Ettore Sottsass and the alchemy of glass

On San Giorgio Maggiore island – a peaceful break but of high art density far from the buzz of Venice Biennale’s Arsenale and Giardini – Le Stanze del Vetro pays homage to Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Curated by Luca Massimo Barbero, the exhibition Ettore Sottsass: the glass celebrates Sottsass’s fascination with the ancient tradition of Murano, a passion born in 1946 while he was working for the craft section of La Triennale di Milano.

An exuberant parade of shapes and colours unfolds along the scenographic display designed by Annebelle Selldorf and it retraces 60 years of experimental glass production. Unmindful of preconceived technical rules and traditional aesthetic values, Sottsass plays and explores with irony the possibilities of glass, by imagining compositions of hazardous geometric shapes and strong chromatic juxtaposition. The vase is no longer a functional container but a creation that does not fear either the rejection of classic symmetry, the decoration with pendants or the introduction of elements and techniques foreign to the tradition.

In the 80s Sottsass introduces the use of chemical glue thus breaking the process of Murano glassblowing and he creates the Memphis series (1982, 1986), visionary compositions named after stars and Venetian women, displayed in the first room as jewels in a backlit metallic grid to highlight their overlapping and transparency. In the rooms that follow, the glass experiments raise as totems over wide and solid pedestals and open and light metallic supports, underlining the various formal solutions adopted by Sottsass. The fragility of the glass is supported by the strength of the marble in the Big & Small Works series (1995) – produced for Bischofberger gallery – it is embraced in the three chromatic variations of Luna (1997) and it is overcome in the precarious balance of the elements ringed on metallic bars in the Capricci series (1998). The interaction between different materials is re-presented in the Kachina series (2004-2006) – for Mourmans gallery – as a pantheon of zoomorphic pagan idols inspired by Pueblo Indians’ dolls, in which transparent and matt glass is paired with corian. In the last rooms the lines draw phytomorphic vases with glass branches in the Xiangzheng series (1999), until they form a forest of colours in the installation commissioned in 1999 by the emir Saud bin Muhammed Al-Thani for his Millennium House in Doha.

Sottsass frees the glass from its traditional mechanical functionality and he renews the outcomes of an ancient manufacturing with his universe of vases now become sculptures, while always recognising the essential role of the master craftsmen. Through an alchemic, almost magic process, the glaziers mould the lines of his drawings in incandescent colourful utopias, “inflating muffled music” in their long rods, miraculously twisting, silently stretching the matter, “as in the ballet of a magic rite”, which Sottsass looks mesmerised at. “The softness originates the fragility, the fire originates the colour, the flare originates the transparency. […] The glass comes out of the fire all clean, intact, bright, and perfect, exactly as I thought it would and maybe even more”. At the end the glass is there, and it can even be admired until the 30th July 2017.