There are few people who can claim to have dedicated 70 years to their artistic muse, but Italian glassblower Lino Tagliapietra is one such person. Hailing from the island of Murano near Venice, the 84-year-old man has more than 70 years of experience in glassblowing. His work can be found in the collections of 35 internationally esteemed museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Corning Museum of Glass in New York.
His first solo exhibition in China, Lino Tagliapietra: One of a Kind, features 48 large-scale glass art masterpieces and is being staged at the Liuli China Museum Shanghai. The show is designed to introduce art lovers to modern glass art techniques pioneered by traditional Venetian masters.
"The art of Tagliapietra offers a respite from the pace and immediacy of the modern world. And within the often hollow vacuum of contemporary art, he offers a revelation of sincerity," said Chang Yi, curator of the exhibition and the founder of the museum.
Becoming a master
Tagliapietra was born in 1934 on the island of Murano which has been at the heart of Italian glass production since the Middle Ages. Raised and brought up in this environment, he was drawn to glass art as a small child. He recalls he would stand on tiptoes and peer into the glass factories where artisans worked with molten glass. Thousands of ideas began to pop into the small boy's head as he was mesmerized by the magical flickering flame of the hot ball of molten glass.
Like most glassmakers, Tagliapietra started out as an apprentice in his youth. At the age of 10, he summoned up the courage to tell his parents that his dream was to work with glass. Despite their strong opposition, he dropped out of school and began working as a trainee in the studio of glass master Archimede Seguso. He started out performing such basic tasks as mopping the floor and fetching water. By his twenties, he had mastered most of the complicated skills of molten glass, including the "flying hand" technique whereby blowers use nothing more than their hands to shape the glass. At the age of 23, he was given the title of "maestro," the youngest artist in the history of Italian glass to earn this accolade.
And as the birthplace of the Renaissance, his national homeland of Italy helped cultivate his instinct for color. While most glass artists purchase prefabricated glass materials from manufacturers to use in their work, Tagliapietra created his own colors, experimenting with different color combinations. His breakthrough series was entitled Tear Angle. Each tear-shaped sculpture features a narrow base, wide center and a delicately thin neck, which has become a signature shape of his work.
"The glass for me is everything. It is culture, passion and a big gift," said Tagliapietra at the opening ceremony of the exhibition. He also showed the audience his hands - broad, rough and powerful - which have been associated with burning balls of molten glass for over 70 years.
The class of glass
It is difficult to imagine how many young people today would willingly face the suffocating heat of a 1,000 C kiln oven in order to make a living, let alone choose to do so as a lifelong career.
Tagliapietra shared his concerns for the future development of the glassmaking art in Venice. Asked if he believes Venice is still an important center of glassmaking he expressed some doubt.
"I feel that Venice in the past represented a major presence for the glass community. Now we are a little bit weak," he said.
Records show that in the year 2000, the island of Murano boasted some 2,000 glass studios; today only 400 remain. Yet the decline of Murano glass factories is not the only reason for glass art's slow decline. Other reasons include the lack of interest in the island's heritage among young people, as well as a booming tourism industry which has seen prices skyrocket despite the proliferation of poor quality glass products.
"Maybe because of the changes in society people no longer love to blow glass. They prefer computers and doing other pursuits. We need young people to blow glass," he said, adding that there are not many people in the industry. While there used to be more glass workers than inhabitants of Murano, the number has reduced sharply in recent years.
"I hope Murano will change," he added. "In the past we had a lot of problems, but we still found a way to get through them."
An unspoken secret
Tagliapietra has personally been trying to transform the stagnating development of the Murano glass industry from as early as the 1970s.
During this decade, the island's glass industry started to suffer as a result of postwar economics and cultural shifts. Few people were willing to spend their days struggling in front of a searing fire and the once flourishing art of glass began to fade and diminish.
At the time, Tagliapietra was faced with two options: let Venetian glass disappear or stoke the flames elsewhere. He chose the latter, a controversial choice at the time because it meant the secrets of Venetian glass would be revealed to the outside world.
In 1979 he accepted an invitation to teach at the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle. Selflessly, he bequeathed the thousand-year-old traditions harbored in Murano to eager students which then gave rise to the American Studio Glass Movement.
"All that we learn comes from someone or somewhere," he said. "Knowledge does not belong to any one person or entity. No one brought the technical know-how to Murano; it was developed as glassblowers worked together and pushed each other to try new and different things - this is essential."
Date: Until March 4, 2018
Venue: Liuli China Museum
Address: 25 Taikang Road
Admission: 80-120 yuan
Lino Tagliapietra (third from left) introduces his art works to the audience. Photo: Qi Xijia/GT
Tagliapietra's art works Photo: Qi Xijia/GT
Tagliapietra's art works Photo: Qi Xijia/GT