Art of glass

A breathtaking exhibition of Dale Chihuly's work.

As chandeliers go, Dale Chihuly's offering in the entrance hall of London's Victoria & Albert museum is pretty distinctive. The vast twisting construction of pale green and blue glass climbs upwards towards the vaulted ceiling in a seemingly gravity-defying display.

A similar piece currently hangs in the window of the Halcyon Gallery (144-146 New Bond St, London), welcoming visitors to an exhibition of Chihuly's work; curated to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the International Studio Glass movement.

From start to finish, it is a masterclass in the art of glassblowing. Chihuly studied at the Venini glassworks in Venice as a young artist in the late 1960s, in order to learn the skills of Italy's master craftsmen. He then promptly turned tradition on its head; taking techniques such as the 'lip-wrap' (a historic rim-strengthening method that is now Chihuly's trademark) and combining them with his individual brand of vibrant, irregular glassmaking.

He favours a collaborative process, acting as grand master to a willing team of artists. Indeed, a video loop shows Chihuly at work - wearing his distinctive eyepatch - encouraging a young team as they remove clear bulbs of molten glass from industrial ovens and spin them into fantastical shapes. It's mesmerising stuff.

Set over three levels, the exhibition strives to capture the essence of Chihuly's work. There are chandeliers, patterned glass orbs, an array of mis-shapen vases - even paintings, although these lack the skill of the artist's glasswork and feel like a poor man's Pollock. A series of wall-mounted shell-like plates in greens, blues and yellow cast dappled light over the walls.

Commissioned especially for the Halcyon Gallery, Mille Fiori is unquestionably the standout piece here. A 24ft long 'garden' on a reflective black base, it is an enchanting sea of scarlet sceptres, blue trumpets, striped conches, green anemones and a giant yellow chandelier. The effect is akin to a dazzling coral reef - to stand at the end of the gallery space, peering through the multi-coloured miasma, is nothing short of breathtaking.

It's also thoughtfully and precisely lit - with beams dancing across the suface of the glass. Chihuly says that light is one of his most important mediums; his work is as much about tranfiguring light as transforming spaces. "My installations are singular in scale, composition and form. At times they sit peacefully in nature, sometimes they hang from the ceiling and spring forth from walls. In any setting, the colour, form and light unite to create something magical."

The piece also plays on the juxtaposition between the man-made and natural, which Chihuly rates as "a very important part of my work." Indeed, previous exhibitions have set some of his more outlandish designs amid the flora of Kew Gardens, over the canals of Venice and along a river in Finland, from where the artist hurled his works into the water with abandon.

This is a window on to the lifelong passion of one man obsessed with glass, pigment and form - and doesn't suffer for being limited to the gallery's four walls. But the visitor leaves with one unanswered question: how on earth do they go about polishing it all?

Dale Chihuly is at the Halcyon Gallery (144-146 New Bond Street, London, W1S 2PF until March 31, 2012

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser