Thursday, 11 January 2007

Patchwork and the Spirit of Geometry. Part Two

Jonathan Holstein considered pieced quilts superior to appliqué quilts in variety, invention and ingenuity. "For the quilt maker, the pieced block dictated the use of basic geometric forms, the possibilities of which were later sensed and exploited by abstract painters. The beauty of appliqué quilts is more of a decorative nature than that seen in the best of the pieced quilt, which when successful are the results of legitimate questions having been posed and most convincingly resolved. The license to draw freely, if it is encumbered with considerations of what is "elegant" or in "good taste", maybe more confining than finding creative solutions within a given format."

Despite the fact that the period when many of these quilts were made, i.e. the mid-19th to the early 20th century, saw the emergence of geometric form as a consciously employed primary source in design, painting and sculpture, Jonathan Holstein reminds us that when such quilts were made they were accepted as common, utilitarian objects, not "art"; indeed, if presented as such they would certainly have been reviled. Nonetheless,,comparison between the visual effects of some of the best 19th and early 20th century quilts and paintings of that period are irresistible. Holstein points out the similarities between the "total visual effects " of some pieced quilts and examples of modern painting, for instance the retinal stimulation achieved through colour and formal relationships, and optical illusion, in the works of artists such as Vasaraly, while the use of repeated images drawn from the environment reminds us of the sequential use of images exemplified in the work of Andy Warhol. Colour variation on a single format, as seen in some Amish quilts, is compared with, for example, Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series.

There are other points of comparison between quilts and paintings: quilts have the same format as most paintings, that is to say they are rectangular or square. (Painters fitted their frescoes largely to squared interiors and exteriors, worked on squared panels, used rectangular structures, whereas the square or rectangular format of the quilt was the fitted by the size and shape of beds.) Finally, quilts like paintings are two dimensional.

Holstein goes on to say: "intriguing and startling as the resemblances me be, any direct linking of the two media [i.e. quilting and painting] would be demeaning to the history and presence of both quilts and paintings. Implicit in the art of creating painting is the intellectual process which ties the work of an artist to his disaffected ancestors and his peers, and places sit in the history of objects specifically made to be art. This is precisely the quality which was absent in the making of pieced quilts. The women who made pieced quilts were not "artists", that is, they did not intend to make art, had no sense of the place of their work in a continuous stream of art history, did not, in short, intellectualise the production of handcraft any more than did the makers of objects in the vernacular tradition the world over."
Jonathan Holstein: The Pieced Quilt. An American Design Tradition.


billo said...

Could you expand on that point about Warhol? Were his images drawn from the 'environment' or were they manufactured?
Is there a relation between the simple geometrical forms in modern architecture as well ?

Celia said...

I think Holstein means 'the environment' in the sense of what was around him, i.e. HIS environment.
Interesting that the work 'environment' has today been so over-used in the context of the 'natural' environment that we forget it has a broader meaning as well.
One of Warhol's main planks was the notion that there was a sort of democratisation in the proliferation of brands, which was not exclusively an American phenomenon but was/is certainly exploited there to the nth degree.
"America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking." (Warhol)

Asserting the claim that representations of branded objects, like soup cans, were 'art', is a sort of parallel to the 'poor people and rich people enjoy the same things': ordinary things can be the subjects and objects as art just as well as those drawn from the conventional and traditional lexicons.

Re 19thC quilts (and by now you're probably wishing you'd never asked!) common-place objects repeated over large surfaces (i.e. bed quilts) were popular styles, e.g.tea-cups and stylised baskets.

'Is there a relation between the simple geometrical forms in modern architecture as well ?'

Wow! This is a bit beyond my present remit - and grasp of the subject. I think you have to look at modern architecture in the context of the time and place in which it developed, most notably in the Germany of the post-Great War period, notably in the Bauhaus, of which it has been said:

"The principle was simple: to reject the salon arts of the haute-bourgeoisie in favor of a craft tradition in order to erase the class distinctions between artist and craftsman. Yet this was not a rejection of the modernizing impulses of the rapidly industrializing, urbanizing German state (one that was facing an increasingly dire socio-economic predicament). Instead, as developed by Bauhaus director Walter Gropius, the applied arts were to be taught in a workshop-based design education, with a reconciliation of craft design and industrial production."

The point Holstein (and I) make is that the women quiltmakers of the 19th -early 20th 'anticipated' 'modern' art in a purely instintive way; there is an interesting thesis in an examination of the influences within their society which produced these phenomenal works, then a comparison with those from which the modernist movement evolved.

How many lifetimes............?

billo said...

Interesting..what do you make of the ones with common things on them like tea-cups? Do you think that that has made it more 'accessible' or has it brought the art/patterns down to the same level...all a bit naff?

wasn't all that Bahaus stuff terribly uncomfortable? I need to go back to robert hughes' Shock of the New...

for me, the most interesting thing is the possibility that craftsmanship gets separated from artistry ..a point that Titus Burckhardt makes in Fez, city of Islam.

What does industrialization do to craftsmanship, what does an age of 'mechanical reproduction' do to the image?

"How many lifetimes?"
quite a few if you're a Hindu :)

Celia said...

Hello and thank you, Billo

You say: 'for me, the most interesting thing is the possibility that craftsmanship gets separated from artistry ..a point that Titus Burckhardt makes in Fez, city of Islam.'
(I keep meaning to get that book.)

Yes, the whole Arts and Crafts movement, as embodied in William Morris and all the artists/craftworkers surrounding him, was a protest against the fact that mechanisation had caused a divorce between artists and makers. He encouraged makers to be also designers, to be in control of the whole process. This is not the place to enter into an disquisition on the Arts and Crafts Movement, or it's eventual development and influence, so bringing this thread (unintended pun) round to quiltmaking in the C21st,it's obvious that we don't 'need' quilts as bed-covers, in the way that people of earlier years did, so what's the point of them?

In her Introduction to a book published in 1991, International Crafts, Alison Britten says this:' ..why do we still have the crafts? They are no longer essential to our existence in the modern world.' She goes on to give a list of reasons why we need the crafts, including nostalgia, aesthetic accessibility, notions of individuality and 'an ideology of opposition' That, is, she goes on 'In a succession of waves, the crafts have functioned as a small but serious cross-curent against the drift of development in industrialised society.....Made things communicate defiance of the machine, and express 'difference' clearly and instantly.'

Billo, I feel we're approaching the territory of your occasional outpourings on the descent into manic consumerism and general malaise and meaninglessness of people's experience of contemporary life. I sincerely feel that my little group of patchworkers (me included) who work passionately on creating unique, one-off objects, either for their own homes or to sell, are bastions of an older, more gentle and less grasping world.

Britten adds that 'decades of impeccable, streamlined, regular manufactured objects has left people with a hunger for contradiction; for things which show signs of having been made by a human, with unrepeatable qualities.' A visit to any craft show will confirm the truth of that.

billo said...

No Celia, not consumerism..let's try production this time:)

But on a serious note, I think there's a great danger of such "outpourings".

For me, the interesting thing is that all the things you cite-individuality, creativity, nostalgia, and an 'ideology of opposition' -can be, and have been used by the capitalist system itself. Which is why, perhaps, all the interesting ideas were on the side of the radical conservatives (Fuller has a few great chapters on Ruskin and Morris
-and Gill).

Can the crafts survive without a Tradition, without a binding thread? Or without what Fuller calls a 'common symbolic order'?

"made by humans".
I like that phrase. I just wonder how much of that is an elite thing though? Hand-made watches, cars etc? Are these now produced for niche markets and does the same hold for crafts?

I remember talking to a simple, uneducated man back in Pakistan. I asked him what he thought of some building -a building that many find to be quite impressive. He looked away at a tree and said: "one can look at this again and again without the eye getting tired". In an age in which we surround ourselves with the products of our hands and minds there's something to be said for nature, no?

Celia said...

'Can the crafts survive without a Tradition, without a binding thread? Or without what Fuller calls a 'common symbolic order'?'

No, I don't think they can, in the form we used to know 'crafts' - where people worked in a context of traditions and beliefs which were continuous.That's why the craftsmen today are so anxious for a craft to be elevated to the status of fine art - which it can never be.

What I'm referring to, mostly, is the efforts of ordinary people, like myself, who don't have any grand ideas about what we do but are none the less sincere and passionate in doing it. One of the reasons (my opinion!) that quiltmaking is such a popular activity is precisely that it exists within a long, continuous tradition (in America, more than here), so people can feel part of something which is more permanent than themselves. Call it 'nostalgia', self-deception even, but it seems like a harmless activity which gives pleasure to many. (It also contributes to capitalism thriving as we buy special fabrics, books, tools.....!!)

But this has little relevance to the bigger questions about the effect of the Industrial Revolution on crafts (and craftsmen).

'What does industrialization do to craftsmanship, what does an age of 'mechanical reproduction' do to the image?'

Back with Ruskin and Morris, I think! Fuller is good; Peter Dormer (The Culture of Craft has much to say about craft within a consuming society.