Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Tiffany glass adorns Mexico
Seeing marvelous works of art is one of the delights of traveling. I’m one of those people who reads billboards to find must-see museum exhibits in the city. So imagine my delight when after missing a flight at the San Francisco Airport (SFO) I stumbled upon “A Radiant Light, The Artistry of Louis C. Tiffany” in the International Departures terminal.
Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), founder of Tiffany Studios was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the renowned jewelry store Tiffany & Co. Louis Tiffany is probably best known for Tiffany lamps — stained glass lamps and shades with floral and organic designs in richly hued colors. At the exhibit in SFO you can also see blown glass vases, ceramics, window panels, desk sets, and oil paintings, his original métier. But you don’t need to travel far to see his work—an enormous work some consider to be his masterpiece is right here in Mexico City.
In 1892 Louis Tiffany filed a request for a patent for his breakthrough in the art world — a new method for stained glass. Rather than painting colors onto glass as had been done since medieval times, his glass was internally colored with many-hued opalescent colors. He trademarked his product Favrile, derived from the old English word “fabrile”, meaning handcrafted. He changed the b to a v because “it sounded better.” His work in Favrile glass went on to win the 1900 Paris Exposition grand prize.
In the United States, following the Civil War, economic prosperity led to the construction of thousands of churches. Tiffany set up an entire division of Tiffany Studios to create “all forms of decorations and instrumental ecclesiastics.” Tiffany’s brochures offered leaded-glass windows, mosaics, frescoes, altars, and an array of sacred vessels and portable objects with biblical themes which wealthy parishioners could donate to their churches as a way of memorializing their loved ones.
At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair the Tiffany Studio exhibit included an award-winning chapel interior which attracted over 900,000 visitors and resulted in so many commissions that supplying stained glass windows for churches supported the rest of Tiffany’s various artistic pursuits.
Favrile glass could hardly have come at a better time as it coincided with the spreading use of electricity. Tiffany lamps became an artistic way to soften the harshness of the bare light bulb, while electrically backlighted stained glass windows took on new luster.
So how can you see a Tiffany masterpiece? Arrive on time for a performance in the theater of Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts. The largest mural in the Palace of Fine Arts is the Tiffany Glass Curtain in the building’s main theater.
It is only visible during the short time between when doors open for seating and show time. After the third call the lights dim and the curtain’s glass landscape of snowcapped Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanoes is taken through a light show from dawn to dusk before the curtain rises and disappears into the ceiling.
Construction of the Palace of Fine Arts started in 1904 during the Porfirio Díaz administration of 1884-1911. Italian architect Adamo Boari commissioned Tiffany Studios to apply techniques developed for decorating churches to Mexico’s secular theater. Boari wanted to use Favrile glass to disguise his new development in theater design — a fire-proof curtain to separate the stage and backstage from the seating area.
To protect the audience from the frequent threat of fires starting backstage, Boari designed a double walled steel firewall 14 meters (42 feet) wide, 12.5 meters (38 feet) high and 32 centimeters (a foot) thick — weighing about 27 tons!
The fireproof curtain and mechanism to raise and lower it were constructed in Germany and shipped to New York. In the meantime stage designer Harry Stoner was sent to Mexico City to paint a landscape of snowcapped Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanoes as seen from an office in the National Palace.
Once the firewall and painting converged in New York, Tiffany’s artisans started a two-year project of copying the painting onto 206 panels which were attached to the firewall. In doing so they used close to a million pieces of Favrile glass.
Before being shipped to Mexico City in 1911, the finished curtain/firewall was displayed in New York.
Architect Boari never saw the Tiffany curtain installed. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 put a stop to the theater construction work. Boari waited for the Revolution to settle down, but gave up in 1916 and left Mexico for good. Finally in 1930 work resumed on the Palace of Fine Arts under Mexican architect Federico Mariscal. The art nouveau building with an art deco interior was inaugurated in 1934.
I suggest that the next time you attend an event in the Palace of Fine Arts’ main theater you take your binoculars with you in order to get a close up view of Tiffany’s marvel.