GLASS KITSCH AND KITSCH GLASS
THE DUBIOUS TASTE OF OUR ANCESTORS
Kitsch is a risky subject. It condemns, discriminates and offends by definition. People tend to get upset by the merest suggestion of poor taste, and to mention the word kitsch is asking for trouble, however tactfully the subject is raised. But tastes differ - what is a highly prized collectable in one country may be regarded as horrendous rubbish in another. Say the word Kitsch and you condemn a nation, perhaps even a continent.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE K-WORD:
There are different explanations for the origins of the word Kitsch. Some say it is derived from the English word 'sketch', but is more likely from the old German word 'verkitschen', to sell off. What is certain is that the word kitsch is of German origin. It first came into daily use around 1900 in Munich, and from there made its way into international usage along with Weltschmerz, Zeitgeist, Angst and Wanderlust.
THE OLDEST KITSCH IN THE BOOK:
Looking for the earliest example of kitsch in history begins by raising the question if kitsch existed before the word was coined. Yes, say some, along with early art, there must have been early kitsch. Think of mass produced Egyptian figurines, and Roman souvenirs. No, say others, Kitsch is typical of the second half of the 19th Century, a result of the industrial revolution. A more likely explanation is that the history of Kitsch begins in the 17th century. Before that time, articles of dubious design would be called copies, apprentice pieces, or charmingly naïve works of art which illustrate the era in which they originated. Until the 19th Century, Europe was sparsely populated, and its economy was mostly based on manual labour. Steam power arrived around 1770, followed by the industrial revolution which made the large scale production of Kitsch possible. The rapid increase of population in the 19th Century created a demand for kitsch, which was obligingly filled by the factories. Mass produced kitsch is mostly found to be from the 19th and 20th Century. The generalisation applies that the more recent an object, the more likely it is to be kitschy. Objects from the 17th and 18th Century run less risk of disqualification, even if there is evidence of careless mass production. Think of shiploads of Chinese made Delftware with windmills on the Yangtze and pagodas in the polder.
(Milk glass vase imitating Delftware, Sunderland, 18th Century)
There are many definitions and a few essentials. It has been said that kitsch represents the evil element of art; but by implication this would mean that there is a single definition of art, which there is not. Art and kitsch are not opposites; they co-exist. Kitsch is other people's bad taste, yesterday's fashion, the hypocrisy of grand sentimentality, overstatement and manipulation, the qualitative compromise. Kitsch is the name given to any type of low quality imitation. Each country has its own variation of the kitsch definition. In France it is essential that the bad taste is provocative; in England it has to be pretentious; and in German the sugarsweet embellishment is the essence of kitsch. The fact that the German definition is rather limited can be explained. The sweetness is the female element of kitsch, which becomes manifest especially in dress and interior decoration. The masculine kitsch element is more extraverted, and focuses on military display and demagoguery. Fascism, for instance, draws heavily from masculine kitsch, just like wild west romances. No field of endeavour is free of kitsch. Politics, art, media, science and religion all make use of the easy overstatement and imitation which are the essential elements of kitsch. Religion, patriotism and family are themes of the grand kitsch which is expressed in opera, film, song and war.
(Goblet by Egermann, ~1840 with romantic Biedermeier enamel painting)
NEGATIVE BY IMPLICATION :
The word kitsch carries a subjective negative condemnation. A work of art or architecture, a glass object, a painting or a cheap novel can be seriously damaged by the whispered qualification. The judgement is not limited to the work of art discussed: the artist, the buyer, the seller, and even the unintentional owner of a kitsch object are condemned by implication as kitsch lovers. More serious still, kitsch carries an element of contempt. Art historians may clarify the background and reigning taste for the period in which a work of art was made; art critics will separate the good from the bad, the art from the non-art, the kitsch from the non-kitsch. The critic has made it his or her job to make the distinction, but can only do so from the subjective point of view of the age he or she lives in.
Whereas art is distributed 'top down', kitsch reaches the consumer 'bottom up'. Kitsch purchases are often impulsive, while art services an elite market on demand. In 1874, J.L. Lobmeyr vented his serious distaste of Bohemian Silver glass which was enjoying a tremendous popularity at the time. Lobmeyr had a glass shop, and sold his aesthetic opinions along with his glass. Glass historian Pazaurek, who founded the kitsch department of the Landesgewerbeamt Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart before the first World war, enthusiastically went along with Lobmeyr in the condemnation. It worked. There is no single museum in Europe with a collection of Bohemian Silver glass, other than a few isolated exhibits, even if it presents a sweeping insight into the technical perfection and development of popular taste of the era 1860-1900.
Technical perfection and craftsmanship are found in kitsch and non-kitsch alike. The average kitsch consumer is supposed to have a limited quality awareness, but the truth may be different. There are matt Madonnas by Lalique of superb craftsmanship and quality which fully fit within the "reli-kitsch" definition: overstated sentimentality stylised in crystal. And there are works by Daum, Salviati and others which could kindle a warm debate on this subject. These factories were capable of producing the greatest works of art - they were also capable of missing it by a mile. Another misunderstanding is that kitsch comes cheap. Rare kitsch is often valued higher than abundant art.
(Iridescent pressglass dish with nudy mermaids, Germany ~1930s)
TASTE AND COMMERCE:
There is no such thing as taste. Taste is an abstract sociological fiction. David Hume, the 18th Century Scottish philosopher and founder of phenomenology studied taste as an independent abstraction. His conclusion was that the beauty of things only exists in the mind of the beholder. Thank you, David, that was most elucidating. We can now conclude that if taste does not exist, bad taste and kitsch do not exist either. The question if the limited production of an unsuccessful but well designed vase is more important for the history of art than the mechanically reproduced, sinfully ugly but thoudsandfold successful product, can not be answered. Is the taste of the majority wrong by definition? Is mass production a prerequisite for shoddy design? Collectors of depression glass will be offended if you answer this one affirmative.
Good design ideals from the beginning of the 20th Century (Arts & Crafts, Binnenhuis) were, apart from well meant, also elitist and paternalistic. It was assumed that "the masses" were devoid of taste or sense of quality and could be educated to buy anything. But according to Diderot: "the individual can achieve perfection, the masses will not get better or worse". If you furnish your home with mass produced furniture from Ikea or Habitat, you're not automatically a kitsch person. Neither were our ancestors when they ordered gothic furniture. Modern products are designed for large scale manufacturing, and consumerism has reduced the occurrence of kitsch. It doesn't come easy to be counted a kitsch person in this day and age, it requires a serious effort. A pair of plastic cactuses in the window sill is not enough. You will need a consistent attitude which requires all objects that surround you to look kitschy and out of place.
GLASS - THE MATTER AT HAND:
Looking for the specific kitsch element in glass we will first have to define it. Sumptuous decoration and colour, compromising functionality for aesthetics, grand gestures, inflation of form, function swapping, imitation and reproduction, and avant garde kitsch are easy to spot in glass production. The development of colour chemistry in the 18th and 19th Century made imitation porcelain and semiprecious stones possible. Opaline was invented as an imitation of alabaster. Volume production of pressed glassware has been with us since the 1830s.
Bent glass from the sixties with a lace pattern printed on must be kitsch because in the real world, lace is made of thread. Oversized brandy glasses in brilliant red glass must be kitsch because any up- or downscaling brings them within the definition of exaggeration of size. Beer glasses with the portrait of Kennedy or Churchill; bottles dressed up as flamingo dancers or Greek guards; drinking glasses in the shape of a boot; perfume flasks in the form of the Eiffel tower; wine bottles disguised as football trophies; Ashtrays in the shape of a Venetian gondola; pressed glass parading as cut glass; transfer printed souvenirs; Glass madonnas or praying hands from Lourdes; Pyrex ware with printed flowers; Murano clowns and fishes - these are a few of the obvious kitsch glass products. Should you collect any of these, don't despair. There is hope for you yet. A well assembled pile of Kitsch can be passed off as Camp - and presto! You've turned out to be trendy!
(Fly on Nut, by Valerysthal, France, originally painted in naturalistic colours)
© 1990, 1999 Ivo Haanstra