Fulvio Bianconi: Forty Years of Idiosyncratic Art Glass
By Jim Oliveira
When Fulvio Bianconi met Paolo Venini in the spring of 1946, he was already a well-known graphic designer, illustrator and caricaturist. Born in Padua in 1915, Bianconi moved with his family to Venice at the age of seven where his natural talent for drawing allowed him to study at the Carmini School of Art, and later at the Accademia di Belle Arti. Individualistic, intellectually curious and wildly talented, Bianconi only took classes at the Accademia for two years, and in a haphazard way. In 1934 he moved to Milan where he found a wide range of jobs which reflected his diverse artistic interests; he arranged shop windows, illustrated magazines, worked in advertising and designed book covers for major Italian publishers. Bianconi also designed packaging and advertising for the Italian perfume maker Gi.vi.emme, and it was on assignment for them, in Venice, where he met first met Paolo Venini.
The Venini firm had become famous in the pre-war years for combining the chic modernist aesthetic of Milan with the age-old traditions of Murano glass craftsmanship. Paolo Venini accomplished this by hiring artists, designers and architects from outside Murano to work closely with his master blowers. Vittorio Zecchin, Napoleone Martinuzzi, Tomaso Buzzi and the visionary architect Carlo Scarpa all served as art director, and all designed spectacular lines of glass for Venini in the pre-war years which brought the company international recognition and fame. After the war, Paolo was looking to take the company in a new direction, and upon meeting Bianconi he knew he had found his man.
Bianconi was an artist in constant motion. His friend, colleague and sometime collaborator, Bruno Munari, said of Bianconi, “Everyone knows that Bianconi draws continuously. I mean that he draws while eating, while talking, while walking along the street, that he draws on the vaporetto, at exhibitions, at conferences, everywhere and at all times.” Upon meeting Bianconi, Paolo Venini immediately understood that he could harness Bianconi’s manic energy and unflagging output of creative ideas, and offered him a job. The deal they struck was unusual for the time: Bianconi would design freelance for Venini, and also be granted the liberty to work for other glass companies (not to mention design and have produced unique works for his own gallery shows). Paolo Venini would now act as art director for the company, and also add his own designs to the Venini production. The ultimate goal was to produce new lines of glass that would express the optimism and vitality of post-war Italy reinventing itself, and to deliver this glass to a broad international market, especially to America. And Bianconi would prove to be the perfect person for the job.
Surrealism, Whimsey and Fantasy
Bianconi’s first designs for Venini reveal his interest in Surrealism, whimsey and fantasy, and the source of his inspiration seems to have come from everywhere.
In the famous Fazzoletto vase—which would become the symbol of the company in the post war years—the form itself seems to capture the flow of a tossed handkerchief suspended in midair. The glove and shoe in this collection come from a group of objects which deliver a charming and semi-ironic riff on fashion. The headless mermaid is an elegant and comic take on the fragmented sculpture of classical antiquity. There are objects lifted from stage-sets, rare fantasy animals inspired by the work of Marc Chagall, and representations of the human form which seem to make reference to everything from Italian folk theatre, to fashion, to symbolic representation of the seasons, all rendered with a light, yet ironic sensibility. These objects were designed between 1946 and the first years of the 1950s, and they emerge from Bianconi’s keen ability as an observer, caricaturist and illustrator. It should also be noted that during this period Bianconi was deeply immersed in Milan’s contemporary art scene, and that the Surrealism of these early works for Venini arose from his knowledge of, and passion for, contemporary art.
Seen as a fresh take on well-known themes, these objects were welcomed by critics and the public alike, and were considered to be a new direction for Venini, and for art glass in general. Many pieces from these series would be included in the Italy at Work exhibition, which traveled the United States for three years (1951-1953) and exposed millions of Americans to Italian design. By the time the show ended, the name Venini was synonymous with Murano glass, and Bianconi was heralded as a new force in creative glass design worldwide.
Graphic Design and Color!
By 1950, Bianconi was leading Venini in a bold new direction. Inspired by Carlo Scarpa’s designs from a decade earlier, he began to consider the use of color as subject matter. With the aid of Venini master blowers Arturo Biasutto (Boboli) and Ermete Toso, Bianconi was about to enter a period of creative invention unparalleled in the history of Murano glass. The series A Macchie, Spicchi and Pezzato would redefine Murano glass for the second half of the twentieth century and establish a new aesthetic. What made these series so powerful? Bianconi’s knowledge of graphic design, his eye for color, and above all his awareness of contemporary art allowed him to design glass which captured the excitement and enthusiasm of the post-war years.
In the A Macchie series we see elemental vessels in monochromatic glass with deeply iridized, biomorphic “stains” suspended in thick walls. The overall visual effect of these pieces is dreamy, arresting, full of graphic tension. Inspired by the paintings of Bruno Munari, Lucio Fontana, and Robert Motherwell, here Bianconi is employing the visual language of abstract painting in glass. Today the idea of glass as a medium for fine art is well established, but in 1950, it was almost unthinkable. Made in limited numbers, the A Macchie vessels are truly masterworks of post-war art.
The Spicchi flask presented here was also designed in 1950 and is similar to the A Macchie in style, technique and rarity. But this is where we truly begin to see Bianconi’s use of bold color as subject matter. The triangular segments, in blue, red and vivid amber, are organized in a circular pattern and possess the rough elegance of Ab-Ex painting. The effect is visceral, playful and uplifting, and signals the beginning of a new era for Venini.
The Pezzato (Patchwork) series took Bianconi’s experiments with color and graphic design even further. In this series, the ancient technique of tesserae is brought to a new level of technical sophistication by Venini’s master blowers. Bianconi’s design concept was simple: arrange pre-made glass tesserae of different sizes, shapes and colors into a loosely arranged pattern, heat, and blow into simple, biomorphic shapes. The saturated colors and semi-transparency of the patches create an amazingly vivid, almost holographic effect which even today seems new. The true genius of the design lies in the fact that each Pezzato object is unique and this gives the patchwork vessels a feeling of originality and freedom. Considered an icon of post-war Italian style, the Pezzato series is celebrated as a watershed moment in twentieth century design.
Paolo Venini’s genius can also be felt in the Pezzati. He created five pre-determined color combinations for the series, each inspired by a specific city or country: Paris, Stockholm, Venice, Istanbul and America. This was not only a clever international marketing strategy, it was also a way to channel the boundless energy of Bianconi into five pre-established modes. The dynamic between these two individuals, one wildly creative, the other providing well designed and clearly articulated boundaries, would continue throughout the fifties, and is responsible for the wide variety of powerful glass designs that would be presented by Venini during this period. Among these, the Fasce and Scozzese series would explore the use of vivid color and strong visual patterning, and each would add to Venini’s reputation as the leading art glass company of the post-war years.
In the Fasce Verticali and Fasce Orizzontali series we see Bianconi’s awareness of graphic design and his knowledge of contemporary art coming together to create something new. Taking advantage of the transparency of glass, and the volumetric dimensionality of vessel as canvas, Bianconi introduces the idea of colorful stripes as a design element, and imbues the Fasce with the same holographic power as the Pezzato series. The effect is painterly and three dimensional, and once again we see Bianconi designing glass vessels as works of modern art.
As with the A Macchie, the Con Fiori series features thick walled, monochromatic vessels but this time with stylized representations of flowers. And while the idea of decorating a vase with flowers was not new, Bianconi’s renditions demonstrate his skill as graphic designer and caricaturist. There is also something calligraphic about the Con Fiori, perhaps a stylistic reference to Japanese Sumi-e, or the East Asian painting tradition. Like Carlo Scarpa before him, Bianconi’s designs for Venini often make reference to world art traditions. But unlike Scarpa—who seemed to gravitate toward deep, archetypal references—Bianconi’s take is always lighter, but in a brilliant and delightful way. It is also worth mentioning that due to the complex and expensive nature of their production, the Con Fiori are exquisitely rare.
The Forato series is another clear example of Bianconi riffing on modern art. This time the reference is direct, almost a literal application of sculptor Henry Moore’s primitivist depictions of the human form. Blown in layers of sommerso glass, and pierced with asymmetrically arranged holes, the Forato vessels present a very sophisticated understanding of abstract sculpture. The fact that they were produced in a relatively large number of shapes and sizes speaks to their popularity in the 1950s. The subtle layering of colors used in the sommerso technique may also be seen a reference to the glass of Scandinavia—a market that Paolo Venini had been cultivating for decades.
Exhibitions at the Galleria del Naviglio and Galleria Danese including Venini Prototypes and Experimental Works
In discussing Bianconi’s long career as a glass designer, it is important to remember that he worked with companies other than Venini, and that he exhibited glass in private galleries. This began early in his career and was, from the start, encouraged and supported by Paolo Venini. In the 1950s, he would design glass for Gino Cenedese, IVR Mazzega and a number of other manufacturers. Many of these pieces ended up in gallery exhibitions, some were acquired by collectors, and others were kept by Bianconi for his own private collection.
Bianconi’s first outside exhibition of glass took place at the Galleria del Naviglio in Milan from December 1949 to January 1950. It is interesting to note that many of the pieces in the Naviglio show were experiments and prototypes made at the Venini furnace, including vases in the form of female torsos and biomorphic vessels with experimental glass applications. Some of these objects would be refined, and eventually included in the Venini line of production, while others would stand as singular works of art.
Almost a decade later, Bianconi’s exhibition at the Galleria Danese in Milan in 1958, showcased a wide range of unique, experimental works. Most of these pieces were produced at the IVR Mazzega furnace, and they present a wild variety of glassblowing techniques. The forms Bianconi chose for these objects seem to fall into two loosely defined categories: the biomorphic and the industrial, and this makes sense considering the aesthetic and ethic of Galleria Danese. Rosa Barovier Mentasti describes the scene, “In the anti-decorative crusade of those years, in advance of the times, the Gallery Danese, founded by Bruno Danese and Jacqueline Vodoz in 1957, was conspicuous in Milan, as a gallery and also an experimental design laboratory for craft and industrial products.” Exhibiting in this sort of environment, Bianconi was free to experiment, and much of the glass he produced for the Danese show seems to prevision the studio art glass movement of the 1960s.
Birds and Animals at Venini
The freestyle, experimental glass objects that Bianconi created with IVR Mazzega and other companies in the 1950s seemed to provide a counterpoint to the somewhat more refined work he was accomplishing at Venini, but all of this varied artistic activity was consistent with his frenetic creative life and personality. While working for Venini, it was Paolo’s job to focus and direct Bianconi, and this he accomplished with great success.
The bird and animal sculptures that Bianconi designed for Venini in the early and mid-1950s seem to exist at the opposite end of the creative spectrum from his experiments and prototypes made during the same years, but they remain full of energy and vitality. They are carefully drawn, expressive and sweet, and include naturalistic depictions of storks and cranes and cartoonish representations of chickens, parrots, poodles and dachshunds. This effortless ability to switch gears at will and produce works of equal quality, but radically different in style, technique and intent, is truly astonishing.
By the mid-1950s, Bianconi’s ability as a glass designer had reached a new level, and his next project at Venini would centralize all the skills he had acquired working with Paolo Venini and Murano’s master blowers
The Scozzese Series
This series, or group of objects, was created in several different phases. The most important group is composed of nine model shapes which were blown into rigid, specifically shaped molds—unusual for Murano glass of any kind. These forms demonstrate Bianconi’s understanding that a change was beginning to take place in the world of art and design, one which would explore industrial forms as an aesthetic for handmade objects, and this lies at the heart of the Scozzese series. Within the confines of these semi-industrial forms, the complex and colorful arrangement of “woven” glass canes would create objects of unparalleled visual intensity.
Scozzese means Scottish, and indeed this series was based on Scottish plaids. But in the hands of Fulvio Bianconi and the master blowers at Venini, this concept was taken to a powerful and abstract level. As with the Pezzati and Fasce vessels, the Scozzesi use vivid color, transparency and volume to create a nearly holographic, three dimensional vessels as sculpture. Very few of these objects are known to exist, and the ones that do are exceedingly hard to describe: complex rectilinear shapes with semi-crushed walls, subtly textured surfaces, and unusual but pleasing geometric proportions. As individual works of abstract art, the Scozzesi seem to embody everything that Venini, and Murano glass in general, did well in the 1950s—new and interesting forms, vivid colors, a blending of cultural sophistication with traditional Venetian aesthetics— glass so well considered, so well designed and executed, that the resulting objects were able to blur the line between design and art.
It is also worth mentioning that several of the Scozzese models were included in the Danese Gallery show of 1958. As mentioned, most of the work in the Danese show was produced at IVR Mazzega, but the Scozzese vessels must have been too tempting to leave out. Bianconi would go on to design more glass for Venini in the 60s, and again in the 80s, but for Fulvio and Paolo, the Scozzese series would represent the pinnacle of their collaborative efforts. Paolo Venini’s untimely death in 1959 would profoundly change the fate of his company and signal the end of an era for Murano glass.
When Bianconi returned to Venini in the mid-1960s, the culture of the company had changed. Responding to the tone of the times, Ludovico Diaz de Santillana (Paolo Venini’s son-in-law and acting director of Venini) was running the company in a more collaborative fashion. Venini now opened its doors to numerous young designers from around the world and invited them to collaborate and experiment with Venini’s master blowers. This idea of open collaboration with multiple designers was a new concept on Murano, and in truth it began accidentally with the arrival of the young American artist, Thomas Stearns at Venini in 1960. Stearns’ tumultuous experience at Venini is well documented, and the highly abstract, conceptual glass he produced during his two year tenure has become legendary.
Bianconi was undoubtedly aware of Thomas Stearns and the truly avant-garde glass he produced at Venini. Always curious and open to new ideas (and maybe feeling a bit upstaged by the young American) in 1965, Bianconi designed the Sasso series. Certainly inspired by Stearns, the Sassi are near-vessels, sculptural objects in the extreme. As with Stearns’ work, the surfaces are often cut and scarred to accentuate the moody colors and asymmetrical forms, and the glass looks and feels thick and translucent, opaque and transparent. As with many of the sculptural works being designed at Venini in the 60s, very few of the Sassi were made, and the one presented here, in amber glass, may be unique.
In 1967, Bianconi revisited the idea of the human figure and designed the Beat series at Venini. These tall, spindly figures were, no doubt, inspired by hippies (Hippie was originally a pejorative term used by older members of the Beat generation to describe the young, pseudo-hipsters in San Francisco, and elsewhere) who appeared everywhere in the in the Italian cultural landscape of the late 60s. Deemed too fragile to produce in large numbers, only a few prototypes of the Beat figures are known to exist. Rendered with humor and empathy, these are beautifully drawn observations and caricatures of 1960s youth culture.
Bianconi Glass in the 1970s and 80s
The 1970s was a decade of political and social upheaval in Italy, a time in which the decorative, and even the fine arts were considered bourgeois, anti-revolutionary and elitist. In this environment, the traditional, handmade arts of Italy seemed old-fashioned and Italy’s most progressive thinkers now looked to the field of industrial design to provide low-cost, functional objects for the people. Needless to say, these were not the best times for Murano glass. In fact, very little new artistic glass was produced on Murano during the 70s, and the glass that was made was, for the most part, functional and extremely industrial looking. Venini, and the other Murano companies, survived the 1970s by undertaking large scale lighting contracts, and by continuing to produce lines of glass from earlier periods for those who still appreciated the modernist aesthetic.
On a brighter note, the 1970s saw the rise of historical scholarship in the field of 20th century Murano glass, and a new generation of scholars, dealers and collectors began to engage in serious research. This energy and enthusiasm gave rise to the secondary market and by the end of the decade the great designers, including and especially Fulvio Bianconi, began to take on legendary status. The company Seguso Vetri d’Arte recognized this trend and hired Bianconi to design creative and unique sculptural objects.
Bianconi’s free rein at the furnace produced interesting results. Gone were the clean lines and modern aesthetic of Paolo Venini, and what Bianconi began to produce was, from one point of view, expressive, and from another, challenging. There are a few key factors at work here. First, Bianconi was sometimes allowed to physically manipulate the glass himself, and lacking the fine skills of a seasoned craftsmen, he naturally produced less than technically skilled results. Next, this sensibility in itself had become a valid aesthetic. One just needs to look at the aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) of the American studio glass movement and the works of its originators—Harvey Littleton, Dominick Labino, Marvin Lipofsky and Dale Chihuly—who made no bones about disregarding the traditional value that artists placed on skill and technique. “Technique is cheap.” said Littleton. And of this Bianconi was certainly aware. Looking at his work from the 70s and 80s today, it is impossible to not feel the influence of the studio glass movement, Post Modernism and Funk Art. Until the end of his life, Bianconi would be aware of, influenced by and engaged in the latest art being made everywhere in the world.
Today we remember Fulvio Bianconi as an innovator, and true artistic force of nature, who played a critical role in introducing the world to glass as a valid and powerful medium for art.