Jirí the Teacher
By Tina Oldknow, Curator of Modern Glass, Corning Museum of Glass
"Heritage means to select the most valuable thing from history and hand it over to the next generation….The task of a teacher is to bring closer the most valuable, to discover the worthy. I say this to my students, if you do something it has to be something important." –Jirí Harcuba
Czech artist Jirí Harcuba was a widely-respected engraver and beloved teacher who was internationally-known for his portraits in engraved glass. In his own words, he was a “citizen of the world.” Although his home and family are in Prague, he was a peripatetic teacher who enjoyed inviting artists, at his workshops around the world, to try their hand at cutting into glass plaques, or engraving onto glass plates from which prints on paper could be made.
To those who believed that engraving was too difficult because it required years of practice before it could be mastered, Jirí always said, “Try it, it’s easy!” In this way, he put people at ease, alleviating anxiety and inspiring innovative approaches. “By engraving,” Jirí said, “we leave traces, traces of ourselves… linking the past and the future.” Jirí saw himself as an innovator and as a guardian of tradition, which is a perfect description of his art.
In 2007, former Museum director David Whitehouse wrote:
“Jirí Harcuba first visited the United States in 1983. Tom Buechner, the director of The Corning Museum of Glass, invited Jirí to Corning and from Corning, year after year, he got to know America. Jirí discovered America and, through him, many American glass artists discovered engraving. It was one of those happy relationships that revealed new vistas to everyone it touched. Here’s why. From the beginning, Jirí inspired.”
Traditionally, wheel engraving has been a meticulous and minutely detailed craft. Think of Jirí’s hero, the 19th-century Bohemian engraver Dominik Biman, whose portraits show every hair on his subject’s head. Jirí moved the goalposts. He treasures a profound respect for the tradition of engraving but, in order to explore its possibilities, he taught himself to abandon traditional techniques and attack his material with a vigor and sense of spontaneity that produce unforgettable, sometimes startling images of artistic, intellectual, and political giants…
Jirí was an artistic and intellectual giant in our small world of glass. In his lectures and courses, he taught people about engraving, but he also taught them—through his stories and his love of philosophy—about life. Philosophy sustained him. He would instruct us about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi and the importance of the unity of opposites in art, or Zen drawing, an important and useful exercise to free creativity. But we learned much more from him by being exposed to the kind of person he was: gracious, generous, wise, and receptive to any challenge that might come his way.
For me, this quote exemplifies Jiri’s approach to art and to life.
"Before I had studied Zen for 30 years, I saw mountains as mountains and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains and waters are not waters. But now that I have got the very substance, I am at rest. For it is just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters."
–Ch’ing yuan Wei-hsin, Zen master, T’ang Dynasty (618–970) (Quoted in Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981, p. 134.)
Above all, Jirí was a man of substance.
Jirí was born in 1928 in Harrachov (Nový Svet), in what is now the Czech Republic. He learned engraving as an apprentice at the Harrachov glassworks (1942–1945), and then he continued his training at the Specialized School of Glassmaking in Nový Bor (1945–1948). At the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague, he studied with Karel Štipl, and then continued his postgraduate studies while working as Štipl’s teaching assistant (1949–1961). From 1961 to 1971, he taught at the Academy, and he also taught at the Royal College of Art in London (1965–1966). In 1971, Harcuba was removed from his teaching position and held as a political prisoner for designing a medal that openly criticized the 1968 invasion of Prague by Soviet troops. Although he chose to pursue a career as an independent artist after 1971, he did not stop teaching, and he was reinstated at the Academy of Applied Arts in 1990 as head of the metal, jewelry, and glyptic department. He became a chancellor of the Academy in 1991, and he stayed there until 1994, when he resumed his full-time artistic and teaching career.
Jirí left us on July 26, 2013 in Prague. He will be deeply missed.
Credit: Corning Museum of Glass blog