Following the opening weekend of events and the first bustling weeks of ‘Quilts 1700-1945’, I feel like it’s a good time to sit down with a cup of milky English breakfast tea and describe how this extraordinary exhibition of historic British textiles has come together over the past few weeks.
In the lead up to this exhibition I’ve spent the past twelve months looking at reproductions of the patchworks and quilts from the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum’s collection in anticipation of their arrival in Brisbane. Like paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints and photographs, nothing, however beautifully reproduced, can really prepare you for how absorbing material objects such as these can be when you see them for the first, (second, even third) time in front of you. The printed fabrics made in the 18th and 19th centuries, in India and Britain, which make up the hundreds of patches in each of these works are truly stunning, and it’s clear from seeing these pieces how influential they have been on subsequent textile designers.
I was also captivated by the broad social history that emerged in each section of the exhibition as the quilts were unpacked, laid on their plinths and hung on the walls. On seeing the quilts arranged and hearing V&A curator Sue Prichard talk about what she had discovered in her research, pieces which had not previously appeared to warrant special attention were completely transformed for me and became compelling objects in their own right — look out for the globe complete with a map of Australia in the top right corner of ‘Coverlet with Sundial’ dated 1797 and consider the young girl sleeping in a Morrison shelter under the ‘Canadian Red Cross Bedcover’ 1939-41, as the bombs were falling during the Blitz in London.
Walking through ‘Quilts 1700-1945’ is a fascinating and beautiful experience. On display until 22 September 2013.
Sue Prichard, Curator of Contemporary Textiles at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (V&A), curated the V&A’s highly successful 2010 exhibition ‘Quilts: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories 1700–2010’ and is the curator of the Gallery’s ‘Quilts 1700–1945’. She was in conversation with Sally Foster, Assistant Curator International Art (pre 1975) QAGOMA.
Sally Foster | Sue, can I begin by asking you why you think patchwork quilts continue to resonate with audiences, even in the twenty-first century. Do you think that in addition to being beautifully handcrafted material objects, people relate on a personal level to them?
Sue Prichard | Absolutely, I think people have a very intimate connection with quilts. During the course of the [V&A’s ‘Quilts: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories 1700–2010’] exhibition, many people revealed that they remembered their grandmothers making quilts, saving scraps from childhood pyjamas or party frocks. These visual references help to prompt memories and often relate to feelings of warmth and security, possibly happier times. Quilts are also very tactile; they have an intimate connection with the body — sleeping under a quilt is a completely different experience from blankets, there is a heaviness and weightiness which again equates with warmth and security. I also think the ‘gifting’ of a handmade patchwork quilt is intensely personal, quite unlike something mass produced. I think that is why so many personal narratives are handed down with quilts; there is a sense of belonging not only to your immediate family but to your own history.
Sally Foster | Quilting is also a community-building activity. Doing a search online brings up an almost infinite number of websites devoted to it. In the lead up to the London exhibition, you were the author of a fantastic blog called ‘Sue Prichard – Quilts: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories 2009–10’, which chronicled various aspects of curating, from research to logistics to intensely personal stories.
Sue Prichard | I loved writing my blog! I knew that there was an enormous and very active on line community worldwide and I initially suggested writing the blog as a way of connecting with that community. However, I also wanted to present a very real and honest account of what curating an exhibition is like. My blog was a way of sharing that experience and going beyond the public face of the V&A — to go behind the doors marked ‘Private Staff Only’, if you like. The most wonderful thing about the blog was the fact that it wasn’t edited and I think people really did respond to the fact that I was so honest about both the highs and the lows.
Sally Foster | For people who don’t work in large museums and galleries, I think it can be hard to understand what is involved in putting together an exhibition, particularly one of this size. You worked on the planning and research for the 2010 ‘Quilts’ exhibition for almost six years, but in your blog you wrote that, ultimately, the installation is ‘truly the best bit of any exhibition process’.
Sue Prichard | You’re absolutely right in saying that it is perhaps difficult for people to understand the process of putting together a major exhibition. Every curator at the V&A has to go through a number of checks and balances, defending why you have chosen specific themes and objects and ensuring that your ideas are sound. Throughout the planning stages of the exhibition you are constantly challenged to ensure that your exhibition is of the very highest standard — that it will be both academically rigorous and accessible to all our audiences. It can sometimes be quite hard to hold onto your original vision, but by the time you get to the installation process and you know that you are on the final leg — it’s just you, your exhibition installation team and the objects themselves. It’s the most amazing experience to actually see your vision come to life after being in your head for such a long time! It was also really interesting to work with the contractors who were quite bemused by the idea of a quilt exhibition — they kept calling it ‘the duvet show’; however, once I took them around and starting talking about the narratives behind the quilts, they became completely enthralled.
Sally Foster | I’m not surprised they came around — the quilts are stunning and the narratives in ‘Quilts 1700–1945’ are so strong, aided by the fact that you have arranged the works into four broadly chronological themes ‘The domestic landscape’, ‘Private thoughts, political debates’, Virtue and virtuosity’ and ‘Memories and emotions’. When you began to plan the exhibition did you have these themes in mind or did they reveal themselves to you as you gathered research and put the pieces together?
Sue Prichard I firmly believe in letting objects speak for themselves rather than impose a set of themes on them. At the start of my research I knew that I wanted to curate an exhibition about British quilt-making and also to focus on the V&A’s extraordinary historic collection, which had never been comprehensively catalogued or exhibited. Although the exhibition was roughly chronological, once I had my ‘A’ list I started to look at the oral narratives and histories which accompanied the acquisitions and realised that the objects fell naturally into thematic categories. For example, the collection of quilts which formed the basis of the ‘Private thoughts, public debates’ theme,1 were mostly created using popular print culture as inspiration, and illustrated an engagement by the makers with a world beyond the domestic sphere — a world of loyalty to the crown and nationalism, politics and popular culture. What I wanted to achieve was a sense that quilts were more than just the sum of their parts, and that their makers engaged in the act of making for various reasons, some of which will remain unknown, as indeed their makers are.
Sally Foster | Sue, finally, can you talk about the last section of the exhibition, ‘Memories and emotions’? It includes a number of patchwork quilts that appear quite ’humble’ in comparison with earlier, more elaborately worked and decorative pieces. How do you think they reflect on quilting and culture in the early twentieth century?
Sue Prichard | I think ‘Memories and emotions’ is really a celebration of the importance of making and what it means to the individual. I love the fact that Annie O’Hare (Pyjama coverlet 1940s) chose not to match up the stripes of her coverlet; it has immediacy and a vibrancy which is totally unique and refreshing. My grandmother taught me to sew and the importance of ‘make do and mend’, and there is sometime incredibly satisfying about creating your own clothes or domestic furnishings from the simplest of materials. Historically, the more modest ‘utility’ quilts have not survived — once their service as bed covers had ended, they would have been recycled within the home, possibly incorporated into new quilts before finally ending up as rags. We’re incredibly lucky that we have Annie’s coverlet and Elizabeth Magill’s patchwork coverlet in the exhibition (Patchwork of suiting fabricsand dress cottons 1930s): both pay homage to the importance of stitching in so many people’s lives. Today these skills are rarely taught at schools or within the home. This section is about the importance of self-sufficiency and community, the continuing relevance of ‘objects of emotion’ in our lives. My grandmother’s legacy — her love of stitching and the importance of her domestic landscape — lives on through me and my approach to the exhibition. I hope everyone feels inspired to go away and create their own heirlooms to hand down to future generations.
1 This section appears as ‘Private thoughts, political debates’ in the Brisbane exhibition.
And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. (Revelation 8:1)
Looking at Albrecht Dürer’s representations of the ‘last days’ – as described in the Book of Revelation of St John – it is not hard to imagine that, given a movie camera and a Hollywood studio budget, he would have turned his fantastic Apocalyptic saga into a major cinematic blockbuster. However, in the late fifteenth century, Dürer turned to the woodcut print to create a sequence of images that combined both high drama and mass appeal.
The Apocalypse had been a subject of art since around the fourth century, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that depictions of the Day of Judgement became commonplace, becoming more pertinent to followers of Christianity as the Black Death devastated Europe (1348–50). With the impending turn of the millennium in 1500 inducing fears of an apocalypse, Dürer brought the story of death, cosmic destruction and eventual salvation alive in a way that no other artist before him had managed to do. Published in book form in 1498, The Apocalypse revolutionised the graphic arts and became, in historical terms, an ‘international best seller’. It was this incredible response that prompted Dürer in 1511 to republish the series, both bound and available for sale as single sheet illustrations, together with a title page announcing it as ‘Apocalypse with figures’ (in contemporary terms, something like ‘The illustrated Apocalypse’).
Thinking about the almost cinematic scope of Dürer’s illustrations, I can’t help but make comparisons with Swedish director Ingmar Berman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet). While Dürer belonged to an epoch that unquestioningly believed in the existence of Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, Bergman’s twentieth-century telling explores the widespread existential crisis of faith that characterised the atomic era following the end of World War Two. In Dürer’s drama-filled illustration of The Seventh Seal (c.1496-97), (the seventh woodcut in the series), he shows the brief pause before the final three trumpet players sound their horns and an angel (in the form of an eagle) flies down crying ‘Woe, Woe, Woe’, in anticipation of the final catastrophic blows.
Bergman’s introspective film portrays a Teutonic knight, Antonius Block, returning from the Crusades to the plague-ravaged shores of his native Sweden in the early 14th century. It begins with the knight praying to God, only to be met with the ‘silence in heaven’ – the silence that immediately follows the breaking of the Seventh Seal on the Book of Revelation. ‘We live in ghost world’, concludes his atheistic squire, Jöns, following the knight’s unsuccessful quest to prove the existence of God, before Death finally claims him.
Bergman’s interpretation of the Apocalypse is in every respect a mid-twentieth century cinematic classic, but somehow I think Dürer would have been disappointed. When Death comes for the knight in Dürer’s film (at least as I imagine it), there would be no time for contemplation – and definitely no time-wasting chess games – just swords flying, buckets of blood, and a deafening heavy metal soundtrack.
The entry of Napoleon’s troops into Spain in early 1808 began a tragic period in the country’s history, known in Spain as the War of Independence, and in English as the Peninsular War (1808–14).
Napoleon’s overthrowing of the Spanish Bourbon monarchy and appointment of his own brother, Joseph, as King, inspired a popular revolt in the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s main square, on 2 May 1808. This event and the execution of the revolutionary leaders the following day were immortalised by Goya in a pair of canvases painted in 1814, both of which are in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
The reprisals and barbaric nature of the war were also the subjects of a print series that Goya worked on privately during the war years. The Disasters of War (Los Desastres de la Guerra) 1810–14 — not published until 1863 — provides testimony of Goya’s personal observations as well as his intellectual and emotional response. These 82 etchings depict famine, rape, torture and execution. They represent not only society’s total abandonment of humanity but also a complete repudiation of the Enlightenment belief in humankind’s ability to overcome base instincts and act in a rational and civilised manner.
Grande hazaña! con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!) is, arguably, the most recognisable image from the series — due in large part to the mass publicity it received when British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman ‘re-created’ the scene with fibreglass mannequins in Great Deeds Against the Dead2 back in 1994. (1) The power of this print, and its evident appeal to the Chapman brothers — agents provocateurs within the contemporary art world — is that Goya extracts the essence of violence implicit in acts of vengeance. Lacking any iconography that would enable us to identify one army from another, these corpses have become generic symbols of the tragic destruction of reason. By objectifying the human body, Goya makes manifest the way these men have been stripped of their dignity — emphasised by amputated limbs and signs of castration — and the denial of any form of ceremonial honour even in death.
Goya is a giant among artists. His entire oeuvre is a sharply conceived response to the culture and epoch in which he lived, and reflects the changes he underwent personally, with his outlook on the world becoming increasingly bleak and distressed over time. It is little wonder his influence on successive generations has been vast, profound and prolonged. He is as important to contemporary art as he was to the mid nineteenth-century French and early twentieth-century moderns who revered him.
An impression of Grande hazaña! con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!) from the bound first edition of Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), published in Madrid in 1863, is on view in ‘Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado‘ until 4 November. The richly illustrated 304-page catalogue, published to accompany the exhibition from the Museo Nacional del Prado features these works.
(1) The Chapman brothers have returned to Goya’s imagery over the course of their career. In 1993 they created a set of miniature dioramas titled Disasters of War, illustrating Goya’s series with the exactitude of model train enthusiasts, and in 1999 they ‘rectified’ (reworked) a 1937 edition of the Disasters that had been re-issued as a protest against fascist atrocities committed in the Spanish Civil War, re-titling it Insult to Injury.