Glass (One Museum Way, Corning, New York) through January 8, 2017.