Monday, May 31, 2010

Quilts and the Modern Movement

Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton, 1932.
Dress by Adrian. 

Movie set and costume design introduced modern emphasis
 on line, shape and contrast into American taste.
Adrian's dresses often included flat geometric shapes.

Modern is a strange word in that it means both current and past at the same time. Modernism was an early 20th century art movement---modern is up-to-date.

Carol Gilham Jones, Free Form Circles, 2008
Simple geometrics repeated---a hallmark of Modernism

The most up-to-date thing in quilts today is the Modern Quilt. Yet we can look at the trend as a reflection of the past---a movement that has roots in the early 19th century when the "modern era" began---the years of the industrial revolution and political rebellion against traditional religion and monarchic states.

Rain, Steam & Speed: The Great Western Railway, 1844
by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851)

New attitudes about art accompanied new concepts in science and philosophy. Artists who had used tools of line, shape and color to imitate nature now saw line, shape and color as valuable in themselves. J.M.W. Turner's 1844 painting above abstracted the new railroads into rain, steam, speed, color and line.

Cocktail by Gerald Murphy, 1927
Oil painting

The modern art movement in the early 20th century emphasized shape and flat planes of color.

Elektrische Prismen, by Sonia Delaunay, 1914
Oil Painting

European designers like Anni Fleschman Albers and Sonia Delaunay adapted modern design to textiles.

Weaving by Anni Albers, 1926
Modernists looked to folk arts like stencilled decorations and folk weavings for inspiration. Folk art and ethnic arts took on new value as artists imitated their use of color and abstraction.

Detail of a log cabin quilt, about 1880

Chinese Coins, about 1900
We can imagine how fresh these 19th-century American quilts must have looked to people who grew up in the visual clutter of the Victorian era.

Patchwork 1908

Reel quilt, about 1850

Mennonite sawtooth medallion, about 1900

Detail pieced floral about 1850

It's easy to find parallels between 20th century modern art and 19th century quilts, but it isn't coincidence. Modern artists found much inspiration in folk arts.

Find inspiration in Anni Albers weavings at the Albers Foundation:
Read more about Sonia Delaunay's textiles at the Textile Blog

Read more about modern quilts in my February post:

Fleamarket Fancy by Denyse Schmidt
About 2005


  1. I love your blog. Posts like these make me feel like I am having fun and learning something at the same time. I also appreciate the links you give for further study and background. Keep up the good work!

  2. It's amazing to be reminded that what we think of as "new" really is old! Thanks for the insights - So many ideas (on top of the ones I already have in my head) - I need my second cup of coffee!

  3. Hi: thanks for this. I'm still working away at my modern applique quilt inspired by your ditzy post. My mother and I are doing this together, and we've got 40 ditzies done. thanks for the inspiration.

  4. It is so interesting that the Progression of quilting styles has its fits and starts. I wonder how much of it is a reaction to what is going on culturally? I am enjoying how some things have be absorbed and refreshed, the advent of designer fabrics and the switch to sewing most quilts on a machine. Bonnie

  5. Your posts are always chock full of great stuff! I love all the history behind quilts and there is so much to learn and discover. I wonder if the trend to use "designer" fabrics and kits has occurred in the past. Were there favorite prints produced in the past that were trendy? Was there such a thing as a kit quilt in the marketplace?

  6. This is a great post. I would not have thought to tie quilts together with modern art, but you did so perfectly!

  7. I have been enjoying all the interesting information regarding textile and quilt history on your blog. Also, wanted to point out, that striking image of Joan Crawford is a publicity still from “Grand Hotel”, not “Letty Linton”.

  8. Please excuse the typo - “Lynton”.