Friday June 29, 2018 | by Chelsea Liu

EXHIBITION: For its grand opening, the new Portheimka Glass Museum in Prague presents a Karen LaMonte exhibit "Clothed in Light"

Constructed in the 1720's to serve as a summer residence for the aristocratic Dientzenhofer family, the Baroque Portheimka Summer Palace has been repurposed as the Portheimka Glass Museum, the first institution devoted exclusively to glass art in Prague. The national cultural monument, named on its website “a baroque pearl of the Prague district of Smíchov,” was converted into a glass museum by Museum Kampa with the support of the Jan and Meda Mládek Foundation. Portheimka will present a permanent exhibition, host workshops for children, and is currently unveiling its first temporary exhibition, a display of American artist Karen LaMonte’s spectral glass figures that will remain on view through November 4, 2018.

According to Helena Musilová, director of the Museum Kampa, the idea for Portheimka’s conversion into a glass exhibition space arose in April of 2017. Previously, there had been no museum of glass or any specialized institution devoted to art glass in Prague, despite considerable popular interest in Czech glass among both tourists and residents. In 2016, Museum Kampa dedicated a large exhibition to Czech glass masters, and soon began looking to expand and find a permanent home for the project. Portheimka, with its sumptuous history and ideal location, provided the perfect solution. Museum Kampa invited the art glass expert Milan Hlaveš from the Museum of Applied Arts and other collaborators to join them in realizing this dream, and in June of 2018, Portheimka was opened to the public in its new incarnation as a glass art institution. According to statements from the representatives of the Kampa Museum, it is not intended to be a purely classic museum, but rather an interactive, experiential, and educational space. Visitors are invited to wander through a series of unique and charming rooms - the Chapel, the Dining Room, the Garden, the Cabinet of Curiosities, and the Hall with a Chandelier - and immerse themselves in the interplay of the palace’s richly baroque atmosphere and the contemporary art objects housed within.

Until now, Portheimka’s main offering has been its permanent exhibit: "Glass as Art." This exhibit comprises works by legendary personalities of Czech glass including the late René Roubíček, Jaroslava Brychtová, and Vladimír Kopecký as well as a number of younger artists, some of whom hail directly from Portheim. Also on display at Portheimka is a selection of around thirty works by renowned foreign artists: Dale Chihuly, H. K. Littleton, Erwin Eisch, Kyohei Fujita, Isabel De Obaldia, Mare Saare, Jeff Zimmer, De La Torre brothers, and others. Now joining this diverse array is Karen LaMonte, in the institution’s first temporary exhibition, curated by Milan Hlaveš. “Clothed in Light”will feature LaMonte’s signature sculptures of three-dimensional, life-sized dresses rendered in crystalline glass: haunted investigations into corporeality and femininity.

The choice of LaMonte is intuitive considering the artist’s close ties to the Czech Republic. After her graduation from the Rhode Island School of Design in the United States, LaMonte was awarded the Fulbright Fellowship and continued her studies in the atelier of Vladimír Kopecký at the Academy of Arts, Architecture & Design in Prague. There, she learned and mastered the glass casting technique, first developed by Czech artists Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová, that would become central in her practice. LaMonte also went on to work with glassmakers from the North Bohemian town of Železný Brod, and to this day is still based in the Czech Republic. As Portheimka’s website has it: “Thanks to this place, the Czech Republic became for Karen LaMonte not only her home but literally her destiny.”

And there are thematic affinities, too. In its description of LaMonte's exhibit, Portheimka writes: “Admirers of her garb are fascinated by the flawlessness and fragile beauty of almost dreamy metaphorical objects, the mysterious translucence of its matte surfaces as well as the genuine volume of richly pleated fabrics contrasting with the half dematerialized silvery-like imprints of absent women’s bodies inside the glowing matter.” LaMonte's classically inspired, evocative sculptures seem eminently suited to display at the Portheimka, itself steeped in and carrying the weight of the present past, neither fully ancient nor contemporary. Their tensions map well onto the space: both at once out of time yet still imbued with life and spirit, and all the more powerful for it. 

Curiously, however, Portheimka also mentions of LaMonte’s glass garments, which are still her main form and focus: “To many it seemed a trivial idea without a deeper content.” Although Portheimka goes on to unequivocally laud LaMonte as “one of the most renowned personages of contemporary glass art,” it remains for the viewer to decide on the contentions surrounding art and craft, surface and concept. 

In any event, LaMonte’s addition to the roster of artists at Portheimka only further suggests its relevance and importance as an intriguing new space committed to the complex, immortal life of glass. 

IF YOU GO:

“Karen LaMonte: Clothed in Light”
June 29 - November 4, 2018
Štefánikova 68/1
150 00 Prague 5 – Smíchov
Tel: +420 776 036 111
Website: http://www.museumportheimka.cz/

GLASS: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for 35 years.