Blowing Life Into Glass for Almost Fifty Years

Jiri Suhajek may be apolitical, but don’t call his art conformist

By Celine Sidani

Suhajak has acquired a reputation for adding decorative flairs to his work. Photo courtesy Ceskatelevize.

Suhajek has won the Czech Best Design of the Year award seven times. Photo courtesy Ceskatelevize.

A Google image search of Jiri Suhajek will show him wearing a woven fedora hat and a thick black safari vest. Around his neck is a dusty crystal on a thin black rope, his curly black hair tied in a low ponytail.

That is exactly how he looks sitting at a table at U Parlamentu, a revamped 1930s restaurant defined by dark wooden walls, a sleek bar and smoky air. It is also how he looked in the framed black and white photograph hanging on the wall directly above the table.

“I’ve been coming to this restaurant for 50 years,” Suhajek said. “Those people in the frames next to mine were great artists and philosophers. They were my friends, but they are now dead.” He let out a chuckle and took a swig of his beer. He tapped the waiter on the back and ordered us two shots of pear Slivovitz, a Czech brandy.

“You have to take a sip if you wish to see the world through Jiri’s eyes,” the waiter said.

“I like to make crazy, entertaining things, and what else to do besides women?”

Jiri Suhajek is an active, 71-year-old Czech glass artist and painter. Amongst hundreds of individual pieces, the artist is most famous for his series of colorful, curvy cross-legged women, whose long legs melt over the tables they pose on. But one of his favorites pieces is a flirty, milky white martini glass resembling Marilyn Monroe’s flying dress.

 “I just like to make crazy, entertaining things,” Suhajek said. “And what else to do besides women?”

 Suhajek pointed to a pamphlet with a timeline of his life and laughed. “I am starting to forget things,” he said.

According to the timeline, he has won Best Design of the Year in Prague seven times, in addition to awards from Spain, Russia, Ukraine and Germany. “For fun,” he said, the artist lectures at universities and art centers in places like Mexico, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Bold and apolitical, Suhajek’s subject matter was considered cutting edge but inoffensive 40 years ago, when the communist regime’s stronghold on censorship banned many other artists from expressing themselves.

If he was not a political revolutionary, Suhajek hardly considers himself a conformist. He identifies as an “unusual combination of artist and craftsman,” a combination he said set him apart from his contemporaries, who usually “played it safe.”

For instance, while Suhajek was creating his series of seductive women, his contemporary, Czech artist Jan Stohanzl, was creating rational, objective glass works that fit within national styles that were consistent with communist aesthetics. Most of his glassworks were sleek geometric shapes with minimal color.

An early stage in the glass blowing process is to blow through a special rod to form the basic shape of the work. Photo courtesy of Jiri Suhajek.

Blowing through a special rod to shape the glass is one of the first steps in glass blowing. Photo courtesy of Jiri Suhajek.

Still, unlike many other visual artists, glass artists enjoyed relative freedom during the communist era.

After establishing independence in 1918 following World War I, Czechoslovakia quickly developed its own spunky artistic identity, particularly in glass. Czech artists were among the first to give glass an aesthetic function and were soon recognized by galleries in New York and Brussels. Moser, a company Suhajek has been linked to for 40 years, received awards internationally for its emphasis on glass as a decorative art.

Moser’s international success continued past 1948, when the communist dictatorship began ruling over Czechoslovakia, but for the next four decades, the mass production of glass took precedence over the creation of individualistic, high-quality works.

These limits did not seem to affect Suhajek.

“I don’t involve myself in political art,” he said, referencing contemporary Czech artists like David Cerny, who is notorious for his bold political statements, such as a floating sculpture on the Vltava River of a hand giving the middle finger to the country’s president. “I hate politics,” Suhajek continued. “It’s all about entertainment for me. Why would the communist regime have restricted my crazy glasswork?”

Suhajek recognizes that his affiliation with Moser worked in his favor but said that his connections were not the sole reason for his success. He said that he owes his international praise to his education.

“I was lucky to be educated in both Czech and English approaches and philosophies,” he said.

To quell a growing democratic movement just before the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Suhajek was given the opportunity to leave what he described as his “artistically slow” country to study at the Royal College of Art in London.

Though he had began his education in glass casting and design at an early age in Novy Bor and Karlovy Vary, two regions in the Czech Republic renowned for their glasswork, he had not once experienced glassblowing in his home country as a young artist.

“It’s funny because I was a student of art, and glass specifically, for ten years, but I had never blown glass.”

“I accidentally began to blow glass,” Suhajek said.

The glassmaker listed the minimal technology available in his home country as one of the setbacks of his education.

“In ’68 I still hadn’t touched a furnace. There were just no furnaces in my country,” he said. “It’s funny because I was a student of art, and glass specifically, for ten years, but I had never blown glass.”

He explained that when he started at the Royal College of Art in 1968, he blew glass every single day. “It was my destiny,” the artist said.

In London, Suhajek received scholarships to attend schools and workshops in Venice, Holland and Edinburgh. These scholarships, he said modestly, were given “out of sympathy” for his country’s political upheaval.

Studying in London was not an easy ride for Suhajek. “I only had five pounds (8 USD) the first ten days I was away from my family,” he said. “My parents didn’t even know where England was on the map.” He said his parents never wished to leave their life in Pardubice, a city with a population of 89,000 compared to Prague’s population of about one million.

Suhajek owes his early successes to his first friend in London, Auri Shoa. Unlike other art students at the Royal College of Art who shunned Suhajek for taking up table tennis and basketball instead of cigarettes and whiskey, Shoa offered to help him with his financial situation. Shoa’s parents were affluent business people and bought Suhajek and his girlfriend a flat and invited them to family gatherings. “I didn’t need to pay anything,” Suhajek said. “And his brother said he never gave a thing to anyone.”

In 1972, Suhajek made his way back to the Czechoslovakia, despite a crackdown on artistic freedom in his country by hardened post-invasion government. He continued to work with Moser. It was where his family was and where his “heart was,” Suhajek said.

Lukas Jaburek, art director at Moser Museum in Karlovy Vary, is both a friend and colleague of the artist. He said that Czech glassmakers have always been “leaders of the art world,” and therefore have an international reach.

“Glass is a traditional industry in the Czech Republic that has certainly improved in recent years,” he said attributing the advancements to the increase in skill and creativity of well-educated artists like Suhajek.

“Jiri is a best-seller and is very spontaneous,” Jaburek said. “You cannot stop him when he steps into a glass factory.”

Suhajek has gone on to create an 11-foot-tall golden samurai, a series of coral trees made of spiraled glass and a four-headed rainbow dragon. One of his most recent pieces, the Burning Bush, is a 12-foot-wide sculpture resembling a flame. It is made out of 800 yellow, pink, and red long glass spirals intertwined with metal. Today, the wild flame sits in Shanghai, where eight of his other works are on display.

He currently has works showcased in New York, Florida, Washington, London, Italy, Spain, China and Japan.

Daniela Karasova, professor of Czech Architecture at the Council on International Educational Exchange, Prague, said that Suhajek should be more recognized than he is. “Nowadays reputation depends too much on promotion and brand name,” she said.

Many owe the subtle reputation of Czech glassmakers to the country’s history of mass production.

“Glass artists were allowed to do abstract designs because glass wasn’t considered fine art,” Tina Oldknow, curator of modern and contemporary glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, told online publication Glass on Web.

Though glassmakers were generally more liberated, they had limited control over the distribution of their individual works. The state paid glass artists a base salary and often sold their work abroad, according to Glass on Web.

“The artists didn’t know what their work sold for or if the public liked it,” Oldknow told the publication,

One of Suhajek’s contemporaries, Karel Wunsch, told the Czech Museum of Glass, “art was used as ideological propaganda for the regime, but we were lucky that glass was useless for this purpose.” Because glass was recognized as an applied art, not a fine art, it became “an outlet for artistic exploration,” the museum reports.

Individual artists may not have been well-known, but Czech glassmakers as a whole became internationally recognized for pioneering the use of glass as an artistic medium.

Suhajek was an anomaly in a period of artistic suppression because of his connections and international education. Though he has won over 20 awards in the past 40 years, the artist speaks of his success lightly. He attributes his recognitions to his friends, rather than his popularity amongst the general public.

“It always depends on who is giving the award and if you have connections,” he said. The artist said that he still thanks his college friend Shoa to this day. “You can’t just show up with a revolutionary piece of glass-work and get a prize.”

Suhajek has one piece of advice to young artists hoping to jumpstart their careers in the Czech Republic. “Go to New York,” he said. “If you are famous in Prague, it’s not enough.”

 

Celine Sidani is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. Her hometown is South Brunswick, New Jersey.

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Categories: Spring 2015 Issue Number 2

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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