Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ludwig Schaffrath and Johannes Schreiter: Motion, Rhythm and Harmony in Glass

To many, stained glass brings to mind intricately crafted, multilayered richly colored warmly glowing, glazed opalescent lamps held together by copper foil and solder, of Louis Comfort Tiffany.  Others conjure mental images of the spectacular rose window in stunning blues at the Notre Dame Cathedral, built in 1260, 42 feet across with the row of apostles standing at attention below.  As beautiful as these works are, there is much, much more to architectural art glass, as I and many others have learned from Ludwig Schaffrath, who died this past February in Bardenberg, Germany at 87.  Here I belatedly celebrate his remarkable contributions and passing.

 I first became enamored with architectural art glass in 1978 when enrolled in an evening glass offered at Monarch Studio, a commercial glass studio in St. Paul, MN. I had enjoyed watercolor and acrylic painting as an adolescent and in college but had long stopped producing art.  I had convinced myself “I had more serious concerns,” as my professional career as an academic research psychologist was emerging.  Essayist Joan Didion, wrote, "I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be…. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends." That is what happened one evening when I propped up a dozen or so old paintings I had made years before in my living room, studying them one after the next, walking from one to another, wondering why I had stopped doing what I had enjoyed so much.  The works differed in medium, some were watercolor or gouache, others pen and ink and still others acrylics.  Some were highly abstract others representational, but all shared one feature in common. Each painting, at least the better among them, were images divided into relatively discrete patches of color, some with dark lines separating adjacent areas, very much like a stained glass window or a mosaic.  Only I had never worked in stained glass, and had spent very little time in churches, so that seemed an odd predilection.  Nonetheless, those prescient images suggested the direction my artistic efforts would unexpectedly take.
I began to make amends for my artistic absence.  Learning the rudiments of the craft of stained glass contributed to my passion for that art form, but was only a small part of a major change in my life. Before long I was devoting most Saturdays at Monarch Studio, generously tolerated by three gifted glass artists who eventually assigned me a table in the rear of the studio as my own, on which to construct my glass designs.  I pestered Michael, David and Tom relentlessly with foolish and occasionally unanswerably complex questions about glass art, not realizing which was which.

While Michael Pilla and his colleagues held in high regard the stunning Chartres, York Cathedral and Chagall’s Jerusalem windows, their studio was most influenced by several contemporary German stained glass designers of whom I had never heard.  Among the most striking designs were those of Ludwig Schaffrath, huge walls of parallel lines of swirling and intersecting rows of colored textured glass, combining and diverging unpredictably. Schaffrath’s designs created paradoxes for a seemingly rigid, fragile material, for in his hands the designs became almost magically fluid. It reminded us that glass actually flows over many years, becoming thicker at the bottom of a large window-pane. Schaffrath’s work compressed that time frame, reminding us of glass’s fluidity.

Ludwig Schaffrath’s designs have a remarkable visual cadence much as music has metrical properties, synchrony and asynchrony, and creates harmonies and occasionally startling visual effects, much like listening to Bach’s First Bandenberg Concerto with the opening theme played by the entire ensemble, then returning in part in different keys throughout the movement, allowing the themes to emerge unexpectedly into the solo parts in Rondo.  Such interwoven predictable and irregular patterns were integral to Schaffrath’s work, with increasing boldness in his palate, especially in his later windows.  But from almost the first moment, I found myself drawn into Schaffrath’s often breath-taking designs like no other art form I had experienced. 

As I ploddingly designed and fabricated windows, occasionally one appeared on my table that was not too bad, my passion for the art form grew.  Saturday afternoons we spent hours poring over the images of Schaffrath’s windows in his book, Glass Malerei + Mosaic published in 1977 in German and English.  

In the mid-1980s, Anneke, my wife and I, were on a family holiday trip to Switzerland, and on our way stopped in Germany to experience first hand some of Schaffrath’s work.  We visited Ludwig Schaffrath’s studio in Alsdorf, North Rhine Westphalia, and though regrettably he was unexpectedly called away the day of our visit, Frau Schaffrath kindly took us on a guided tour of some of his installations in Eschweiller, Duren, Ubach-Palenberg and Monchen-Gladbach, not far from the Dutch border. 

The glass wall of the indoor swimming pool at Ubach-Palenberg built in 1973, a smallish city of 20,000, was absolutely stunning, composed of fluid swirling parallel lines blues, blue green and white opalescent and clear hand blown glass meandering from one window panel to the next, accentuating the sense for the aqueous setting, and at the top, a lightly opalescent reamy textured border like sunlight shining through shimmering water (Shown here).  [Reamy glass is hand made by mixing together two or more molten glasses of intentionally mismatched compositions which resist being mixed together and don't homogenize easily. The result is a characteristic coarse textured pattern depending on the two glasses that were mixed.]  We stopped at a small, renovated parish church in a mining region with an interior painted starkly white with natural birch pews.  Each of Schaffrath’s Roman arch windows represented a different type of ore mined in the region, honoring the lives of the people who worked there (shown here is copper).

We later drove the short distance to Aachen on the Dutch border, to view some of Schaffrath’s earliest works, the colorless textured glass of the 32 enclosed cloister windows of the Aachener Dom, the famous medieval cathedral of Charlemagne which still showed scars of allied bombing in WWII.  The windows enclosed the arcade through which the monastic brothers and choiristers walked on their way to services that circumnavigated the church courtyard.  Schaffrath designed and oversaw the fabrication of the Aachen cathedral windows from 1962-65.  The stone window frames are from two Gothic periods with suggestions of late Roman influence.  After much reflection, Schaffrath decided to design the windows with colorless textured glass, fine and coarse reamy, fine and coarse seedy with fine bubbles, and nearly smooth colorless hand blown glass.  Each window serves as an epitaph as though inscribed on one person’s tombstone. The lead varies from an inch wide to 1/8th of an inch creating a striking irregularly graphic effects, and in each case suggests, but not represents, the deceased, with all of their individualities an unpredictable qualities of a unique person who is buried in the courtyard behind the glass.  In some respects these early windows were among Schaffrath’s riskiest. 

One cannot fully appreciate Schaffrath’s work without seeing in its architectural setting, on the scale of a building wall 30 to 60 feet high and extending across the entire front of the church or other building.  His later designs such as the train station window in Tokyo Omija Japan and the city hall windows (bottom red) at Weisbaden (top blue) illustrate the powerful use of color.

In the mid-1980s, Michael Pilla, my friend and stained glass mentor and I co-hosted a conference at the University of Minnesota, “Light and Glass in Architecture,” and  had invited a remarkable cast of American and European stained glass expert presenters, including the Americans, Robert Sowers and Ed Carpenter and Ludwig Schaffrath, master of German contemporary architectural stained glass. During the two-day conference we had the opportunity to speak with Schaffrath and hear his thoughts on his own work and future plans as well commentary on the state of architectural art glass. He did not suffer fools gladly, and had an often deservedly dim view of much of American vernacular stained glass, though he held the work of several Americans glass artists, including Sowers, Carpenter, vonRoenn and Leighton in high regard.

Schaffrath had originally studied with Anton Wendling in 1954, Chair of the architecture and drawing department of the Rheinisch-Westfalisch Technical School in Aachen.  Part of German government’s restoration effort following WWII involved replacing many of the stained glass windows that had been destroyed by bombing during the war.  Wendling and Heinrich Campendonk had been the fountainheads of modern German architectural art glass, who in turn, were greatly influenced by the Dutch-German painter and glass designer, Johan Thorn-Prikker.  Thorn-Prikker’s abstract glass designs were reminiscent of Piet Modrian’s De Stijl paintings.  Campendonk created stained glass in the Blau Reiter expressionist oil painting tradition, wildly colorfully different from his contemporaries.  Replacement of damaged and destroyed windows provided a vehicle for these young budding artists to try their hand at radical new approaches to architectural art glass. 

The other distinguished German glass artist whose work emanated from Wendling’s teaching was Georg Meisterman, as much a painter as a glass artist.  His complex, rich abstractly organic and often representational work greatly influenced younger up and coming glass artists. Within Germany, Meisterman is better known as a painter than glass artist.  Where Schaffrath’s designs were distinctively architectural, especially his earlier work, Meisterman’s were paintings made with glass, that almost incidentally, happened to be part of the building’s architecture.  The embedded photo is from one of Meisterman’s windows in the Cologne Cathedral.

While Schaffrath’s contemporary, Johannes Schreiter is a deeply religious man in a mystical Catholic tradition, and his richly colored abstract window designs are filled with symbolism (see the Frankfurt Cathedral window below, blue on Right), Schaffrath had a much more cerebral abstract architectonic approach to his work, often with a subtler palate.   Some years later I had the very good fortune to spend a day with Johannes Scrheiter in his studio in Langen, a town outside of Frankfurt, Germany.  Schreiter’s window designs are stunningly different from Schaffrath’s, as illustrated by this window hung in a museum in Langen (Left blue and orange).  Schaffrath’s designs have an analytical quality, while Schreiter’s reach down in side you and tug at that part from whence your emotions emanate. Both are incredibly powerful in their own way.

The city of Langen has dedicated a floor of the old city hall (Rathaus) as a museum for Schreiter’s works.  When visiting Schreiter’s studio, I watched with him page through his bound notebook with numbered pages, with text down half of each page and pencil sketches with notations on the remainder, notes and images based on conversations with clients about projects, or ideas that came to him suddenly as he was mulling over an idea.  We looked together at a very colorfully painted cartoon of one of his windows proposed for a project that never came to fruition, and discussed what he was trying to achieve, which not surprisingly he found very difficult to put into words, though fluent in English.  I asked Schreiter how he knew when he was done with the design process for a new window.  After a lengthy pause, he replied, “When any further changes would detract from the creative emotional impact.”  I have asked my glass artist friend Michael Pilla the same question many times in various iterations, and received a similar answer.  That process is very similar to the question a scientist asks when he or she is trying to decide when nearly all of the pieces have fallen into place in a scientific puzzle, and suddenly it all makes sense.  Has order been established, creating a new sense of enlightenment, in the mind’s eye?  And in Schaffrath’s and Scheiter’s case another part inside us that makes each of us tick.

Ludwig Schaffrath and Johannes Schreiter were, and have been highly regarded in academic circles in Germany.  Schaffrath was professor and head of the program in glass design at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart from 1985 to 93.  Johannes Schreiter was professor at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Frankfurt am Main from 1963-1987 and from 1971 to 1974 its rector. Today Johannes Schreiter age 81 lives in Langen, Germany.

Johannes Schreiter, like my friend Michael Pilla (see embedded blue and gold window) was very generous and forgiving of the naivite’ of amateur stained glass artist acolyte-psychologist, while Schaffrath was a bit less approachable, though his remarkably powerful work speaks for itself. Michael Pilla spent a week at a workshop with Schreiter in 1994.  Schaffrath and Schreiter changed the world of architectural art glass and our understanding of art more generally, for which we are eternally grateful. 


Meisterman, G.  (1986) Die Kirchfenster (The Church Window) Freiburg: Verlag Herder Freiburg im Breisgau

Schaffrath, L. (1977) Ludwig Schaffrath: glasmalerei+ mosaic (stained glass and mosaic). Krefeld, Germany: Scherpe Verglag, (Text by Konrad pfaff)

Schrieter, J. (1988) The stained glass art of Johannes Schreiter.  Darmstadt, Germany: Verlag Das Beispiel GmbH

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