At first glance, the quilt show at the Milwaukee Art Museum seems rather ho-hum. The quilts are not dazzling in design and innovation like the African-American version that emerged much later from Gees Bend. They are instead detailed and appliquéd and embossed, with an emphasis on dutiful perfection.
But this show is actually more interesting than one would think. A little peek under each pretty coverlet reveals itchy concerns of gender roles, oppression, and the materialization of a carefully stitched colonial elite.
Before we unsnarl any of that, let’s consider the implications and motivations of MAM giving its major exhibition space for the entire summer season (May 22-Sept. 6) to early American quilts. Were they trying to do the most crowd-pleasing, benign, mainstream show imaginable to lure Summerfest overflow? Were they hoping to ride the coat tails of the smashing Gees Bend Quilt show of 2004? Or was this a gentle-handed but courageous act of post-feminist reordering of art history’s emphasis on genius, white male production and invention?
Is it a statement that pre-Civil War era women’s work should be on equal turf and interest with Andy Warhol’s exhibition of late work, or, more recently, the post WWII photography survey that occupied these same walls?
I would like to think that MAM was in the latter camp of spunky revisionism. Unfortunately, there is no evidence in the show to support that conclusion.
This exhibit was organized by Winterthur, the famous decorative arts museum in Delaware. The show is packaged like an American Girl made-for-TV movie (one wonders if the docents will be forced to wear some kind of bonnet).
In the first room, we are introduced to Mary Remington, born in 1792, who, through a series of excerpted letters, brings a personal and authentic voice to warm the cold hand of piece-meal history. This is an effective way to frame the show. Mary Remington’s brief missives pull us through the rooms and offer a voice and sense of human presence, a continuum from then to now.
Unfortunately, Mary is a goody two-shoes. She spends her young life waiting for her ship captain suitor to come back to Rhode Island and marry her. Her “Whitework Quilt” of 1815 is a mind-blowing testament to this waiting and all the hopes and dreams of what will soon become her life (once the ship captain climbs under the quilt). It is a thing of great beauty and devotion and, like all the quilts in the show, reveals how the pre-Civil War culture of 1760 to 1850 defined female goodness. Each tiny, perfect stitch speaks of order, rules, devotion, confinement and the virtues of hard work and humility.
Quilts are truly time made visible: Each stitch is the tick of the clock, marking days, weeks, years of even-handed life. The seamstress metaphorically pieces things together, optimistically turning scraps into new wholes, beautiful objects that have the power to warm and symbolically protect or embrace us. All of this was rendered in opposition to the uncontrolled breath of “real life,” with its typhus, failed crops, infant mortality, loss and more loss, emotional despair.
The quilts are surviving artifacts, complete with stains, which document the constricted state of women. But they also hold small (almost hidden) evidence of a subversive female insistence to be known, named, remembered and noticed.
What is truly most remarkable about this show is that most of the quilts are signed. Tiny cross-stitched or embroidered cursive names, some with dedications, anchor each one to a maker. Those makers were a century away from women’s suffrage (1920), and it is heartening to see their gestures of individuation and pride in the claiming of authorship.
One could traverse this exhibition and think of the quilts as diary pages. The show emphasizes each personal story well: How one quilt was made of an old silk wedding dress, how another was intended for a marriage that had to be cancelled because of political disputes among the Quakers. Another contains an inscription: “From Muzzie to her darling grand child… .” One quilt traveled from Ireland when the family immigrated. Rebecca Scattergood Savery pieced 6,708 patches together in 1827, and she recorded that accomplishment on the quilt along with her name.
But it’s a shame that the exhibition doesn’t nudge us toward more questions about the cultural meaning and implications of the quilts. Perhaps when the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt panels arrive down the hall on June 8, the juxtaposition will generate some insights. Like its Early American sisters, the AIDS quilt is all about naming, valuing and recognizing individuals who were part of a larger whole, individuals who still have something to tell us down the road in history. So far, 91,000 names have been stitched into it.
What would Mary Remington have thought about this?