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Monday, April 25, 2011

Dalle de verre

The most successful and most widely accepted new technique in the world of stained glass today is dalle de verre, better known as faceted glass, which is set into epoxy or other material. Its process of production results in a mosaic-like approach of pure color effects that can be utilized in window openings or entire walls.

As John Gilbert Lloyd notes: "It returns to the primary function of stained glass to transform a wall from a solid unyielding object to a cascading, fluid mural of shimmering beauty. While the medieval craftsman, joining small pieces of glass with lead to make intricate designs, achieved the same effect for Gothic cathedrals, the earlier Byzantines transferred their mosaic patterns into colorful window designs."  Present day development of the technique stems directly from this beginning."

Thick colored glass was first used in a decorative way by Byzantine artists, instead of embedding the glass in stone, pierced the walls clear through and set it in as window lights. Arabic type examples can be found in Spain, apparently finding their way from North Africa with the Muslim Invasion. Although the actual glass is no longer in place, the feathery stonework grills that remain definitely indicate they must have been filled with colored glass.

Both Persians and Saracens in the Eastern Mediterranean area, where the glass industry was born, set crude glass into wood, stucco and stone frames. With these examples the Gothic tribes moving west used similar applications in stone mullions in France during the fifth and sixth centuries. Viollet-le-Duc says in Vitrail,  "In the East, things change but little and window screens of stucco and marble enclosing pieces of vari-colored glass which we find in monuments of the XIII or XIV centuries in Asia and even Egypt, must be the expression of a very ancient tradition whose cradle seems to have been Persia."

The Islamic law of prohibiting the use of human likenesses being depicted within the mosque, and simultaneously, the Christian practice of encouraging the use of figure likenesses of Christ -- the Apostles, angels and saints -- in all the decorative media of the church may have implemented the change to the thinner leaded glass medium.

The Middle Eastern antecedents of dalle de verre seem to have vanished for several hundreds of years, until the 1920s, when French glass artists, experimenting with various new architectural directions, revitalized the ancient techniques.

Early pioneers in the modern development of dalle de verre include Auguste Labouret and his collaborator Pierre Chaudiere. A prolific artist, Labouret studied at L'Ecole de Beaux Artsunder J. P. Laurens and created many windows for cathedrals, railroad terminals, department stores hotels and ships' dining rooms.

Labouret was born in St. Quentin, France and developed the dalle de verre technique in the early 30s while working on glass in historic monuments. The artist sought a combination of modern strength and durability with a depth of color found in old glass. The thickness, broken surface and cut edge gives dalle de verre its characteristically rich translucence. The negative matrix area that frames each pane of glass is visually much heavier than the lead in ordinary windows. This characteristic, as with the earlier Islamic pierced windows, enriches the color by creating a great contrasting brilliance. This juxtaposition of brilliant color and dark surrounds can be painstakingly achieved in flat leaded glass by elaborately painting or by a combination of etching and painting of flashed glass.

Dalle de verre lends itself best to direct and vigorous design. It is a broad medium that, generally, does not encourage copious detail. In the St. Christopher window that Labouret exhibited in the Pavilion du Vitrail in the Paris Exhibition of 1937, he demonstrated that it was not incompatible with figure work, delicate detail and even lettering.

A variety of forms could be seen at this 1937 Paris Exposition with the Egyptian Pavilion showing a typical Arabic style of glass pierced plaster encased windows in traditional patterns. This was supposed to be the real origin of faceted glass.

Variously called beton glass (beton glas), concrete glass or mosaic glass, the renewal started and by 1939 had crossed the Atlantic when a beton glass window was installed in the Chapel at the Shrine of St. Anne de BeaupreQuebec, Canada. This was designed and fabricated by Auguste Labouret and is believed to be the first such panel in North America. In the same year, the French pavilion at the New York World's Fair featured the same "Magi" panel that had been completed in 1936.

"One of the Magi" is one of Labouret's later works (1936), showing a good example of size and contrast of the glass. Note particularly the individual blades of glass set together in undulating rows. This cutting effect could only be achieved by using a hammer. Notice the ornamenting on the garment itself, the flowers, sky and stars, and the glass rods used. Contrasting in size are the larger pieces in the garment and jewel box (note the treatment on the edging of the jewel box). The flesh seems to have been traced and a matted texture effects the shading somewhat differently from the effect in St. Hubert's work.

The English precis for the French article describing the window, "One Of The Magi", is "This stained glass window, exhibited in L'Illustration, illustrates a revolution which has taken place in the art of fashioning stained glass. It is the work of Labouret, who has evolved a daring new technique in the manipulation of translucent materials. His windows, indeed, carry us far from the traditional method of setting flat pieces of glass in leads in the manner that has been followed for centuries. By the use of thick slabs of glass which he sculptures, M. Labouret obtains a multiplicity of facets about which the lights play with a color and an intensity which suggest the fire of precious stones. It is impossible to deny the remarkable effects he achieves by means of this new method, and it is easy to imagine the wealth of decoration, which it may, in the future, confer on our churches and cathedrals. The several slabs of glass, it may, perhaps, be added, are held together with cement."  [Labouret's earliest work appeared in print in 1930 illustrating the steps of execution of the center section of the St. Hubert window. The complete window appeared in the Christmas, 1936 issue of L'Illustration.]

Also, in the 1937 Egyptian Catalogue from the Paris Exhibition, there is a window, "L'apprenti Sorcier" (Sorcerer's Apprentice) which stands the test of time very well. This is by Jean Gaudin and contains 16 panels with vignettes of the story running bottom to top. While there are indications of pate de verre influences, it is a stunning window by any standard. (Pate de verre is a cast sculptured window; all the surface details are sculpted in a mold then the hot glass is poured into it. All the cast pieces are then assembled using cement as a matrix. It is possible that dalle de verre and pate de verre developed simultaneously as they have similar surface treatments.)

It was not until the end of World War II that faceted glass use became more accepted, and even then, it was an evolutionary process. The pent-up demands for new buildings in the United States and Europe after the war proved a fertile ground for the material, which was relatively easy to fabricate, comparatively inexpensive yet produced windows of brilliant color.

But, as Lloyd states, "Not until the completion of Sacred Heart Chapel in Audincourt, France(1951_1955) did the full appreciation of the form strike home. This large installation has been billed as the finest in France with the windows completely dominating the atmosphere. It is a concert in color, rhythm and visual harmony."

By 1950, additional windows had been fabricated and installed by Labouret for the St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec, Canada. The complete job called for over 200 windows of which he had completed and installed 30.

The work, St. Luke, from the circle window from the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupre, Quebec, Canada, shows advancement of the dalle de verre concept. The cutting is sharper, giving a crisper look to the window; there is ample use of negative space. The stars in the background seem to have become Labouret's trademark. The small amount of trace-like material used to delineate the nose, mouth, and ear of St. Luke, as represented by a winged ox, are surface treatments which are no longer used in this medium.

As news of these windows spread, it wasn't very long before Henry Lee Willet of Philadelphia, who with several contemporaries, visited St. Anne to view them first hand. Willet remarked: "I was fascinated by the windows being installed; Labouret has developed an entirely new technique. He uses pieces of glass four to six inches thick which are held together by cement instead of lead. I thought the windows were the work of a young artist and commented to a priest at the shrine that it took youth to think of a new approach. When the priest told me that Labouret was 78 years old I realized the windows were even more amazing. Here is a man developing new techniques at an age when most men have retired." Willet was impressed both by the man and the work, so he immediately contacted Labouret and arranged for an exhibition of his work at the Philadelphia Art Alliance for the fall of 1950, which was reported in the December, 1950 Alliance Bulletin. The exhibition included colored renderings, full size cartoons and finished pieces of dalle de verre. It expressed first-hand the media and all its potential to the American stained glass profession.

Lloyd points out that, "American studios cautiously entered the field with a few minor commissions forthcoming. Then came the revolutionary First Presbyterian Church, Stamford, Connecticut."  Constructed in a form that resembled a gigantic fish, (although the architect claims this was not done consciously but rather for acoustical effects), it is said to be one of the most powerful modern churches in the world. Great walls of faceted glass designed and executed by Gabriel Loire of France literally saturated the interior with overpowering color. Controversy raged, as might be expected, but it led the way to new concepts and thinking in church design. The First Presbyterian Church, Stamford, CT provided the springboard for American studios to abandon traditional taboos and energetically make up for lost time.

The first American studio to design, fabricate, and install dalle de verre was that of Harold W. Cummings of San Francisco, California. The year was 1954 and the location was Belvedere, California for the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. The media described as Vitrolith by Mr. Cummings was cast in concrete. The installation consisted of 12 nave windows approximately 17 by 144 inches in a vertical design with 72 smaller rectangular openings scattered in a starry-like clerestory.

Roger Darricarrere, a former pupil of Labouret joined Cummings on this project as a specialist familiar with the process. The design throughout is of an abstract nature consisting of soft tints of color accented by powerful bands of rich color. The glass was hammer cut as practiced by Labouret with the design boldly approached.

Among early prominent dalle de verre projects is architect Edo Belli's Moreau SeminaryChapel and Library designed by Father Anthony Lauck of the Notre Dame University Art Department and fabricated by Conrad Schmitt Studios. The monumental window walls admit a virtual lacework of colored light. The deeply recessed glass set in cement resembles a sculptured bas-relief of sparkling jewels.

Father Lauck describes the dalle de verre concept by saying: "Some materials have a more marked character about them than others. Among these is dalle de verre. Not only is it deeply translucent, but it transmits light in clear brilliant colors. The thickness gives more depth and intensity to its color. The unusual means of shaping it by chiseling adds to its character. Hammer cutting fractures the glass in uneven sizes with notched and somewhat jagged edges. Faceting the edges breaks up the surfaces with shell-like ripples and facets, which brings out forcefully the crystalline angular structure of the glass. Each broken facet transmits its own hue, catches a different angle of the sun's rays or the sky's brightness and brings a varied pattern of sparkling light into the window. It is precisely this unique and individual charm of slab glass that appeals to artists, connoisseurs and patrons alike -- and many priests and religions may be ranked among these."

The material used to glaze early dalle de verre was a Portland cement. In order to use this material properly, it was necessary to pour to a thickness of one to two inches on moderate sized panels and to a thicker size on large panels. The pieces of glass used to make a panel ranged from two to six inches in thickness; it called for a thick pour of cement to produce a panel properly. In addition, the weight per panel was considerable. Cement also requires that a wire armature be incorporated into the panel for reinforcement against breaking while the thickness of the pour required that the cement be adequately cured before moving. Curing panels (the process of letting the cement settle and harden properly), required additional wetting of the panels lest the cement dry out too quickly and crack. Finally, considerable clean up was involved once the cement was dry.

Moving a 500-pound panel up six frames of scaffolding for installation required a hearty crew of men and a crane. Proper placement and adhesion was needed to allow the panel to expand and contract within the installation frame to prevent breaking. A proper sash was also essential to receive the panel and the thickness and weight of the panel necessitated that it be a substantial one. It became apparent that Portland cement did not have adequate adhesion to the glass and it was not uncommon for the cement and the glass to separate. Water could seep through and around the panel. When the cement was cast several times thicker than the glass, various internal stresses could cause the glass to suffer fractures. There were problems, shortcomings and limitations in using cement. Since it had been used from the beginning, many windows were cast from it, but now some began to seek a better matrix.

The search for a better matrix took some interesting turns. Some studios experimented with additives to various types of Portland cement. About then, Sauereisen Acid resistant cement#54 surfaced. Apparently this material was formulated as a coating for surfaces that were exposed to various types of acids. Its use as a dalle de verre matrix was interesting. The cost was relatively low and it was a lot easier to use than the regular Portland cement. It cured in 24 hours and was lighter than regular cement. However, it did not have much strength and required a wire armature and larger panels. The recommended thickness of a pour on a moderate sized panel was one inch. It was only available in white and its use with dalle de verre was limited. Then, Robert R. Benes of St. Louis, Missouri, had a better idea.

Epoxy resin was initially formulated to serve as a lining for the oil pipeline divisions of Mobil Oil Company. By coating the inside surface of the pipe with epoxy, any fuels passing through the line received less friction and incurred less heat buildup. This required less force from a pump to move the material. Epoxy was being tried experimentally on many applications. Bob Benes, working with the Jacoby and Frei Studios in St. Louis, formulated a special blend of the material for trial in replacing cement in dalle de verre windows. Several panels were poured of various sizes and thicknesses as directed by Benes. These were subjected to tests for tensile strength, expansion, contraction, warpage, longevity and the like. The subsequent evaluations showed that epoxy was by far superior in all ways to cement. It required less time for preparation, mixing, pouring and cleanup. It required no type of armature. It had a similar rate of expansion and contraction as the glass. When poured to a three-quarter inch thickness, a panel of 12 square feet could be handled by two men with little fear of breaking. It could be seeded with all kinds of aggregate for surface treatment; it cured for handling in twenty-four hours and cured completely in five days. It came in many colors. It was a very durable, strong and waterproof product, with great adhesion to glass.

Epoxy was magic stuff and though the cost per gallon was relatively high, it was just what the craft had been looking for. Epoxy and dalle de verre were joined from that day on. Benes applied for a patent and began formulating and selling this material to American studios. He traveled extensively to demonstrate the proper methods of mixing and using the material. Special formulations were made for special situations and special colors were mixed. If a studio had a problem using cement or another's formulation, Benes always complied when called on for help.

Robert Benes traveled abroad and pioneered the use of dalle de verre set in epoxy to the masters of Europe who had always used cement. There were other formulators who soon began offering their product in competition. Some were terrible, some mediocre, but few were as good as Bob Benes' Benesco.

Many thanks to Shaw Creek Bird Supply for posting this very detailed and interesting material on dalle de verre.  http://www.shawcreekbirdsupply.com/stained_glass_dalle_de_verre.htm

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