On a clement Sunday, the Venetian chattering classes usually drift across the lagoon for al fresco picnics. But on a sun-kissed weekend in April this year, most of Venice’s artistic community have gathered on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore for the opening of the latest exhibition at Le Stanze del Vetro, a museum dedicated to modern glass.
Entitled The Glass of the Architects: Vienna 1900-1937, the show brings together more than 300 works from the collection of MAK, the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts. With pieces by the likes of Adolf Loos and Josef Hoffmann, it is a fascinating voyage through a less-explored tributary of these groundbreaking Secessionist imaginations.
There is Loos’s “Trinkservice”, the only table service in glass he ever designed, a transparent, minimalist glory decorated with subtle diamond hatching. Hoffmann’s “Boudoir d’une grande vedette”, (1936-37), a glass-walled, mirror-floored Art Deco nirvana, proves itself a salon truly fit for Dietrich. With each gallery decorated with patterned wallpapers and textiles by artisans of the Vienna Workshops, the exhibition pulses to the provocative rhythm of modernist Vienna.
The man responsible for Le Stanze del Vetro is David Landau. Best known as the entrepreneur behind the free-ads newspaper, Loot, which he launched in 1984, Landau’s past seems incongruous with the erudite anima of Le Stanze del Vetro until you know that he also had a distinguished career at the University of Oxford as an art historian.
“I always tried to . . . challenge myself to do things I couldn’t do. And I had never made a penny!” The balding, dark-eyed Landau is the personification of frankness as he explains to me how he came to make his dramatic career change. “I wanted to try the ice-cream business but it failed,” he pauses with a comedian’s timing. “It was London. There was rain.”
But Loot “worked out well”. Indeed. The business was sold in 2000 for £190m, from which Landau is estimated to have made £40m. That windfall made Le Stanze possible.
Originally, however, Landau had no intention of creating a museum. Rather, he and his wife Marie-Rose Kahane, wished to donate their collection of Murano glass to the municipal museum on the eponymous island. “They were unwilling to take it,” he says, with studied diplomacy. Murano has struggled to create an infrastructure worthy of its 1,000-year heritage: the museum has been restored since Landau’s offer but the furnaces continue to dwindle yearly.
Relations were not improved by his ill-fated spell in 2010 as chairman of the board of civic museums in Venice, where his attempts to reinvigorate the system were met with a noted lack of enthusiasm by an organisation that been stagnating for decades. “They didn’t want me,” he says quietly. “So I resigned.”
The idea of Le Stanze was born after a meeting with Pasquale Gagliardi, the secretary-general of the Cini Foundation, a cultural organisation which leases the island of San Giorgio Maggiore — home to the eponymous Palladian church and monastery — from the state.
“Gagliardi said: ‘If you want a place to show your collection, we have a building’,” recalls Landau. Concerned not to “compete with Murano”, Landau rejected the idea of creating a permanent private showcase.
Instead, he envisaged a “Kunsthalle of glass”, a space for temporary exhibitions that would rotate through a two-show annual cycle. One would focus on 20th- and 21st-century Murano glass; the other would focus on modern and contemporary glass from further afield. The curator Landau has appointed, Marino Barovier, has total autonomy. “If he asks for a piece, we lend it. But I have never interfered with his choices,” says Landau.
The architect Annabelle Selldorf, known for designing some of contemporary art’s most sympathetic showcases, took on the renovation of the dilapidated former schoolhouse. Selldorf maintained the existing structure but employed Venetian artisans to instil a sense of genius loci in its new incarnation. The classrooms make for intimate galleries while vitrines in walnut wood and metal have been mounted in the doorways that line the corridor to create a luminous, permeable artery between the spaces. Handsome ceiling lights are the work of Venetian glass artist Alessandro Diaz de Santillana.
Landau has also created a centre for the study of glass, complete with library and archive. Such an institution did not exist in Venice despite its 1,000-year-history of glassmaking. “Did you know that there have only been 32 theses on glass in the history of the University of Venice, whereas there are more than a thousand on Titian?” he asks.
Today, the archive has tens of thousands of original drawings and photographs that will allow future historians to chronicle a craft whose processes have left little trace since its inception on Murano in the 13th century. (Anyone who has seen a designer and glassmaster work together in a furnace will know that some of the most glorious pieces leave no more documentation than a transient chalk sketch on the floor.)
Landau’s passion for glass was sparked when he met his wife Marie-Rose Kahane. “She had a collection of very beautiful, historic Venini pieces,” he recalls, referring to the renowned 20th-century Murano glass producer. “As an art historian I got intrigued . . . and then my obsessive side came into play.” Another winning smile. “I bought Rosy a piece as a present and now we have 2,000!”
Will he wade into the debate about whether glass is decorative or fine art? “It can be both. It’s only a question of degree or quality. Great painting is art and bad painting is decoration.” He pauses. “That is not art.” Pointing at a transparent, department-store vase on the table “But a very similar one that Carlo Scarpa made in 1928 is.” I nod vigorously, because I know the early works designed by modernist architect Carlo Scarpa — wafer-thin, pared-down shapes that burst on to Murano with the same revolutionary force as a Mondrian painting in a gallery of Post-Impressionists.
Glass designed by Scarpa was the subject of Le Stanze’s first show. It transferred to the Metropolitan Museum when Sheena Wagstaff, head of the new modern and contemporary art division, chose the Scarpa exhibition as her opening gambit. It met with ecstatic reviews from fine art critics.
Subsequently Landau and Kahane donated more than 40 Scarpa works to the Met. Landau says their decision was motivated by the “enthusiasm of Sheena and her team”. But I can’t help wondering if the Victoria and Albert Museum might have got lucky had Landau not felt obliged to spend less time in London when tighter tax regulations were introduced on non-domiciles in 2009. Landau shakes his head: “I am still enormously attached to the art institutes [in the UK]. I am a trustee of the National Gallery Trust and the Courtauld Institute.”
His decision to relocate has impinged on, but not impeded, the activity he describes as his “greatest joy”: sitting for the painter Frank Auerbach in London. “Auerbach is just a mensch,” he says, his eyes glowing with affection. “He’s somebody who has a complete grasp of what the important things in life are. He’s totally humble . . . He lives for painting.”
Suddenly, the shy connoisseur becomes as voluble as a mother discussing her child. “It’s like [the 16th-century writer Pietro] Aretino sitting for Titian, or the bottle that Morandi painted. I am the object. It’s such a privilege.”
‘The Glass of the Architects: Vienna 1900-1937’, Le Stanze del Vetro, to July 31, lestanzedelvetro.org