The City of Light turns to glass
I’m sitting on the floor in the Montréal Musée d’Art Contemporain  watching a vertiginous video installation when a dozen fifth graders enter the room. The group is flanked by two female teachers and led by a curly-haired male museum guide who looks fresh out of grad school.
The guide stops beside a luminous, surreal installation by Québec artist Catherine Widgery and instructs the kids to sit down. “What do you see?” he asks.
A fiberglass clawfoot tub floats at an odd angle in a water-filled aquarium. Air bubbles rise languidly from the floor of the tank. The work, titled “Silence and Slow Time,” is part of a temporary exhibit called “With Glass, Under Glass, Without Glass.”
“It’s a fish tank.”
“Is the water cold or warm?”
The show is just one element of “Montréal, City of Glass: A Tale of Innovation,”  a yearlong, citywide event that explores glass through four different lenses: art, architecture, history and science. From the project’s launch last February until its close in December, the centuries-old medium glistens in more than 40 Montréal locations. There are museum and gallery exhibits, lectures, classes, guided walks — more than 100 activities in all. That means lots of opportunity to discover some of the city’s lesser-known treasures.
“With Glass, Under Glass, Without Glass” showcases 12 works from the permanent collection. While the artists aren’t glassmakers in the traditional sense, their interpretations of the material are stunning.
In the room beyond “Silence and Slow Time” are two extravagant works, both tables. “Tavolo,” by Italian Mario Merz, is a 25-foot curved glass table rimmed in steel, anchored on one end with a round stone tablet and inspired by the Fibonacci sequence.
A white tablecloth covers Québec artist Claudie Gagnon’s rectangular table “Les Hôtes” (The Hosts), which is set for 32 diners. All the place settings and serving dishes are transparent glass, and no two are alike. Overhead hangs “Le Grand veilleur,” a giant chandelier composed of more drinking glasses suspended on nylon thread.
“City of Glass” kicked off with “Tiffany Glass: A Passion for Colour” at the Musée des Beaux-Arts  in February. The exhibit explored the iridescent colors, sensuous shapes and nature-inspired motifs of art nouveau design and Louis Tiffany’s contributions to the technology of art glass.
Key to that show were 17 stained-glass windows recently acquired by the museum; they’re the largest series of Tiffany windows in North America. Restored by Montréal glass artisan Françoise Saliou, the windows will eventually be reinstalled in the Erskine and American Church. (The museum purchased the church to create a new wing.) The windows are an example of Tiffany’s unique method of glassmaking called Favrile, a technique he patented in 1894.
Fast forward to the studio glass movement of the 1960s and the enlightened Canadian collectors Anna and Joe Mendel, whose gift of 100 glass sculptures to the Musée des Beaux-Arts forms the basis of the museum’s current exhibit, “Studio Glass.” The title refers to the impact of small, studio-size kilns on glassmaking; until their invention, artists depended on large factory kilns to produce glass sculpture.
The show, located in the undervisited Decorative Arts wing of the museum, represents more than a dozen art-glass techniques and important American, Canadian and European contemporary artists.
Richard Marquis’ “Teapot Goblet No. 61” is as intricate as it is fanciful. No taller than 10 inches, the work consists of a perfectly formed goblet atop a perfectly formed teapot atop a perfectly round pedestal. A honeybee perches on the pedestal’s side. The glass is paper thin and richly filigreed, a product of the traditional Venetian technique called zanfirico, which involves heating multicolored glass rods, twisting them together and encasing them in a clear glass shell.
Compact monochromatic sculptures by renowned Czech artists Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtová are remarkable in the way they imbue dense figures with light. “Red Horizon,” an orange-red block of glass whose intensity varies with the thickness of the material and the angle of the face, seems to glow from within. “Head with Hair” and “Eye of the Pyramid II” feel heavier for the fact that they are not enclosed in a display case. The simple geometric figures, one rounded and the other angular, are solid, opaque and arrestingly luminous.
Nearby, American Mary Shaffer’s “Necklace” incorporates barbed wire with glass that is slumped to form a pouch and filled with pink sand. Toronto artist Susan Edgerley’s “Shhh ... I’m Dreaming” combines fused glass frit (chunks of glass), steel and copper in a graceful, talisman-like sculpture. A printed glossary helps viewers understand many of the glassworking techniques represented.
The Blaschka glass models at Musée Redpath , the natural history museum at McGill University, are on display in part because their techniques can’t be explained.
In the late 19th century, father and son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, glassmakers from Dresden, Germany, began making anatomically detailed and scientifically correct models of marine invertebrates and microscopic organisms. Some specimens were inspired by scientific books of the day, others drawn from sketches Leopold made while marooned in the Azores.
The Blaschkas’ work became highly prized in the scientific community, and they received large commissions from natural history museums in North America, Europe, Japan and India, where their models were used as teaching tools.
Once the duo became famous, the Blaschkas worked from specimens kept in specially designed saltwater aquariums in their home. But they never recorded their techniques, and modern glassmakers are unable to re-create the works. That’s a concern, because the 100-year-old pieces are fragile, and many, including the Redpath’s, are in disrepair.
The Musée Redpath owns some of the oldest Blaschka models in North America, a set of six sea anemones most likely made before 1877. One bearing the name Ilyanthus mitchelli resembles a slim white turnip with ochre striations and delicate fronds consisting of tiny blades and beads.
The anemone that is the worst for wear shows cracks on its ivory stem, and a flat frond sits beside it. The smallest is the size of a bottle cap: pale green with black vertical stripes, an open mouth (anemones are filter feeders) and tiny tentacles with stinging cells.
A paper nautilus — Argonauta, an octopod — floats eerily against a background of dark blue fabric. The replica is iridescent, with an open eye and suction cups glistening on thin, wavy legs.
The Blaschka sea marvels are just the beginning of an exhibit filled with natural and ethnographic curiosities. The models share the entry hall with two whale skeletons. The upper floors of the museum house an Albertosaurus skeleton, a saber-toothed cat skull, mummies, samurai armor, fourth-century Egyptian columns, shrunken heads and stuffed animals from Africa. The Blaschka models are an excellent entry point into the museum.
Once you’ve exited it, stay on the street, where glass is used in building materials throughout the city. A good place to start is the Grande Bibliothèque , the city’s newest public library, in the Latin Quarter. Built in 2005 and welcoming 10,000 visitors daily, the box-shaped building occupies an entire city block. Its exoskeleton — 6000 tiles of pale green, translucent glass — makes it look fragile, ordered and refreshing all at once.
Inside, the building is open, spacious and tranquil. (Given the number of users, there is surprisingly little noise.) Glass elevators glide up and down the core of the building, and reading areas overlook city rooftops. The louvered woodwork, made from Québec-grown yellow birch, echoes the pleasing regularity of the façade.
In the library’s foyer, an exhibit called “Architectures en vers” considers the role of glass in sustainable architecture. The show’s title is a play on the word “verre,” French for glass, with its homonyms “vert” (green) and “vers” (verse).
Contemporary Québec architects, up-and-coming glass artists and poets have collaborated on six installations. “A Thousand Kisses Deep” features song lyrics by Leonard Cohen, printed in white on a block of black glass the size of an entry door. The block is divided horizontally by a slender, undulating groove lined with fuschia fur — a striking contrast of color and texture that invites the viewer to touch the materials and enter into the lyrics and the life of the poet.
If the Grande Bibliothèque is Montréal’s newest work of glass-based architecture, the Palais des congrès — the convention center with a multicolored glass façade — is probably the best known. But there are many other architectural gems, and Montréal guide agency Guidatour has created a series of Sunday afternoon summer walking tours to help French speakers discover “la ville de verre.”
Whether you’re a francophile or anglophile — walking, driving or taking the métro — there are many treasures to discover. This list is just to get you started.