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At Corning, Art That Imitates Life — Astonishingly

In 1886, Harvard botany professor George Lincoln Goodale was given an empty building and told to make a teaching museum. Goodale was baffled, says David Whitehouse, director of the Corning Museum of Glass; he didn't know where to start.

"But Harvard had already got a museum of zoology," Whitehouse explains. "And in the museum of zoology they had got some glass models, made by Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolph, of invertebrate animals" — meaning jellyfish, sea anemones, octopuses and the like.

Back in the late 19th century, botanical teaching models were mostly made of wax or papier maché. Or they were actual plants that had been dried and pressed.

But the replicas were inexact, the pressed specimens faded and flat. So professor Goodale asked the Blaschkas to make glass plants. Fifty years later, after Rudolph retired (and after Leopold had died), they'd finished 4,000 models.

The flowers' petals and pistils are so accurate that when novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid first saw them, her own garden seemed flat.

"I began immediately to think that real flowers were the imitation," she laughs — "that the flowers I saw before me in my garden were an imitation of things that were in glass."

Kincaid was so taken by the flowers that she wrote a magazine article about them. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould compared them to the greatest musical performance he'd ever heard.

And bestselling memoirist and poet Mark Doty marveled at how Leopold Blaschka and his son captured impermanence:

He's built a perfection out of hunger fused layer upon layer, swirled until what can't be swallowed, won't yield almost satisfies, an art mouthed to the shape of how soft things are, how good, before they disappear. (Read the complete poem.)

Over time, some the glass flowers and fruits have broken or cracked. So Harvard has partnered with the Corning Museum of Glass to restore the models. This summer, 17 specimens, ranging from an orchid and a bunch of bluets to panic grass and a sprig of blue sage, have been plucked from Harvard and sent to Corning.

Susan Rossi-Wilcox, who tends year-round to the glass-flower garden at Harvard, says the Corning exhibition highlights the flowers' beauty by showing them alongside the Blaschkas' detailed sketches, their simple tools and their worn, wooden workbench.

"It takes the objects away from their educational aspect and frames them almost the way jewels are framed," she says.

Corning is also displaying some of the Blaschkas' pre-plant work — including costume jewelry and a leather case filled with eyeballs.

"They're really incredible in their detail," says museum registrar Warren Bunn. "But they do have a creepy, surreal feel when you open the case and see how many there are."

The museum has also pulled other glass objects from storage — pieces not made by the Blaschkas, but curious nonetheless. There are glass bullets and a clear glass slipper made for a film version of Cinderella that was never completed. There's even a 500-pound glass coffin, though that stays in the warehouse and isn't on public display. Curator Tina Oldknow says it's just as well: Visitors might have a mental picture of "glass coffin" — from the movie Bram Stoker's Dracula, perhaps, with "that wonderful scene of that woman Lucy, who's buried in her Victorian wedding dress ... inside this engraved glass box that's inside a stone vault" — but Corning's glass coffin isn't like that at all. In fact, you wouldn't even know it is glass: It's covered in doeskin embossed with leaves and flowers. Caskets like this were marketed in the late 1800s as being pretty and practical: Once underground nothing could get in — or out.

The Blaschkas also dealt with death. They created 65 replicas of diseased fruits for Harvard, including an apple afflicted with blight and a strawberry covered with that familiar fuzzy mold.

"I love that, because they make decay so beautiful," says writer Kincaid.

Officially there are 17 flowers in the Botanical Wonders exhibition at the Corning Museum of Glass. But if you count the tall, flowering orchid by the exit, there are 18. Museum director Whitehouse says it's there as a reality check.

"You've seen the miracles the Blaschkas could do with glass, you've gotten used to seeing wonderful models, you've seen an orchid at the beginning — here's an orchid at the end of the show," he says, explaining the challenge. "Is it real, or is it glass? You tell me."

I couldn't. Then again, I could definitely smell those moldy glass strawberries from across the room.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Harriet Baskas