American Quilts in Paris

February 19, 2013 - Beatrice Goddard

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At the beginning of February this year Kate Hebert, Collections Manager, and Beatrice Goddard, Collections Assistant, travelled over to Paris to install 25 quilts at the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture (www.monabismarck.org) for their exhibition ‘Quilt Art – L’Art du Patchwork’ which opened on the 13 February, and runs until 19 May this year. Situated on the avenue de New York the Center provides a showcase for a variety of exceptional experiences in American art and culture through select and innovative programming right in the heart of Paris in the 16th Arrondissement.

ÒQUILT ARTÓ l'art du patchwork ÒQUILT ARTÓ l'art du patchwork

The new Mona Bismarck American Center was launched in 2011, evolving from the legacy of the Mona Bismarck Foundation which became active in 1986 following the passing of its founder and sole benefactor, the American philanthropist, Countess Mona Bismarck (1897-1983). A devotee of art and culture, Mona Bismarck enabled numerous charitable gifts during her life. In order to lend permanency to her philanthropic activities, she gave her beautiful Parisian townhouse and the majority of her estate to the Foundation with the purpose of fostering Franco-American friendship and understanding through art and culture, a very similar founding ideology to that of the American Museum. The Center’s overall goal is to offer a rich programme of American art and culture to a broad range of audiences. As such, a proactive approach is taken to reach out to disadvantaged audiences to ensure access to the vivid and influential culture of the United States. In addition, the Center is dedicated to fostering synergies with organisations that strive to deepen the relationship between the United States and France.

Voted the best-dressed woman in the world in 1933, Mona Bismarck was a socialite and fashion icon who owned more Balenciaga and Givenchy gowns than most of us will ever see. Parallels between her and the also four-times married Beatrice Pratt, ‘the most fashionably dressed married woman of the exclusive set’ and mother of the joint-founder of the American Museum Dr Dallas Pratt, are clear to see.

ÒQUILT ARTÓ l'art du patchwork ÒQUILT ARTÓ l'art du patchwork

Built at the end of the nineteenth century, the hotel particulier, or Parisian townhouse, was reconfigured for Mona Bismarck in the late 1950s by the celebrated French interior decorator Stéphane Boudin. The building retains the style of her era through the magnificent woodwork from a dismantled chateau, intricate and colourful Chinese wallpaper and spectacular chandeliers. The quilts from the American Museum, including such favourites as the Baltimore Album Quilt and Queen Kapi’olani’s Fan Quilt, look simply stunning set against this backdrop and there are many wonderful juxtapositions and sight lines provided by the many ornate stucco mirrors. The exhibition starts with the colourful and vibrant Union Quilt c.1895 in the first of three interconnecting rooms.

On the first floor of the Center, in another beautiful ornate room, is an exhibition and contemporary counterpoint to Quilt Art in the work of Zoe Pettijohn Schade. Currently in Paris with a Fulbright grant, this American artist reflects on historic French textile patterns in her distinctive works on paper. Graduate of the famous Cooper Union School her gouaches are plays in repetition: assembling and layering, creating enigmatic images, halfway between representation and abstraction. Her original approach sheds light on the value of decorative traditions and explores conventional hierarchies that separate fine art and craft. She has been working with a rare collection of paintings from the 17th century that exemplifies the French tradition of gouache patterns for textiles.

On a couple of occasions as we finished installing the quilts and overseeing the lighting we could see visitors being turned away at the door desperate to see the quilts but unfortunately premature before its opening. Kate was able to provide many anecdotes connected with the quilts to Danielle Berger Fortier the Exhibitions and Programming Director to add to her gallery talks, but a beautifully illustrated catalogue has also been produced to accompany the exhibition with translated texts from the American Museum’s own Classic Quilts catalogue.

There is an exciting programme of events, demonstrations, and talks including one with France Patchwork (www.francepatchwork.com). There will also be quilting bees and family patchwork workshops as well as mosaic and printing events inspired by the exhibition. We are delighted that some of the gems of our quilt collection are to be enjoyed by a whole new audience and hopefully this will not be the last collaboration between our two organisations.

All images ©Anne-Frédérique Fer/FranceFineArt

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