In 1900 more than fifty million people attended the Exposition Universelle in Paris, a celebration of progress and the future; in 1903 Henri Bergson published his extraordinarily influential “Introduction to Metaphysics”; and in 1905 Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity. At the advent of the 20th century our understanding of the world around us was in complete tumult. How we interacted with the world, perceived the world, and even thought about it were undergoing radical transformation. Populations were becoming increasingly urban, mechanization was increasingly pervasive, and communication was growing more rapid all the time. In short, the world was becoming faster, brighter, and closer. Not surprisingly, the art world was going through similar changes.
As much as I would like to take an exhaustive look at art at the turn of the 20th century, to do so would be a book in and of itself. So I am going to skip right past a slew of artists important to the development of Modernism: the Pointillists, the Symbolists, Gauguin, and Van Gogh, among others. While I regret the jump, the three artists I am going to focus on can be, and probably ought to be, seen as the immediate progenitors of Modernism. Furthermore, I believe these artists are essential to illuminating any idea of Modern Quilting. So, without further ado: Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse.
Paul Cézanne was born in 1839, but began painting late in his life; he made his first steps into the scene after Impressionism had already begun to take root. For Cézanne, the essential problem was to reconcile the duality of painting: simultaneously synthetic (artificial, contrived, created) and imitative (representational), it was purely a construction of forms and colors at the same time that it depicted the world. This was, of course, not a new problem, but for Cézanne it was one that had not been adequately tackled. Cézanne sought a way to paint without subordinating either the synthetic or the imitative.
For me, it is all about Cézanne’s cloth. It folds and it drapes, but it is never supple; each shape is resolutely solid, seemingly necessary and eternal. His still lifes are fixed in a harmonious stability. His shapes are not drawn, but built; they are constructed of geometric shapes, formed by bold, solid strokes of color, flashes of light perceived and rendered. Cézanne rejects the drawerly tradition in favor of a sculptorly engagement of the canvas. Photography had seemingly perfected the problem of tracing the world, so now painting was free to go about rebuilding it. Cézanne’s approach captured both the physicality of the world and the synthetic nature of painting itself.
Through Cézanne’s paintings we begin to see the world in a whole new way: the world is not lines traced in space, but masses seen as planes of color, simultaneously flat and faceted. And just like the facets of a gem, the slightest shift in perspective alters not only the configuration of the facets, but the colors reflected and the appearance of the whole. In a Cézanne still life, to shift an apple would be to topple the cloth: the parts and the whole are inextricable.
And from Cézanne, and the problem of space, I want to move on to Picasso, Cubism, and the question of Time. Many think of Cubism as fracturing space, but I think that misses the underlying concern of Cubism: for Picasso, for a thing to exist it necessarily existed in time, in one moment and then in another. Time was not a fluid continuity, but a series of moments, glimpsed, and recorded on the canvas. While Cézanne was essentially concerned with the facets that made up the surface of the world, Picasso dealt with the different ways those facets were seen over time, as the viewer or the viewed changed position.
Consider a Picasso face not as a distortion of a single view, but as a synthesis of multiple perspectives: part of the face seen straight on, another in profile. The traditional relationship of parts is not exploded, but built up over a sequence of moments in order to depict our experience of time as fragmentary.
Furthermore, Picasso was keenly aware of the nature of our experience of things within time. In order to make sense of the world within the fragmentary flux of experience, we prioritize. Consider his seminal painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907): Picasso’s figures are rendered with a minimum of detail, sketchily describing the parts, while the lion’s share of attention is paid to the women’s faces. This at once focuses the viewer’s gaze on the powerful stares of the central figures and illustrates the immediacy and urgency of perception within the constraints of fractured time.
There is yet another layer of time to be dealt with in this painting: the permanence of being within time. Look at the cloth that drapes over and around the figures. It is uncannily similar to Cézanne’s cloth. It, too, is resolutely solid, unmovingly there. It fixes the figures, five prostitutes, within the canvas, within time, and within, I would argue, their situation as prostitutes. On all three fronts these women are stuck. This painting presents the dichotomy of time: it is at once fleeting and eternal, fractured and persistent. We jump from one instant to the next, unable to jump outside of it, but never able to settle within it.
So, with Cézanne space became plastic; with Picasso time turned elastic; all that was left was the ultimate liberation of color. If painting is truly synthetic then color need not be purely imitative. Henri Matisse believed that color could express the sensation of a thing, not just the optical experience. For Matisse the role of color was not simply to show a thing, but to give viewers the sense of that thing in all of its richness. Ask yourself how best to represent warmth, brightness, joy, or solitude; to Matisse this was the purview of color. Through the free use of color the intangible qualities of things could be represented. While so much of the modern world was pursuing the quantification and controlling of nature, Matisse reveled in the wildness of experience. (Fauvist, the style most associated with Matisse, translates to “Wild Beast”).
Matisse’s iconic portrait of his wife is at once sculptural and flat; the weight of Mme Matisse’s purple/blue hair sets her apart from the brilliant colors of the background, making her a severe figure, an austerity that’s reinforced by the gravity of her gaze. The stunning green line running down her face gives the sensation of an extraordinary light, surely the rays of a late-day sun, throwing her face into stark contrast. But instead of relying upon classical chiaroscuro, Matisse uses a vibrant color to define that distinction.
On a more subjective note, for me this painting is all about the single stroke of red paint at Mme. Matisse’s hairline, just to the right of the green stripe. It is this awkwardly harmonious imbalance and tension that defines so much of what would dominate Modernism in the first half of the century. That small gesture balances the large masses of red that dominate the left and bottom of the canvas. Through color Matisse creates dynamic tensions that would be unseen with imitative color.
Through these three artists we can see the basics of a Modern visual vocabulary: space, time and color begin to separate themselves from the service of representation and to emerge as the essential concern of art. It is here that we begin to see commonalities between Modern Art and quilting, and the development of a lexicon of Modern Quilting.
Since we are dealing with the early masters of Modern Art here it seems only appropriate to look to the quintessential Modern Quilter, as well: Denyse Schmidt. In the Burlap and Horses quilt from her Denver Series we can see Cézanne’s construction of space: bold strokes of fabric reside side-by-side, resisting easy integration. Each piece is immutably itself, separate and individual even as it becomes part of a larger whole. The quilt speaks of its own construction rather than allowing its parts to be subsumed into the service of a greater pattern, but at the same time no part could be moved or removed without disrupting or even destroying the fundamental stability of the design.
While we can see Cézanne’s synthetic construction in Burlap and Horses, Schmidt’s Painted Lady presents us with a fragmentation resonant of Picasso. What superficially appears to be a broken red line moves the length of the quilt, but the tan/dark cream horizontal lines at the interstices of the red segments belie a more fundamental fragmentation. Each horizontal functions as a figurative horizon line, fragmenting not only the red stripe, but also the entire quilt. The bold red line is seen and re-seen within a fragmented time, altered at each instant, but still maintaining the impression of a continuous whole. Finally, in her Drunk Love in a Log Cabin we can see the wild, and at times almost reckless, use of color reminiscent of Matisse’s La Danse. Complimentary colors are thrust upon each other; the quilt thrums with vitality. And here we also see the use of awkward harmonies: color mismatches abound within blocks, disrupting the symmetry of any individual block, only to be counterbalanced by another disruption on the other side of the quilt. The color usage produces an extraordinary amount of movement within these fundamentally stable forms.
It is from these building blocks – basic forms, fragmentation, and liberated color – that we can begin to trace the evolution of Modern Art, and start to develop a notion of what Modern Quilting might mean.