Long-time readers of “Hoarded Ordinaries” might remember the entry I posted after seeing the glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in March, 2006. Crafted by 19th century glass artisans Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, these botanical specimens amazed me with their life-like detail. “Hearing the phrase ‘glass flowers,’” I wrote, “I imagined the objects on exhibit would look like glass first and flowers second: pretty, colorful, and entirely artificial looking, more art than science.” What I’d expected when I went to see the Blaschkas’ glass flowers, in other words, was something like the work of Dale Chihuly.
The countless flower-like forms in “Through the Looking Glass,” the exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts through August 8th, are exactly what the Blaschkas’ flowers aren’t. Commissioned by a botany professor in 1886, the Blaschkas’ glass flowers are realistic specimens that capture plant anatomy in painstaking detail. Dale Chihuly’s flowering forms, on the other hand, suggest the color and shape of flowers as seen in a dream. The Blaschkas captured the anatomical details of plants as they are, and Dale Chihuly captures the contours and colors of flowers as they could be. “These are flowers,” you might say in response to the Blaschkas’ handiwork; of Chihuly’s specimens, “these are flowers on drugs.” Any questions?
“It’s like standing inside a kaleidoscope,” one museum-goer observed. “It’s like something out of Willy Wonka,” another woman noted. Stepping into Dale Chihuly’s fertile, flowering world, you’re forced to resort to metaphor, the forms before you not quite matching anything you’ve seen before. “It kind of looks like a cactus,” one visitor said in reference to Chihuly’s “Lime Green Icicle Tower,” and I overheard other onlookers comparing various pieces to fruit, candy, and an entire menagerie of exotic, sinuous creatures.
Turning the corner to consider the room-length wilderness of “Mille Fiori,” for instance, you might as well leave language at the door, the forms before you suggesting a hybrid riot of animal, vegetable, and miracle.
“Oh, my!” was how one child described it, and she stole the words right out of my mouth. Is this a marsh filled with reedy tangles or an exploded candy-factory offering a wealth of candy canes and rainbow-hued jawbreakers?
Time and again, I heard parents quizzing their wide-eyed youngsters: “Which one is your favorite?” And time and again, I heard children resorting to fanciful descriptions: “The pink snaky one!” “The one that looks like licorice!” “The peppermint!” Adults, too, pointed, gesticulated, and struggled to categorize what they saw. A debate arose, for instance, around a huddle of pointy-ended black blobs: were they tubers, snails, seals, or shrews? Unlike the Blaschkas’ glass flowers, which are politely labeled with genus and species, the creations in Chiluly-Land defy categorization, blurring the boundary between plant and animal, actual and imaginary. This ain’t your Grandma’s flower garden, but a psychedelic romp through a land of light and color.
As if the thousand flowers of “Mille Fiori” weren’t mind-boggling enough, the glowing expanse of Chihuly’s “Persian Ceiling” evokes an other-worldly, aquatic realm. Are these underwater flowers, terrestrial jellyfish, or translucent denizens of a yet-to-be-discovered planet?
The Blaschkas themselves made glass invertebrates–”jellyfish, anemones, planarians (flat worms), polychaetes (tube-dwelling worms), sponges, radiolarians and assorted molluscs”–that reside in Dublin’s Natural History Museum, which I visited in February, 2006…but again, the Blaschkas’ crystal jellies are worlds apart from Chihuly’s aquatic creatures. The Blaschkas captured the weird colors and stunning shapes of creatures that actually exist: their work mesmerizes because it suggests things you might see if you traveled the world with open eyes. Chihuly’s work, on the other hand, offers a fantastic glimpse into a world that never was: the muscae volitantes of imagination’s eye.