Photo: portrait Jirí Harcuba
© Frank Breuking

JIRÍ HARCUBA (1928-2013)

an engraver in his own right

Frank Breuking (Groningen, the Netherlands)

Posted 27 August 2013

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“I did put too much effort into it, I have to do less.” Jirí Harcuba

The first time I could observe Jirí Harcuba was from a distance. It happened during a summer course of Bild-Werk, Frauenau. I saw a focussed, calm and upright man, a personality. Immediately I decided that the next time he would teach at Bild-Werk I would attend his classes. At that moment I didn’t have any experience with glass engraving whatsoever. It was the man himself who made me take this decision.
Four years later the opportunity arose. Then for the first time we really met, and as it happened I was the only pupil for his course. During the 2.5 weeks we got very well acquainted, which was the beginning of an intense and beautiful friendship.
Ji?í Harcuba has an absolute unique position in the world of engraving and the world of glass & art at large. Him having his enormous craftsmanship, his focus had always been on having a vision on engraving. The philosophy behind his work is best characterized by two notions. The first is ‘apparent simplicity’: reducing to get to its core, and leaving out the unnecessary. The second is best described by the Japanese term ‘Wabi-Sabi’: the beauty of things imperfect, unfinished, impermanent, incomplete, modest and humble, though being perfect at the same time. His oeuvre – now finished – speaks for itself. His vitreography also very clearly shows his own personal style and attitude.

Apart from being a glass artist he was also a designer of coins and medallions. One result was his design of the Czech 5-Crown piece, which shows the oldest stone bridge of the country.
His career started when he was a young boy assisting his father by putting on smirgl on the stone wheel. This was in Harrachov (North Bohemia), and as it happens this is also the birthplace of Dominik Bimann, the best engraver of the 19th century. When he was thirteen years of age he became an apprentice in glass engraving at the renowned glass factory Novy Svet in Harrachov.
Then he went through the very hard times of the German occupation of Sudetenland, when people from Czech origin were only allowed to perform jobs as an assistant labourer. In 1945 he went to the Glass School in Novy Bor, where Stanislav Libensky was the most influential teacher. Now the family tradition Jirí Harcuba had inherited – all his ancestors were glass workers – got a new dimension. His first portrait, made in 1951, shows his father. In the late fifties, when Harcuba absolved a postgraduate study at the Prague Academy of Art and Design his work became independent. He had his first great successes at the Brussels World Exhibition in 1958.

From 1961-1971 he taught sculpture and engraving at the Prague Academy of Art and Design, where a dramatic incident happened. In 1968 Harcuba had designed a medallion for the anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia, for the Czech exiles in Chicago. During the following few years nothing happened until the conductor of the Prague Philharmonic, the dissident Raphael Kubelik, distributed a hundred of the memorial medallions to the musicians, after a concert given in Zurich. When the secret service got wind of it they considered the coins as ‘concrete evidence’ of counter-revolution. Luckily, at the last moment his then pupil Aleš Vašícek was able to get rid of the plasters and designs of the coin. Harcuba was sentenced to four months in jail, without his family knowing about his whereabouts.
About this period he told me it also gave him a very positive experience, because inside jail a ‘hunger for nature’ grew. It was a big relief when he was allowed to work outside, to feel and see the beautiful autumn. Together with a man of Roma origin he had to lay out railway tracks with a metal fork. Although this work ruined his hands he would never want to have missed this period which was so decisive for the rest of his life.
After his dismissal he started as a freelancer, developing his own practice as an engraver. More and more doing portraits of famous artists, philosophers, musicians etcetera. Therefore he used massive pieces of casted glass.
A leap in time now. In 1989, after the Velvet Revolution in the Czechoslovak Republic, when Václav Havel became president, he was called to become professor of the Art School in Prague. In 1990 the Academic Council chose him to become rector, for being a man who wasn’t associated with the former communist regime. It made him happy when after three years he could resign this post. Meanwhile, for being the renowned engraver and artist he was invited to teach abroad more and more. For instance in Japan, the USA, and at Bild-Werk (Frauenau), in the Bavarian Woods, where I met him for the first time.

After retiring in 1994 he continued his old passion of trying to revive and renew the tradition of good artistic engraving, in order to prevent this tradition from falling into oblivion. Therefore he founded the Dominik Bimann Society as well as the Dominik Bimann School. The Dominik Bimann School was a school without walls, a school that could perform anywhere. He particularly took an interest in students of Glass Schools in the Czech Republic and in Germany. Their training normally puts emphasis on craftsmanship. His idea was to loosen them up and help them to enhance their artistic qualities in the hope that one day they would develop into artists in their own right. One of the other aims of the foundation was to stimulate reconciliation between driven-out Sudeten-Germans and the Czech people. By his personality, Jirí Harcuba was very able to ease the bitterness between both groups.
The first seminar of the school took place in the glass factory of Harrachov. On that occasion I was also enabled to visit the traditional Czech house of Jirí Harcuba’s grandfather, which was very dear to him. I was invited to be his assistant at seminars of the Dominik Bimann School throughout the Czech Republic and in Germany as well.

The last time I personally met him and his wife was in 2011, in Prague. In his studio he and I performed the last session of the Dominik Bimann School.
My thoughts go out to his dear wife Zdena, having to cope with this tremendous loss. As the world of glass & art has to cope with it in its own right.

I will remember him.

Frank Breuking (1954, NL) did develop his attitude as an artist being an apprentice of various masters in their trade. Before and after he absolved the Art Academy AKI he worked a number of years in the theatre. He has his own studio. Being a pure conceptual artist from the start, in the early 90’s he got involved in the world of glass, especially engraving. During the recent years he also took up woodcarving.

Harcuba, Jirí (Czech 1928-2013): Dominik Biemann, 2009; cast and engraved plaque, H:24.1 cm, D: 3 cm, Gift of the artist
© The Corning Museum of Glass

Harcuba, Jirí (Czech 1928-2013): Portrait of Václav Havel, 1995; cast and engraved plaque, H: 20.0 cm, W: 21.4 cm, D: 4.7 cm, 10th Rakow Commission
© Jirí Harcuba
Courtesy: The Corning Museum of Glass

Harcuba, Jirí (Czech 1928-2013): Johann Sebastian Bach, 2006; cast and engraved plaque, H: 32.9 cm, W: 33.6, D: 5.4 cm
Courtesy: The Corning Museum of Glass

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