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Erwin Eisch

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Subject: Bavaria, Members of the Situationist International, Harvey Littleton, List of German artists, Robert C. Fritz
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Erwin Eisch

Erwin Eisch
Born 18 April 1927
Frauenau, Germany
Nationality German
Other names E. Eisch
Occupation Artist, educator
Known for Founder, European Studio Glass movement

Erwin Eisch is a German artist who works with glass. He is also a painter, draughtsman and printmaker. With that of his friend and colleague in glass, Harvey Littleton, Eisch's work in glass embodies the ideas of the international Studio Glass movement. Along with glass artists Sam Herman and Sybren Valkema, Eisch is considered a founder of Studio Glass in Europe.[1]

Early life and education

Erwin Eisch is the eldest of six children of glass engraver Valentin Eisch and his wife, Therese Hirtreiter. The family lived in the town of Frauenau in Bavaria, where Valentin Eisch was employed as a master engraver at the glass factory of Isidor Gistl.[2] The Eisch family was by no means well-off. The elder Eisch supplemented his income by bringing work home to engrave on Sundays. The family also kept a cow, goats and chickens to put milk, eggs and meat on the table.[3]

With Hitler’s rise to power the village of Frauenau, located near the border with Czechoslovakia, suffered under the Nazi regime. According to Erwin Eisch, his family, as well as most of the people in Frauenau, were Communists during the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) and unsympathetic to National Socialism (1933–1945).[4]

Eisch entered the German army in 1945 at age 18. He saw three months of service in Czechoslovakia and Denmark before he was taken prisoner by the British. After an internment of three and a half months,[5] he returned to Frauenau where he learned glass engraving from his father. From 1946 to 1948 Eisch worked at this trade in the family’s cutting and engraving shop[6] while studying at the School of Glassmaking in nearby Zwiesel, Germany (Zwiesel Glasfachschule). After taking his journeyman’s examination in engraving in 1949 [6] Eisch entered the Munich Academy of Fine Arts (Academie der Bildenden Künste). There he studied glass design, sculpture and interior architecture, returning to Frauenau in 1952 to assist his parents and two brothers, Alfons and Erich, in founding a glassworks there.[7] Within a few years the Eisch Glass Factory (Glashütte Eisch) employed a staff of some 200 people.[6]

Eisch returned to the Munich Academy of Fine Arts in 1956, where he continued his studies in sculpture and painting. He, along with other young artists in the late 1950s, was aware of the Tachisme and Art Informel movements. Eisch, however, gravitated toward social criticism and anti-art establishment actions. In 1958 he was a founding member of the artist’s group SPUR at the Munich Academy. Art scholar Susie J.Silbert identified SPUR as a Situationist group intent on revitalizing European culture by emphasizing artistic individualism. Quoting the group's 1958 manifesto, she wrote: "Art relies upon instinct, upon primary creative forces. To the detriment of all intellectual spectators, these free, wild forces always push toward the appearance of new, unexpected forms."[8] Eisch left the group in 1959.

RADAMA scandal, marriage

In 1960, with his future wife, Margarete “Gretel” Stadler and the artist Max Strack, Eisch formed the group RADAMA.[9] RADAMA became notorious for publishing a biography of a fictitious abstract painter, Boris Krim, and holding a memorial exhibition of the "prematurely deceased" artist’s work. The Malura Gallery in Munich mounted "In Memory of Boris Krim" in 1961. According to Eisch the exhibition was intended to reveal “the failure of the avante garde of the time.” [10] Boris Krim’s work, of course, was actually that of the RADAMA members; Eisch showed a number of his glass pieces along with his paintings and sculpture.[11] The ruse worked; art critics lavished praise on the exhibition and pronounced Krim a genius. Those duped by Boris Krim were outraged when the hoax was revealed.[12] Eisch left the Munich art scene soon after the scandal. In 1962 he and Gretel Stadler married and went to Frauenau to live. There Eisch worked as the designer for the Eisch Glass Factory’s commercial line of glassware, and Gretel learned how to paint on glass.[13] Husband and wife held their first joint exhibition at Tritschler GmbH & Cie in Stuttgart in the spring of 1962. The glass objects shown by Eisch dated from 1952. According to Eisch, the exhibition at Tritschler's was "full of all kinds of provocative themes and very unusual glass work, antifunctional, colorful, grotesque." [14]

Contact with Harvey Littleton

Harvey Littleton called his first meeting with Erwin Eisch “a milestone” in his development as a glass artist. In August 1962 Littleton was visiting Germany on a research grant when he noticed, in the showroom of the Rimpler Kristall glass factory in Zwiesel, a piece of glass that was unlike the other objects on display. Littleton was told that it was from the Eisch Glass Factory in the nearby town of Frauenau. Visiting the Eisch factory, Littleton met Erwin Eisch and marveled at his expressionistic free-blown glass objects. “Meeting Erwin confirmed my belief that glass could be a medium for direct expression by an individual,” he wrote.[15]

The two met again in 1964 at the first meeting of the World Congress of Craftsmen in New York City. At the conference Littleton and his students set up a small furnace built by Dominick Labino and proceeded to blow glass. The demonstration impressed Eisch, who said, “The little furnace is the future.”[16] After the conference Eisch traveled to Madison, Wisconsin where he and Littleton co-taught a four-week summer class at the University of Wisconsin art department. As Eisch remembers it, his first trip to the U.S. was memorable. He wrote,"The Midwest was hot and I was shy, speechless and German in a strange new world. I didn't have an easy time of it. As [a] glassblower I was self-taught and clumsy; I confined myself to making handles. I could never get the first gather properly centered, but luckily we were all beginners." [17]

After his return to Frauenau, Eisch built a small studio furnace in the basement of the factory where he melted his own batch[18] from 1965 to 1975. During these years Eisch worked almost exclusively in glass. Working in a studio environment, rather than on the factory floor, allowed him to develop and refine his personal vision for glass as a sculptural medium.[19] Notable works produced during this time included his environmental sculptures The Fountain of Youth and Narcissus.[20]

In November 1967 Eisch returned to the University of Wisconsin as a visiting professor. For two months he worked in Littleton’s studio, creating about 200 pieces of glass for exhibition in the United States. Watching Eisch develop his forms intrigued Littleton. Working with his assistant, Karl Paternoster, Eisch created “small, involved sculptural forms” that he fumed to unify the forms’ surfaces, giving them the iridescence that one sees in Art Nouveau glass. Eisch later resorted to enameling the exteriors of his pieces to strengthen his forms.[21]

During the time Eisch worked in Littleton's studio, his influence on his American colleague was strong. For weeks after Eisch's return to Germany, Littleton found himself creating works that were derivative of his friend’s complex, intuitively-shaped forms. This, Littleton said, made him change the direction of his work to simple forms based on the column and the tube.[22] The following summer, Littleton traveled to Frauenau to work in Eisch’s studio, where he created about thirty sculptures for exhibition in Europe.[23] Eisch and Littleton first exhibited together in 1969 in Munich and Cologne.[24]

Free-blown work of the 1960s and '70s

Although many of Eisch's pieces of the 1960s and '70s was rooted in functional forms such as the vase, the bottle, the pitcher and the stein, the usefulness of these vessels was never Eisch's goal. "The purely plastic form, with glass as medium, was a means of art free of an end," he wrote.[25]

Eisch described his own glass forms of the sixties and seventies as "poetic or pictorial realism." He made clear that such a realism did not rely on observable fact, but on his inner reality; his fantasies. As important as his reliance on fantasy was to shaping his art, his unwillingness to compromise personal vision to appeal to the marketplace was just as vital. Therefore his early pitchers, vases and teapots are so eccentrically shaped as to seem to be in the process of becoming, rather than being, commonplace objects. Unique and imperfect as Eisch's forms are, it is not much of a step for their creator to anthropomorphize them. Eisch said, "From a glowing inert mass must emerge things of beauty that are endowed with speech. A talent of innovating, creating animatedly, and the breath to blow are requisites. Without blowing nothing happens." [26]

Portrait heads

By 1972 Eisch was putting less time into free-blown glass sculpture. Instead, he devoted himself to the creation of sculptures from which ceramic molds for glass-blowing were made. His series of heads, including those of Harvey Littleton, Thomas Buechner, Picasso and the Buddha, and his “Blister-finger” series of works, were all mold-blown. This allowed Eisch to concentrate his efforts not only on sculpting but also on engraving and painting on glass. In using different cold-working techniques to create imagery on each piece in his series, along with distorting the hot glass sculpture as it came from the mold, Eisch made virtually identical mold-blown pieces into individual, unique statements.[20]

Painting and drawing

Beginning in the mid-1970s Eisch began to create more and more in the traditional art forms of painting on canvas and paper, drawing and printmaking. Eisch draws daily, often working in thematic series. While his imagery can be purely whimsical, the artist also uses it to make political statements. Above all, his guiding idea is the physical relationship of male and female, of human contact through touch with an emphasis on the hand.[27]

Harvey Littleton has written of Eisch's paintings and drawings that "Erwin...has said that the real landscape no longer exists in art, no more than the classic figure; and so he creates his own vision of the world of the spirit and new relationships of body forms." [28]


Eisch first tried his hand at vitreography (printmaking from glass plates) during a visit to Harvey Littleton’s studio in 1981. Littleton had begun to explore the possibilities of intaglio printmaking from glass matrices in Wisconsin in 1976; in 1981, after hiring a printer to assist him, Littleton began to invite artist colleagues to experiment in vitreography. Erwin Eisch was one of the first artists invited to engage in printmaking at Littleton Studios. Eisch brought his background in glass engraving to bear on the vitreograph plate. He abraded and cut into the glass surface, which was then inked and printed onto paper under pressure in an etching press. He produced six intaglio prints in four days during that visit.[29] Over the following 26 years Littleton Studios published 64 prints by Eisch, including a 10-print portfolio titled "Kristallnacht: Night of Crystal Death." According to Eisch, he created the portfolio as a means "to relieve some of the clinging shame that weighs down upon us Germans, and to bring courage to all those who oppose hate and violence and the destruction of the environment, today and forever."[30] Using a palette of primarily red and black ink, Eisch aimed to show in the artworks "the brutality and stupidity" of the November 1938 pogrom in Nazi Germany that foreshadowed the Holocaust.[31]

Teacher and lecturer

In addition to teaching in the glass program at the University of Wisconsin in 1964 and 1968, Eisch has been a guest instructor at San Jose State University (1968), Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine (1972), Foley College of Art, Stourbridge, England (1974) and Alfred University in New York (1976). In addition he taught various subjects, including drawing, glass painting, sandblasting and engraving at Pilchuck Glass School in 1981, 1983 and 1984. Eisch lectured at the XIII International Congress on Glass in London, England (1968), the World Crafts Conference in Dublin, Ireland (1970), the World Crafts Conference in Kyoto, Japan (1978), the Glass Art Society Conferences in New York City (1982) and in Corning, New York (1979, 1991). He was also an organizer of the First and Second International Glass Symposia in Frauenau, Germany in 1982 and 1985.[32] In 1988 Eisch founded the summer school Bild-Werk Fauenau in Frauenau, Germany.[33] In 2008 Bild-Werk Frauenau offered four summer sessions and 36 courses in subjects ranging from painting and drawing, to cutting and engraving glass, to singing.[34] In addition to Eisch and his wife Gretel, artists who have taught at Bildwerk Frauenau include Eisch's friend, the painter (and founding director of the Corning Museum of Glass) Tom Buechner (U.S., b. 1923), glass artist Jiří Harcuba (Czech, b. 1926), puppet maker Peter Hermann (German, b. 1962), glass artist and vitreographer, Ursula Merker (Czech. b. 1939), multi-media artist Gerhard Ribka (German, b. 1955), glass artist Therman Statom (U.S., b. 1953), multi-media artist Stphen P. Day (U.S., b. 1953), and glass caster Angela Thwaites (U.K., b. 1961). [35] among many others.

Public collections

Eisch’s work has been collected by the Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Glasmuseet Ebeltoft, Ebeltoft, Denmark; Glasmuseum Lobmeyr, Vienna, Austria; Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin, Germany; Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg, Veste Coburg, Germany; Corning Museum of Glass, Kunstmuseum der Stadt, Düsseldorf, Germany; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; Museum Bellerive, Zürich, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Nagahama City Museum, Japan; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; Toledo Museum of Art, and the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.[36]


On 19 April 2009 the Erwin and Gretel Eisch Foundation was formed. The foundation's purpose is to maintain and present to the public a collection of the artists' works from the 1950s to the present. Administered by the Landskreis Regen, the works will be available for loan to exhibitions. The artists have made an initial donation of 300 paintings, 350 drawings, 227 glass objects and 207 graphic works to the foundation. The artists anticipate that any money raised by the foundation will be donated to Bild-Werk Frauenau,[37] the summer art academy founded by Erwin Eisch in 1988.[38]


Erwin and Gretel Eisch have five children: Katharina (born 1962), Valentin (born 1964), Veronika (born 1965), Susanne (born 1968) and Sabine (born 1969).[39]


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