You have to admire the bravery of artists and curators who exhibit creative works in a museum of natural history. Most of the time, nature simply wins, and the artist looks ham-fisted by comparison. Anyway, more than a century of abstraction has relieved us of the burden of imitating nature. Delicate appropriations, along the lines of Andy Goldsworthy's environmental sculptures from natural materials, seem much more successful than pictorial representations.
But a show of decorative objects and stained glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany, at the Carnegie Museum of Art through Mon., Jan. 15, turns back the clock on that sentiment. When Tiffany said that nature was always beautiful, that meant he would imitate it with meticulous zeal.
Congratulations are due to whichever curator decided to put actual dragonflies -- the dried-out, museum-box specimens -- in a show where dragonflies represented in stained glass are featured prominently. There's delight in the vulnerable, innocuous horror of the real thing, as if God wore black lipstick that day. The same creature, in the hands of Tiffany (or his associates) becomes an heirloom of sweetness and light. Yet somehow, in their delicious technical brilliance, these stained-glass pieces remain ambassadors of a dour, heavy-handed age.
Tiffany may be stuck in his own era, but he plays with time as if it, too, could be heated, colored, shaped. While some glass effects freeze the evanescent moment, others create the patina of millennia in a new technique: Tiffany was fond of imitating, in his creations, the defects of ancient Roman glass.
Because what disappears and what lasts seem perpetually relevant in Tiffany's work, it's gratifying that the Pittsburgh region actually enjoys a profusion of his pieces, especially in stained-glass windows, throughout the city and the region.
At Chatham College, the Kresge Atrium of the Science Laboratory Building (Chapel Hill Drive off Woodland Road, 412-365-1106) features a 10-by-8-foot window of 1889, with some of the earliest examples of Tiffany's Favrile glass, his patented variety of swirling iridescence. A permanent exhibition describes the piece and its recent restoration.
The Third Presbyterian Church (5701 Fifth Ave., at Negley, 412-661-4710) has six windows from Tiffany Studios, including Abraham and Isaac of 1903, by acclaimed associate Frederick Wilson. On the North Side, the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, by Henry Hobson Richardson (957 North Ave., 412-231-0454), has three Tiffany windows in a triptych.
; The nearby Calvary United Methodist Church (971 Beech Ave., 412-231-2007) boasts in promotional materials that its two 30-foot sanctuary windows of Biblical scenes are among Tiffany's largest, and that a third accompanying window was the most expensive.
Also on the North Side, The Pittsburgh Children's Museum (Ten Children's Way, 412-322-5058) has a 12-foot-high window from the former Henry W. Oliver House that is attributed to Tiffany Studios.
Downtown, First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh (320 Sixth Ave., 412-471-3436) houses 13 windows with double-layer, opalescent, hand-painted and Favrile glass.
At the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church (615 Grant St., 412-471-8125), The Good Shepherd Window, with a triple lancet composition and more than 500 square feet of Favrile glass, dominates the sanctuary.
Other examples are scattered throughout the region: St. John's Episcopal Church, in Franklin (814-432-5161), has 30 stained-glass windows, with a rose window of Favrile glass. The Trinity United Presbyterian Church, in Uniontown (724-437-2709), has seven windows that were originally included in Tiffany's award-winning display at the 1893 World's Fair, in Chicago. Seven windows at the Grace Presbyterian Church, in Kittanning (724-548-5609), were created in 1910. And Fallingwater has a variety of Tiffany objects on display throughout the house, among which a Lotus desk lamp is especially spectacular.
All of these venues have different policies regarding appointments and visits, so calling in advance is highly recommended. Still, it's affirming to know that even as some of these objects have required significant restoration over time, appreciation of them seems to be at a high point. The art form that is itself about a transcendent and evanescent view of humanity in the natural world is actually quite secure and accessible.