The Arthur Rubloff Paperweight Collection on the first floor of Chicago’s Art Institute boasts over 1,500 paperweights from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It’s an important part of an entire wing of the museum devoted to European decorative arts. Yet both Steve Johnson of the The Chicago Tribune , and Susan Dubin of the Sun Times Buffalo Grove, singled out this particular exhibition for scorn while remaining completely taciturn on the presence of many other age-old tapestries, suits of armor, and settees. The Tribune‘s Johnson included the paperweight collection in a round-up piece dreadfully titled “From Paperweights to a Colon Crawl, Chicago’s Most Awkward Museum Exhibits,” while Dubin devoted her entire column titled “Mystified by the Artistry of the Paperweight” to her lack of knowledge of paperweights and lack of desire to remedy her ignorance on the subject.
Johnson seems affronted by the notion that Arthur Rubloff’s generous contribution to the Art Institute made possible a wing dedicated to something Johnson himself doesn’t think is cool. “Earn enough scratch in your lifetime, and your hobbies can become everyone’s,” quips Johnson. The only problem with that assertion is that it is precisely how all museums work — donating a huge amount of art or dollars gets names on walls. In fact, Johnson notes that Rubloff, “bequeathed many art works to the museum and [his] name is also on an auditorium and a whole building there.” He neglects to explain why the most famous of the art pieces bequeathed are unworthy of display in the hall that bears his name. To her credit, Dubin does her best to grapple with this line of questioning rather than handily dismissing the exhibit straightaway. Attempting to grasp why this particular collection exists she queries, “Did you know there was a ‘classic period’ for paperweights? Who decided that?” and, “Do you really think this is art?” and finally the more tongue-in-cheek: “And do they really need security for this exhibit? Is there a high demand in the crime profession for stolen art museum paperweights?” Aside from telephone calls to the Art Institute to ask “Are paperweights art” (contacted by the Hot Sheet, Dubin declined to identify who she spoke to at the museum), no reasonable attempt is made to satisfy any of these musings, which has prompted outrage and a heated defense from devotees of the paperweight form.
Readers intrigued by glass art most likely have some inkling of the artistry required to create these diminutive glass worlds. However, as the columnists in question refused research on the subject, a brief history seems necessary. GLASS #112, Fall 2008 contains an article by Robin Rice that details the innovation of the field a century and a half ago, as well as engages the form’s staunch conservatism.
While the quality of today’s paperweights vary widely, at one time the form represented the hallmark of artistic and technical progress. Rice attributes the field’s explosion to the rampant epistolary form, as well as innovations in flameworking with glass. Like ballet, the art of the glass paperweight premiered in Italy and was quickly appropriated and surpassed in elegance by the French, who led the “classic” period (1845-1860) with the contributions of glass houses such as Clichy, Baccarat and Saint Louis. Fifteen years is a relatively small window in the history, and the glass orbs of this period serve as lovely time capsules for the fashions and values of mid-19th century Western Europe. Recurring themes in the work are exotic plant and animal replications, which Rice astutely relates to aggressive Victorian imperialism. The trend is evident in this piece from Baccarat Glassworks on view in the Rubloff collection, and in this this particuar Clichy Glasshouse piece. Another defining characteristic of classic paperweights are astonishingly detailed geometric shapes, which Rice describes as having, “mathematical regularity as precise and endlessly enchanting as a Mozart concerto, a reflection of the prevailing tastes of their era,” like this Baccarat gems here and here.
For paperweight enthusiasts and sensitive souls the world over, these functionally obsolete objects hearken back to an age of letter writing, wax seals, quill pens, and, perhaps most thrilling, the absence of communication through “likes” on Facebook. Museums have many functions, and can serve to satisfy nostalgic curiosities as well as shrines to the most beautiful objects created throughout history. The idea is that somebody or bodies created each piece, and generations and centuries later these works are curated so as to recreate eras, cultures, worlds and rooms long since past.
Both Johnson and Dubin have received a slew of responses from fans and collectors, and the Institute released an official statement defending the Rubloff Collection from its detractors. On The Glass Gallery Blog, L.H. Selman, a Chicago based company devoted to the collection and dealing of glass paperweights, called its supporters to action. The result was at least 75 heated responses on the blog, as well as hundreds of letters directed at Johnson and the Tribune in defense of the collection’s merit. In an email correspondence with Dubin, she expressed an interest in taking this opportunity to learn more about a field with such a storied history. She has since published a follow-up article detailing conversations with art dealers and avid paperweight collectors titled, “Why Paperweights are Art.”
Paperweights seem to be easy target practice for deadline-pressured newspaper columnists because they remain a niche area of the art world and are not taught in Art History 101 in the same way Pointillism, Surrealism, and Greek sculpture are. Their absence in the scholastic canon shunts them to the back of the fine arts bus, where they look like easy prey for a newspaper columnist looking for an easy target.