Jiří Harcuba started his glass engraving training in the Harrachov glassworks at the age of 13. His further education continued at the glass school Nový Bor in the engraving department with Professors Karel Hrodek and Josef Hospodka in 1945–1948. He entered the school as ‘apprenticed’ directly to the second year and began the cultivation of his artistic view. In 1949–1954 his studies continued at the VŠUP Academy Prague in the studio of applied sculpture and glyptics headed by Professor Karel Štipl with the aim ‘to be engaged in the problems of engraved glass with the special reference to the figurative engraving’. He then completed obligatory military service from 1955–1957. He became an aspirant and lectu-rer with Professor Karel Štipl and Associate Professor Václav Plátek, later on a speciali-zed assistant with Stanislav Libenský in the glass studio from 1961–1971. During this time he began developing his vases with linear and polished engraving, with figurative and geometrical ornamental themes. The works of the period could be characterised as abstractly expressionistic ones. It is characterised especially by the ‘Cities’ cycle employing deep cuts of cutting wheels. It was a response to current artistic trends in the world and an absolute revolution in the development of engraved glass. In 1970 Jiří Harcuba became an associate professor. Unfortunately in 1971 he had to leave the school for political reasons, having designed a medal opposing the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact troops. He was tried and at some point during 1971–1972, was jailed for four months. It was around that time he decided to work with portraits, and thus drew closer to the classical concept of engraving. Since 1985 Jiří Harcuba devoted himself to the vitrography (printing from engraved glass plates) and worked as a teacher at the Royal College of Art in London. In late 1990, he came back to VŠUP where he worked as the head of the sculpture studio focused on glass and medals. From 1991–1994 he acted at VŠUP as the rector of the school.
Among others, Jiří Harcuba participa-ted in the International Symposium of Engraved Glass, Kamenický Šenov in 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2005. He won three prizes at the Engraved Glass Triennial of the Moravian Gallery Brno (1965, 1968, 1971), the Annual Medal of the American Numismatic Society New York 1988, the award for engraved glass Gold Award from the American Interfaith Institute Philadelphia in 1992 and was awarded he Rakow Commission by the Glass Museum Corning, New York, in 1995. He has been represented in collections both at home and abroad. He regularly acted and lectured at glass schools internationally e.g. in Frauenau, Germany, in Japan, at the summer glass school at Pilchuck, USA, where he established an engraved glass department and its study programme in 1985. Every year he travelled to teach at the Studio of the Corning Museum of Glass. He became a world-renowned glass engraver, artist, teacher and glyptic.
The glassmaking tradition of his family, the native town Harrachov and the example of a local native Dominik Biman, the work of whom he followed, certainly played a role in the work of Jiří Harcuba, particularly in the initial period when he was inspired and led by his works. The early engravings by Jiří Harcuba follow the classical engraving style, having a firmly closed and bounded form. Nevertheless, his work had his own individual expression. Though he was one of the artists who brought various revolutionary innovations into glass engraving he also practiced the very traditional technique of copper wheel engraving. His engravings were completed by polishing and other operations multiplying optical effects. From the very beginning he tended towards maximum simplicity.
Jiří Harcuba was very hard-working and from his beginnings as an engraver always strove for the best possible result. It was said he engraved a thin-walled vase with a motif of Goliath and was observed by his teacher with interest and curiosity. Jiří Harcuba had almost finished his work when at the last moment, polishing the last detail – a pupil, he unintentionally engraved a pinhole through the glass. It was a great disappointment for Jiří Harcuba. He wanted to present a perfect engraving.
The dominant themes of Jiří Harcuba’s work are portraits, similar to his predecessor Dominik Biman. As a beginner, it was more or less a necessity as he only had blanks of a small size. He gradually ‘came to their taste’ and they became the core of his work. He always had a notebook with him for portraits of people he met on his travels. Smiling, he spoke about one sleepless night in an aeroplane. He was painting as usual, and caught the attention of a stewardess. He ended up doing a portrait of everyone on the plane.
Jiří Harcuba defined the glass engraving discipline as a specific field of sculpture. He showed how the carving of various materials was as old as human existence. He highlighted the connection between current engraving and pre-historic artistic expressions, e.g. rock engravings or Sumerian cylinder seals. He himself wrote: “The legacy means to choose the most valuable things of the history and pass them on to the next generation”. He pointed out as other outstanding figures did before that there is no small and great art. There is just good and bad art. Therefore he presented engraving in glass as a sculptural expression often small in size but not in its importance. His works destroyed the set traditions of portraiture which had been formed for centuries. He married a sculptural approach with expressive engraving. During the preparatory phase he often began by painting over-sized portrait studi-es hat led him to the simplification of forms necessitated by the imprint of the engraving wheel. He studied different views, highlighted the individual physiology almost to the point of caricature. To depict a character he often needed only several lines and spots engraved into a glass surface. For portrait engravings he often used wheels of large size with a very rough texture. He regarded his work very critically and used to say his portraits seem ‘too realistic’! He remembered his friend from university studies Vladimír Komárek who worked quite freely during painting lessons and his paintings didn’t absolutely resemble the model. He liked his friend being ‘not disturbed by the reality’. His portrait register includes both important contemporary persons and historical figures where he could apply his imagination. As he said he enjoyed creating imaginary portraits. They were the people he was especially close to. Among outstanding examples of his works there are portraits of Egon Schiele, Franz Kafka, Paul Klee, Stanislav Libenský and many others.
Jiří Harcuba said that engraving means to leave behind a trail and that it is important to listen to stories of engraving and cutting wheels. It is not about a craft perfection. As he said the unfinished works and sketches are often the best results. Jiří Harcuba’s legacy has an irreplaceable position in the history of Czech art and glass creation, both in the artistic and human scale. Harcuba’s personality positively influenced many people all over the world. Everybody who knew him will remember his unique approach to life. In Pilchuck, a favourite place of his, a plum tree was planted in his honour.
In the north of Bohemia, in Nový Bor, visiting IGS and other events connected with glass, many people perhaps wouldn›t recognise one of the greatest contemporary engravers in the world and one of the most important persona-lities of the international glass symposia in the unassuming person with a plastic bag getting off the bus from Prague. His human approach could be represented by a story narrated by his smiling wife Zdena. Zdena Harcubová was by his side as a great support and together they raised two children. Zdena Harcubová remembers a family lunch during which the bell rang and a strange Japanese girl said to Jiří Harcuba that she got his address and would like to take bath. Jiří Harcuba agreed and so during the family lunch the girl took a bath and left.
Jiří Harcuba died suddenly after a short illness amid creative work and plans of further foreign travels. Up until then, his energy and life optimism had seemed inexhaustible. However, it can be said that his artistic and human legacy has been completely fulfilled.