Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Visiting museums: Quilts in Paris

In honour of my quilter mother, I always try to visit quilt shows when I have the opportunity. Opportunities are less common in Europe than in America, so I was delighted to find a quilt show on at the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture in Paris (13 Feb-19 May 2013) during my most recent visit.

The Mona Bismarck American Center is in the 16th arrondissement, a wealthy part of town I don’t visit much – it has a cold, grand feel to it, and is generally devoid of the quirky architecture, pleasant parks and shopping I prefer. The streets are mostly named after important individuals and there are quite a few with American connections (Avenue New York, Rue Benjamin Franklin, Avenue du President Wilson, plus the Franklin Roosevelt Metro station). So I guess the American Center is appropriately located.

It is housed in the Paris home of Mona Von Bismarck, a Kentucky-born socialite named best-dressed woman in 1933. She came from humble origins but married into wealth (and occasionally nobility) five times, which must have helped to keep her in fancy dresses.

Mona Von Bismarck in Balenciaga
© The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
The Center she founded is dedicated to presenting American art and culture in Paris - and what could be more American than quilts?

It turned out the quilts were actually part of another collection with the same cultural aim of presenting American art and culture – to the British. They came all the way from the American Museum in Bath, another museum started by flamboyant characters – antique collectors this time.

The show displays a wide selection of different quilting techniques from the 18th to early 20th centuries. Quilting specifically means the technique of sewing two or more layers of material together to make a thicker padded material, usually creating a regular surface design in the process. But quilts themselves vary greatly in the technique used to create the top layer, which can be made from a single sheet of fabric or created by piecing together different sized and coloured pieces of cloth, appliquéing fabric shapes to a sheet of fabric, or even embroidering designs.

Pieced quilts are probably the most familiar form of quilting. They were made by sewing together small, regularly shaped pieces of cloth, traditionally often cut from old garments. The design possibilities are endless, depending on the shape, size and colour of the fabric pieces. Some popular patterns become standardised and are given names.

Detail of Star of Bethlehem quilt
© the American Museum in Britain

One of the appliquéd quilts was instantly recognisable from my last visit to the American Museum in Bath (made with my mother many years ago, but the quilt in question is too stunning and unusual to be forgotten).

Queen Kapiolani’s Fan Quilt
Image borrowed from the Magazine Antiques

But my very favourite piece was the Baseballs quilt, probably from Cooperstown New York, appropriately the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. You definitely can’t get more American than quilts AND baseball.

Detail of Baseballs with appliqué and embroidery,
borrowed from the exhibition catalogue