The Retretti art museum was a sensation in its day: a magnificent, mysterious cave gallery complex sunk deep in the bowels of Punkaharju Ridge. The gallery space demanded that the pieces being exhibited possess certain, special qualities. “You can’t put anything ordinary in there. It would just fade into oblivion. The pieces should strike a chord, unsettle. Water reproduces the pieces like a mirror. There is an enthralling sense of danger in the cave. The boundaries of materials must be broken, the impossible made possible,” philosophised Sarpaneva.

He had himself broken from the traditions of glassmaking a few years earlier by working cold glass for his large Lasiaika (The Glass Age) sculptures. He obtained the material for these from the Iittala Glassworks, whose old kilns were replaced with new ones when Iittala modernised its facilities. Sarpaneva had asked Iittala if the glass collecting at the bottom of the kilns being dismantled could be left in place. Once cooled, it would be the perfect material for his new sculptures. Iittala agreed. Sarpaneva worked the cold glass at the Jokinen headstone carving shop in the town of Toijala. The stone carving tools allowed for a bold, new and unprecedented expression.

Sarpaneva’s large, mould-formed pieces, such as Luolamadonna (Virgin of the Rocks) and attendants, and Lasisaaret (Glass Islands) were made by pouring clear molten glass onto a large graphite surface, which was moved by forklift. The glass elements were polished and finished at the Jokinen headstone shop. The pure spectral colours in Virgin of the Rocks were conjured up by means of polarisation film and lighting. The colours are refracted in the clear glass. Without the film and lighting, the sculpture would appear colourless.

Sarpaneva’s Ikonit (Icons) are in a class of their own. This was the name he gave to his glass-steel reliefs, which were made over several days sitting on top of a hot potbelly stove. The heat from the stove warped the steel plate, onto which crushed glass had been poured. The glass melted in the centre of the piece, forming an unusual landscape. The edges of the plate bent into soft contours. The effect was one of a floating, almost lightness of being. The Icons were hung from the cave ceilings in arrangements. Three or even four of the pieces formed a whole.