Thursday, July 3, 2014

Modern/Not Modern: Innovation Gets Old

Anna Gleissner Good, (1862-1927) 
Double Irish Chain and Scotch Thistle, 1925
69 x 81-1/2"
Helen F. Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas.
Gift of Mary Kretsinger, 1971.105

In 2005 I curated a quilt exhibit at the Spencer Museum of Art called Quilts: A Thread of Modernism. While I was doing the research, the concept of modern/not modern captured my interest.
(Hence, this blog.)

Is Anna Good's quilt modern?
Or not?
This quilt seems to capture the dichotomy.
Modernism is in the eye of the beholder.

I have been looking at this quilt for about forty years. It was definitely neither modern nor interesting to my young eye when it was donated to the Spencer Museum of Art in the early 1970s by Anna's granddaughter Mary Kretsinger. Mary believed her mother Rose Good Kretsinger made it, but as years went by clues led to an attribution to Rose's mother Anna Good.

While I was working on that 2005 exhibit I realized the Irish Chain and Thistle quilt had been very modern to Anna's eyes and probably to Rose's too. 

Drop dead modern in 1930

Modernism is innovative, but innovation can only be new for so long. We have to consider Anna's quilt from two perspectives: That of 1926 when she made it and that of the 21st Century when we look back at photos like these above as quaint, old-fashioned and nostalgic.

These women saw themselves as cutting edge.

The captions for the portrait directly above and those below,
many from the Farm Security Agency program during World War II,
use words like "old" and "poor."
We cannot see how smartly dressed the women are.

Russell Lee's pictures of Pie Town, New Mexico
also capture the conflict between modern/not modern.
Times were hard but cotton prints were relatively cheap.

Our interpretation is always colored
by our perception of these cotton prints as
and shabby.

The chic-ness of what some call "shabby-chic" today
is very hard for us to see.

Although the Duchess of Chic,
Wallis Simpson, here in the early 1930s,
knew what she was talking about.

For our new book Emporia Rose, Karla Menaugh
did an interpretation of Anna's Thistle.


  1. Might not some of those dresses be feedsacks? A lot of those farm women in the pictures are wearing their daily work clothes -- gardening, milking, feeding the chickens, washing, cleaning and preparing food can be dirty, messy business. Perhaps, at this distance, we can't distinguish "poor" from hard working and thrifty.

  2. Great post! Definitions of what is modern always bother me... "eye of the beholder" suits me just fine.

  3. I love your thoughtful approach to the whole spectrum of quilting. I wish & hope that some of today's Moderns are reading your blog -- sadly, I suspect not. They seem to choose to believe that they invented the log cabin block & slap the word "modern" in front of a traditional block (Modern Churn Dash?!) and, voila, Modern!

  4. Love the insight. It took me years and years to identify in myself the many notions I had that were based on nothing more than what someone else said or implied. As children we are disposed to take what an adult says as given. As teens we adopt whatever is in the air in our need to belong. As young adults we are so busy 'living' that it takes something shocking to get us to think and adjust. Been working on change. Still working on it.