Reflections on Chihuly’s Macchia
1993 | Robert Hobbs
Derived from the Latin macula, the Italian word “macchia” connotes simply a stain or a spot, but it has a much richer range of meaning. Since the Renaissance, macchia has been associated with a sketchy way of applying the initial color to a drawing or painting. Particularly appropriate for the late style of the Venetian painter Titian, the word characterizes his emphasis on brushwork and summary treatment of form. In the seventeenth century, macchia designated the special quality of improvisational sketches that appear to be nature’s miraculous creation rather than mere human work.
Two centuries later, attention was transferred from the work of art to its creator; at that time, macchia signified the initial idea originating in the mind or eye of the artist that becomes the focus of a sketch. This later, highly romantic definition that emphasized the power of artists to reveal nature through their special sensibilities served as a basis for the art of the Macchiaioli, the Italian counterpart to the French Impressionists.
The Italian artist Italo Scanga suggested Macchia as the title of the series of work begun in 1981 by Dale Chihuly. The ability of the word “macchia” to encapsulate the concept of the spontaneous outpouring of artistic sensibility may have been the reason why Scanga recommended it to his friend. The word choice encompasses more than the mere fact that a distinguishing feature of this series is the artist’s preference for splotches of color. When Chihuly appropriates the term “Macchia” for his series, he gives back to the word some of its traditional meanings, particularly the emphasis on spontaneity, on artistic collaboration with technique rather than mere control of it, and on close kinship between artist and nature. His works with their vibrant dashes of color embody both interpretations of the sketch: the artist’s conception and the initial realization of it.
When Chihuly appropriates the term “Macchia” for his series, he gives back to the word some of its traditional meanings, particularly the emphasis on spontaneity, on artistic collaboration with technique rather than mere control of it.
Chihuly and the Creative Act
In conversation, Chihuly repeatedly refers to the mystery and magic of glass. “My work,” he concludes, “to this day revolves around a simple set of circumstances: fire, molten glass, human breath, spontaneity, centrifugal force, gravity.” All these circumstances accept the immediacy of glass, particularly its tendency to respond to the slightest nuances of pressure created by the glass blower’s tools. Coupled with this gestural quality is a direct response to human breath - the only three-dimensional art to do so. Reflecting this Èlan vital, the Macchia at times appear to fulfill the seventeenth-century desire to view spontaneous creation as more the work of nature than the hand of the artist.
This natural quality is heightened in Chihuly’s art through its ready acknowledgment of the effects of centrifugal force and gravity during those fleeting moments when the final form of the blown glass is set. These two natural forces acting on blown forms endow the finished pieces with the contradictory qualities of transcendence, which is enacted through the momentary suspension of the molten glass by the centrifugal force of the quickly turning pontil rod, and acquiescence to fate, which is communicated through a yielding of the glass to the forces of gravity.
An American in Venice
Although the Italian word “macchia” might appear an affectation for an American artist, Chihuly’s experiences working with glass blowers on the island of Murano near Venice preclude such an assessment. In 1968, he received a Fulbright Fellowship to study glass at the Venini Fabbrica, initiating a dialogue with Italian glass that continues to the present. At the Venini factory, he was the first American artist/glass blower, rather than designer, to work there. Although his initial experience resulted in a sci-fi prototype for a lamp design, which depended on his immersion in Minimalist/Conceptual ideas and knowledge of contemporary Italian designs, he responded almost a decade later to the challenges of traditional Venetian glass in such series as the Baskets, Seaforms, and Macchia. In his art, Chihuly found modern equivalencies for filigree designs (latticinio) and woven glass (varo tessuto). He adapted the Venetian practice of blowing molten glass into molds for his own dynamic purposes, eschewing the symmetry of Muranese production for an asymmetry more indicative of the vicissitudes of the process. The bubble of molten glass is plunged into a metal optical mold, imprinting a “memory” that will be recalled when, in the final moments of forming, the vessel is spun open. The resulting undulating forms can be seen as a critique of the handkerchief shapes that Fulvio Bianconi designed for Venini in the late 1940s. These were, in turn, inspired by the less refined slumped glass vases created by Luigi Fontana for the 1936 triennial design exhibition in Milan. In the Macchia, Chihuly makes this former static orientation dynamic and enlarges this conservative scale to awesome proportions. He heightens tensions between inside and outside through dissonant color combinations and through contrasts of opacity, translucency, and transparency. Rather than continuing the preciousness of the filigree of the Bianconi examples, he creates a bolder impact by rolling chips of colored glass into the walls of the vessel for a mottled effect.
He heightens tensions between inside and outside through dissonant color combinations and through contrasts of opacity, translucency, and transparency.
Chihuly's Macchia perpetuate the vitalist spirit that traditionally begins with the writings of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who enjoyed great popularity at the turn of the century on both sides of the Atlantic and who deeply impressed such artists as Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe and later Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Believing that reality was an ongoing process perceived in immediate experience, Bergson championed intuition over intelligence and instinct over intellect. He believed that reality’s flow should not be obstructed by intellectual constructions, and he championed empathy as a way for people to understand their own organic connections with life. Vitalism is particularly evident in the dynamic qualities of Chihuly’s Macchia, which look as if they have only momentarily been frozen in time. Their strong allusions to an ongoing duration connect them with vitalism’s flow of life.
This vitalist current in Chihuly’s work may be a profound response to the deaths of his brother and father in 1956 and 1957 respectively when Chihuly was still in his teens. These tragic losses may have intensified the life force for him. In Chihuly’s work the breath of life is maintained as a central / creative force. Glass has become a means for symbolically integrating death with life. The process of glass blowing represents a continuing metamorphosis involving radical changes from molten to frozen liquid states. In a 1986 statement that may be construed both literally as a formalist comment on the work and as a revealing metaphysical or psychological one, Chihuly wrote, “I think that glass has an interior space that's unlike other materials, and I think that probably since 1977, I have been dealing with interior spaces.”
The Dark Side
Similar to dreams, works of art may manifest positive associations that entice both artists and viewers, and they may serve also as necessary projections of personal and societal fears. This darker side of the Macchia is suggested in the term's everyday usage as a spot, stain, blemish, blot. Such expressions a stampare alla macchia (to print a pirated edition or to print clandestinely) alla macchia (secretly), and darsi alla macchia (to take to the woods or turn highwayman) all allude to the potentially more clandestine side of the Macchia series.
For Chihuly’s Macchia this darker side might refer to the fact that the techniques of glassmaking were carefully safeguarded until the twentieth century. In Venice in 1292, the Grand Council decreed that all glasshouses were to be confined to the island of Murano, about an hour’s rowing distance from Venice. Ostensibly this was because of the fire hazard of the glass furnaces, but it also meant that the industry could be more effectively nurtured and controlled. Glassmakers were strictly forbidden, on pain of death, to leave Venice or to teach their skills to foreigners.
The secrecy of the craft was stringently maintained until 1962 when Harvey Littleton started teaching glass blowing at the University of Wisconsin. With the development of the studio glass movement internationally, through Littleton’s efforts and those of his students, including Chihuly, the secrets have been revealed, but the transformation of sand and a few other elements into glass remains seemingly magical. It is particularly apparent in the sense of wonder elicited by Chihuly’s glass.
The provisional balance of Chihuly’s Macchia is a key aesthetic element that reinforces the fragility of glass, its openness to change, and its power as a metaphor of modern life. Although the balance is often precarious, the pieces themselves are never awkward. Looking inevitable, their tentativeness endows them with a strange and alluring force.
Robert Hobbs, The Rhoda Thalhimer Endowed Professor of American Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University