Narcissus by Erwin Eisch

Erwin Eisch (b. 1927) was one of the first artists in Europe to use glass purely for artistic expression. Liberating the material from its previous, almost exclusive, use for vases and decorative objects, Eisch was instrumental in founding the studio glass movement in Europe.

Eisch was born in Frauenau, a small town in south-east Germany, where he became familiar with glass-making and engraving in his father’s glass factory. He went on to study Interior Architecture, Glass Design and Sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. In 1962 Eisch met Harvey K. Littleton, now widely recognised as the founder of the American studio glass movement. Their shared passion for the use of hot glass in a totally free manner, unrestrained by technical perfection, initiated an exciting artistic exchange between Europe and the United States, and attracted growing attention for the studio glass movement.

Like the American studio glass artists, Eisch was against the smooth, ‘easy’ beauty of glass achieved through technical fluency. Instead, he was interested in providing an antidote to an increasingly organised and technologically driven society. He wanted to ‘take the straight and bend it’. For him, art was purely an intuitive expression of the maker.

Head of Narcissus (detail), Erwin Eisch, 1975, Germany. Museum no. C.222:1 to 8-2014. Given by Erwin and Gretel Eisch. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From 1971 Eisch made three installations themed around Narcissus. In ancient mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pond and subsequently drowned. In Eisch’s interpretation - which he regards as crucial to the understanding of his work - the figure of Narcissus is both man and mirror, and sees himself reflected in his own swollen belly, as if giving birth to himself. This can be seen as a metaphor for the artistic moment, when all learned techniques and past influences are abandoned, and pure artistic expression emerges.

In the first version, now in the Frauenau Glass Museum in Germany, ‘Narcissus’ was part of a complex installation, featuring a multi-part, larger than life-size glass figure being carried away on a stretcher in an elaborate mixed-media, bourgeois interior. The second version has been (partly) lost. The third and final version was created for the opening of the glass museum in Frauenau in 1975, where it was shown in a mirrored glass box, and was recently displayed in the retrospective exhibition of Erwin Eisch at the National Glass Centre, Sunderland.

As the original mirrored showcase no longer exists, Eisch reinterpreted the figure by placing it on a mirror, covered by a green fishing net and surrounded by newly added, hand-blown glass flowers. Following the exhibition, Eisch and his wife Gretel kindly donated the giant figure to the V&A. In discussion with the artist we decided to display it on a mirror, ‘reflecting’ the original installation of 1975.

Narcissus (detail), Erwin Eisch, 1975, Germany. Museum no. C.222:1 to 8-2014. Given by Erwin and Gretel Eisch. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London