I’ve often wondered why the representational art quilts seem to be those less favoured by the art quilt cognoscenti. I’m beginning to think it’s because this type of quilt is often much less well and interestingly composed than an abstract quilt. With some notable exceptions, many people making more representational work don’t consider the abstract basis for their composition. In his 1899 book on Composition, Arthur Wesley Dow states that in designing art work based on a real “naturalistic” scene it’s important to consider the elements from an abstract point of view. Don’t think of trees, think of vertical shapes, cows as rectangles, hills and rivers as lines and so on.
Dow feels that it’s crucial NOT to consider making an actual representation of a scene first. This is something I’ve noticed both in workshops and in quilt shows…people want to copy nature and get the most accurate copy of it they can and feel that if they do, the piece will be good. But a faithful copy might not be a good design. (and often isn’t!).
Historically, points out Dow, artists did not aim for a perfect copy of nature. Even portraits were considered firstly from the point of view of the overall composition with “the facts and the truth subordinate to the great idea of the aesthetic structure”. Artists should be trained in the “fundamental principles” of Composition rather than in accurate representation. However, as “art academies” began to be established they laid more emphasis on drawing ability – which he descried. Instead, he stressed, it should be abstract design that is the basic training ground of art. For in abstract mode the principles of Composition are very clear whereas in representational work, they are frequently obscured by the complexities of meaning and detail. The beginning of a picture (or a design for an art quilt) is “a pattern of lines”.
Perhaps this is why so many times (in both the shows and the catalogues that I’ve seen) it seems as if it is the quilts with the abstract designs that are the strongest. Those making representational quilts have possibly focused too much on the representational aspect of the task and not enough on the compositional basics.
There is a feeling in many people that quilts should be abstract, it’s as if the abstract work were seen as purer, and more related to the longstanding tradition of abstract quilt patterns. Nancy Crow blanched when I once suggested I could see a lake and trees in one of her quilts!
However, I think there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of making a piece about trees and a lake – but just because you’ve got trees and a lake you cannot forget the importance of a strong composition. And that’s easier to see in abstract mode. Representational and landscape quilts are not weaker because they are representational but rather because the maker has often neglected the importance of the underlying composition. Let us heed the words of Dow: Composition is more important than Representation…begin here! If we do that, then I think representational quilts will become much stronger than many of them are now.
I recommend Dow’s book on Composition – there’s very good information, funky drawings and a challenging vocabulary – very good fodder for our weak little polysyllabic word deprived grey cells! If you have been, my gratitude for your thoughtful and perspicacious perusal of my cogitations! Elizabeth