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MFA’s Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass

Exhibition dazzles with color and light


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Watch the slideshow above to see some of the works included in the Museum of Fine Arts exhibition Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass. Photos courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts

Often considered the greatest artist working in American glass since Louis Comfort Tiffany, Dale Chihuly is known for creating dramatic works, impressive for their size and bold use of color. Fortunately for Bostonians, his massive glass forms can now be seen in a dozen installations at the Museum of Fine Arts, as part of an exhibition that runs through August 7.

Lime Green Icicle Tower, comprising 2,342 glass elements and weighing nearly 10,000 pounds, looks like an exotic, neon-hued palm tree that has taken root in a giant greenhouse. Rising 43 feet, it is breathtaking.

Chandeliers, inspired by a chandelier the artist saw in a restaurant in Barcelona, is actually six huge glass chandeliers suspended from a 16-foot ceiling, some so low that you can circle them. Most of them, like his Iris Yellow Frog Foot Chandelier, are a single color. Chihuly uses words like “hornet,” “stinger,” and “twisted” to describe these sculptures’ wavelike forms.

Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It’s easy to see why many of Chihuly’s installations have been exhibited in botanical gardens and other outdoor settings. His glass forms suggest leaves, tendrils, and blossoms. In Persian Ceiling, a massive array of various shapes in hues of orange, blue, and red suspended from a ceiling, the rondels take on flower-like forms. He has always loved flowers, he says, and memories of his mother’s garden have influenced much of his work.

Another installation, Mille Fiori (translated from the Italian as “a thousand flowers”) suggests a massive flowerbed. There is something fantastical and lurid about these botanical forms, and it’s not accidental that the show is called Through the Looking Glass. The entire exhibition—and this display in particular—seems to come straight out of Alice in Wonderland. Nowhere is Chihuly’s command of color more in evidence than in this botanical display, where he used uranium oxide to create the shimmering shade of green in the grass. A mélange of reds, oranges, yellows, and blues suggest a jungle paradise.

First assembled in 2003 for a show at the Tacoma Art Museum, the Mille Fiori installation on view at the MFA is the series’ largest to date, combining pieces designed in the ’80s and ’90s with newer forms. He acknowledges that his work has a tendency to become more complex as it evolves. “My philosophy is, when one is good, a dozen is better,” he says.

In Northwest Room, a series of glass baskets in hues of cream, russet, gold, and tobacco appear alongside the Native American woven baskets that inspired them; in the whimsical Ikebana Boat, a small wooden boat is placed on a mirrored surface and filled with dazzling glass sculptures, the whole effect suggesting an open jewelry box, its gem-like treasures on display. The idea for Ikebana Boat came to Chihuly on a trip to Finland in 1995 when he was standing on a bridge over a river and decided to throw glass spheres into the water to see what would shatter and what survive. (For the record, only one or two broke). He hired several teenagers in wooden boats to retrieve the pieces, and he was struck, he says, by the juxtaposition of contemporary glass forms sitting in old wooden boats.

Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The 69-year-old Chihuly’s work is in the permanent collection of some 200 museums. A car accident in 1976 left him blind in one eye, making it impossible for him to blow. Inspired by glassblowers who first produced Venetian glass in Murano, Italy, he assembled a team of glassblowers from around the world. Working out of two studios in Seattle, he employs the same technique used by Venetian glassmakers—shaping molten glass with a blowpipe using traditional implements. He then adds color to the hot glass, which is often reheated and shaped again before it is slowly cooled.

Chihuly conceived the idea for Through the Looking Glass on a trip to the MFA two years ago, while the new courtyard was still under construction. The exhibition, made up of thousands of pieces of hand-blown glass, had to be packed in six 53-foot containers, and under the artist’s watchful gaze it took three weeks for a team from his studio to install the massive artworks. Lime Green Icicle alone took a week to assemble.


A word of advice: try to see the show on a weekday, not a weekend. The MFA is strictly limiting access to the exhibition during high-traffic periods because of the objects’ fragility. And note that the museum is closed July 4.

Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass runs through August 7 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston; open Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. The museum is accessible by public transportation by taking the Green Line E trolley or 39 bus to the Museum of Fine Arts stop or the Orange Line train or bus routes 8, 47, or C2 to the Ruggles stop. Admission is free for full-time BU students with a valid ID; $20 for adults; $18 for seniors (65 and older) and students 18 and older without a valid ID; free for children 6 and under. Youth ages 7 to 17, $7.50 on weekdays before 3 p.m., free on weekdays after 3 p.m., weekends, and public school holidays. Wednesdays after 4 p.m., admission is by voluntary contribution. More information can be found here or by calling 617-267-9300.

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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