Hillwood Museum’s latest exhibition celebrates form, function and beauty as it invites visitors to reimagine an everyday material.
Glass takes center stage in this show, which is in the estate’s Adirondack Building but also extends into Marjorie Merriweather Post’s mansion-turned-museum. The material is one of Post’s less-recognized passions, the exhibition acknowledges, but it’s clear that passion for glassmaking echoes throughout “Glass: Art. Beauty. Design.”
Visitors immediately engage with the wealth of techniques used in the process from its earliest beginnings more than 3,500 years ago to today. Beautiful examples of ancient glass — including a Roman ewer and bowl, an Islamic jar and a Byzantine tintinnabulum, or mounted bells — are captivating and instantly intriguing. Then, suddenly, you’re traveling thousands of years and land at glassmaking in the present era, gazing up at a spectacular Murano glass chandelier made by artist Fred Wilson.
“Our collection is more historic, but this showcases to our contemporary audience that all these materials are a source of inspiration and still relevant today,” Hillwood curator Wilfried Zeisler told The Washington Diplomat.
This exhibition is about attention to, and deep interest in, details and technique. It explores a number of elements in the creation of glass objects, with an emphasis on the use of flora and fauna motifs, repeating patterns and color in glassmaking around the world. It invites questions about the many ways glass has been used both as a material and as a way to imitate other materials. This is a small but exciting exhibition that rewards viewers willing to take a closer look.
Rabbits and flowers burst out of glass objects alongside etchings of the alphabet and images of grain. Glass plates featuring portraits of iconic U.S. presidents from George Washington to James Garfield are found at the end of a luminous corridor within the exhibition space. This section is one of the highlights of the show. Visitors have the opportunity to study the small stuff here — the faint bursts of light green layered in goblets, the elaborate hunting scenes painted over cups and the black and white swirling glassware from Post’s own New York apartment.
There’s a solid mix of practical items, such as tableware and furniture, and those made explicitly for beauty. But what we see is only a small slice of the collection. Post herself amassed 1,600 pieces, with an emphasis on European and American works from the 17th to 20th centuries.
What visitors can see during the next few months, however, is a strong mix of the contemporary and the historical, with nice nods in many of the pieces on display to Hillwood’s famed table settings, orchids and Russian holdings.
“You never know when you bring a contemporary piece into a historic context, but I’m really happy with how it worked,” Zeisler said.
As for the historic elements in “Glass,” there’s most notably the monumental candelabras, attributed to the Baccarat firm, that haven’t been on view since the 1930s. “They’re amazing in scale [and] tell you about the treasures from our storage,” he said. “These pieces have been there for decades and have not seen light, and now they are being rediscovered.”
And this being an exhibit exploring an interest dear to Post, there’s of course beautiful gowns. In this case, though, some are made of glass. An absolutely stunning dress, “Nocture I” by Karen LaMonte, made of cast glass and inspired by James McNeill Whistler’s series of nighttime paintings and music, could be confused for ice.
Don’t forget to visit the mansion for more glass treasures. Beth Lipman’s “Miles’ Law” spills over the sides of a table, and Wilson has another chandelier on display. This piece is integrated beautifully into the breakfast room, adding a striking sculptural element to the space alongside Post’s NYC glassware. And there’s more of LaMonte’s gowns — smaller-scale but still just as tremendous — peppered throughout the house, glass dresses that seem to emerge from clouds of smoke.
At its core, “Glass: Art. Beauty. Design.” is all about reveling in the intricacies.
“The concept of the exhibition is to explore glass and glassmaking history with the help of our collection, to put it in a broader context and then see how it connects to our mansion,” Zeisler said.
“Glass: Art. Beauty. Design.” is on at Hillwood through Jan. 14, 2024.