The Mona Bismarck American Centre for Art and Culture is an informative ground for Americans in Paris. The centre always proposes interesting exhibitions that focus on solely American-centred topics or wider themes that enable visitors to understand the richness of the continent’s culture. The centre is a splendid and typical Parisian townhouse from the 19th century decorated for the countess Mona Bismarck in the 1950s. Therefore, the figure of a fascinating woman stands firmly behind the institution: a wealthy, elegant and beautiful lady who supported arts, fashion and culture. Since her death, in 1981, the building shelters a cultural centre that presents multidisciplinary shows that connect French to American culture.
The current display organised by the centre is Quilt Art: L’Art du Patchwork (on until the 19th May). There are twenty-five works on display, all objects lent by the American Museum in Britain, located in Bath and which opened in 1961 to promote American decorative arts in Great Britain. Their collection of American quilts is the finest and most important in Europe.
To be honest, I barely know anything about quilts, their making and history. To me quilts are associated with a fantasized American history, to the Little House in the Prairie and grandmothers… I personally do not even have a sentimental relationship with quilts: I can only vaguely recall seeing a flowery blue and pink example at my grandparents’ house in England but that is the only encounter I enjoyed with this object.
I therefore discovered the Mona Bismarck Centre’s display with much curiosity and expectation. The exhibition is very pedagogic and clear which was great for ignorant visitors such as myself!
Quilts are popular elements of a traditional and humble yet creative art, significant of America’s history and singularity. I appreciated that the display highlighted the concept that the art of patchwork is clearly linked to America’s identity: a melting-pot. The exhibition outlines the idea that a patchwork quilt represents the country with its blending of multiple cultures that come together in harmony without ever annihilating individual identities. A wonderful and accurate comparison.
American quilts’ history therefore conveys the country’s pattern. Quilting dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe when padded fabrics were used for military clothing and bedding. When European Settlers arrived in the New World, they brought with them their textile practices that they then adapted to the local materials available. Patchwork is by definition heterogeneous and the centre emphasise the various inspirations patchwork embodies with the help of a combination of European textiles, local crafts, various techniques and motifs and imported materials like silk. The result is a traditional pillar of American decorative arts.
To study the evolution of quilt art is to explore American history: the conquest of the West, the Amish tradition, relationships with Native Americans, the Civil War… The objects presented in Paris range from the eighteenth (the oldest quilt presented was designed in 1760) to the twentieth century. Symbolic motifs and designs indeed evoke political, social and religious realities.
When observing quilts, you come across various masterful techniques: the layout of dozens of squares of materials, handmade over-stitching as well as modern machine assemblages. I am myself a terrible and shameful seamstress. I could only admire the methods used by the quilt makers who managed to create colourful, poetic and useful pieces with little means.
The ornamental lexicon of American patchwork also illustrates the diversity of their influences and the creation of truly American symbols.
When I was studying at l’Ecole du Louvre, I was specialised in decorative arts and I think that what I most appreciated in this discipline is that objects were representative of craftsmanship, but also illustrated the story of people possessing and using them (an interest that was later confirmed by my love of fashion). This emotion was evoked through this exhibit. My imagination visualised images of long and tiring journeys, women patiently working on their designs, children wrapping themselves up with warm blankets…There is something very personal and familiar with objects like these that brings a sentimental feel to the exhibition: an ambiance more pompous displays often lack.
The display is arranged within aesthetic themes which enables the visitors to comprehend the diversity of the designs that somehow have similarities through different times and places while we can establish formal comparisons. We can observe the contrasts between simple Amish designs and rich decorative Hawaiian pieces when constant motifs tend to travel through time (like the Sharon Rose).
Quilting also has this distinctive particularity of being practised throughout the whole country, by all women, highlighting the universality of the discipline. Finally, patchwork demonstrates an additional example of decorative arts that from the utilitarian have become works of art.
Another reason I do not know much about quilts is that these objects are often associated with folk museums that, I must admit,I never visit. I am not interested in folk art and I have very bad souvenirs of classes I had at l’Ecole du Louvre about this subject: a trauma. I, consequently, must confess that I would have probably never visited this exhibition if it hadn’t been held at The Mona Bismarck Centre. Thus I have to thank the institution for scheduling this exhibition and gently accompanying me through the process of discovering folk art again. I wouldn’t say that I have since become a huge fan of quilts; they have however aroused a new interest.
Beresford, Laura and Hebert, Kate. Classic Quilts from the American Museum in Britain. London: Scala, 2009.
Kiracofe, Roger. The American Quilt. A History of Cloth and Comfort, 1750-1950. New York, 1993.
Prichard, Sue. Quilts 1700 – 2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories. London: V&A Publishing, 2010.
The V&A Museum’s website also presents an interesting hub on the subject.