Fruits in Decay at Harvard

People usually try to preserve fruits in a ripe, fresh state; this way the fruit will last longer and can be enjoyed later on. Rudolph Blaschka thought differently and decided to preserve fruit in its states of decay; this obviously doesn’t keep the fruit for eating, but it does make an interesting exhibit.

Walking into the Glass Flowers gallery at Harvard Museum of Natural History, half of the walls in the small gallery were lined with parts of flowers all made entirely from glass. Display tables filled the open floor space, the ones closest to the middle showcasing the diseases and blights of five summer fruits: peaches, apricots, plums, pears, and strawberries. Taking a closer look at the fruits, it was hard to believe they were actually glass, but the gallery’s guide said, “Everything here is made of glass… it is all very delicate.”

I had to make sure I was in the right room. The flowers on the walls were very obvious, and the signs outside the gallery were very clear, but I still felt like I was in the wrong place. When I stepped up to the display cases, I expected to see glossy glass figurines of fruits, the decaying process highlighted through abstract techniques. Instead, I saw figures that looked like plastic and details that could’ve been painted on. From the decaying fruits to the permanent display of flowers and their separate parts, I couldn’t tell what was glass. I examined all the life-size fruits for quite some time, looking for anything that looked like the glass art I was familiar with. One display case has a close-up figure of what the mold on some of the fruits looked like. It was in the mold display that I was able to finally see the glass origin. From there, I felt like I was solving a puzzle as I went back around the fruits and looked for light in the glass and smooth edges of a once circular base.

Rudolph Blaschka and his son, Leopold, made the 4,300 piece collection for Harvard University in 1886. George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of the then-Harvard Botanical Museum⁠—later to be renamed the Harvard Museum of Natural History⁠—commissioned the collection to aid in botanical teachings and to serve as a premier botany exhibit. At the time, models were made of crude papier-mache and wax, but due to the anatomical details of the fruits, Lincoln needed something precise. All of the collection was made in the Blaschkas’ studio in Hosterwitz, Germany. The collection was financed by Elizabeth C. Ware and Mary Lee Ware in honor of Harvard graduate, Dr. Charles Eliot Ware.

The glasswork touches upon environmental beauty and the carbon cycle. For his last creation, Blaschka paid tribute to his lifelong attention to accuracy and innovation with these fruits. While illustrating and emphasizing diseased fruits, Blaschka also points to the importance of decay in agricultural systems around the world. The process of decay is one that people tend not to think about due to connections with death; but the death of these fruits and flowers only creates more life as they release carbon into the air, soil, and water. As the key element to building a new life, Blaschka uses glass to start a new story of how death brings forward living things.

Suchi Gopal works at Boston University in the Department of Earth and Environment. She spoke of the decaying process Blaschka preserved, and said, “Decomposition and decay are essential nutrients for the growth of new organisms and are focal to maintaining all life on Earth.” Gopal pointed out that while most people look at the decaying process and decomposition as gross, it is actually essential to all life on Earth. As Gopal said, “We can only appreciate the role played by decay.”

Blaschka immortalizes his appreciation for compost and for the beauty of rebirth in his Fruits in Decay collection. As the Harvard Museum of Natural History writes about the collection, “With astonishing realism—the intricacies and strange beauty of fruits in various stages of decay.” The process of glass blowing can be brutal as a worker stands with a furnace for hours, constantly heating and shaping liquid glass. To accurately depict the mold and decay, Blaschka had to create many intricate pieces.

The owner of Monadnock Glass Arts, Eric Duyette, has been creating glass art since 2000. He’s traveled the world studying the art of flameworking and has worked under impressive names, like Javier Vasquez whose family has been in the glass art business for over 50 years. Duyette spoke of the glass blowing process and how Blaschka was able to create details like discolored dark patches, pale fuzz, and icicles of frost and curled leaves. Duyette mentioned Frit, which is crushed up colors and said, “Using Frit allows the Glassblower to give more texture & life to the piece. And if applied in certain places on the fruit it makes it a more realistic looking project.” Duyette also mentioned various tools and techniques a Glassblower can use to change the shape, color, and texture of the glass.

 

Fruits in Decay will be on display in the Glass Flower gallery until March 2020. Tickets to get into the Harvard Museum of Natural History give attendees access to the entire museum; for adults, tickets are $15 and $13 for seniors, otherwise, it is $10 for non-Harvard students and children between the ages of 3 and 18. The Glass Flower gallery is open all year and permanently showcases the flower portion of Blaschka’s collection. After March 2020, Fruits in Decay will be replaced with another Blaschka exhibit entitled, Rotten Apples. For more information, go to hmnh.harvard.edu/fruits-decay.

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