Friday, November 03, 2006

When Life Meets Art

"Quilts?" I asked when my friend suggested we visit the new de Young Museum in San Francisco while we were waiting for our visa applications to be processed at the India Consulate. Looking at bedspreads wasn't my idea of a fun time. "But these are special," he said. And so they were.

The Quilts of Gee's Bend is an exhibit of 60 quilts made by four generations of African American women who live in a bend of the Alabama River not far from Selma. A New York Times review of the traveling exhibition described the quilts as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." They were awesome. The quilt pictured above, made by one of the younger members of the collective, 50-year-old Essie Bendolph Pettway, stopped me dead in my tracks with its vivid beauty. It was pieced together from fabric that had been used to make dresses for herself and her mother, Mary Lee Bendolph, another one of the quilt makers. Many of the older quilts used found material, such as empty flour sacks and even ribbons saying "VOTE" from a voter registration drive in the 1960's. The quilt that moved me the most featured pieces from the worn work clothes of the maker's husband after he died, and in a brief description she explained that she wanted to wrap them around her in bed at night.

A 28-minute video in a room off the exhibition hall featured interviews with a number of quilt makers. They were eloquent without being what urban dwellers would call articulate, and the southern dialect required subtitles to be understood. The quilts were made by poor sharecroppers and their descendents who could not afford to buy bedspreads. The walls of their houses were papered with pages torn from newspapers and magazines to keep the wind out. Women passed down the secrets of quilting to their daughters and the practice bound together both the community and the generations. "We were poor but we were happy," one woman exclaimed, and I got a sense of how the burden of poverty might also be a blessing. Our culture of abundance has not brought happiness for its beneficiaries. We are smothering under a mountain of store-bought things, crying out "more stuff!" with our last breath. Buying off the shelf distances us from the land and the workers who labor to turn what the land produces into something useful. And these quilts are, before all else, something useful. That they are now seen as art is secondary.

I discovered later that the documentary film of the quilt makers in the exhibition was co-directed and produced by Vanessa Vadim, the 38-year-old daughter of Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim, the French filmmaker who directed the young Fonda in "Barbarella." His first wife was Brigitte Bardot whose career he launched with "And God Created Women." Vadim and Fond's daughter was named after Vanessa Redgrave. In addition to the quilting film, she has produced documentaries on racism, sexism, classism and homophobia.

For more information about the The Quilts of Gee's Bend, look here and here. The exhibit has been held over until Dec. 31.

The new de Young Museum, which has been open for just over a year, was an awesome surprise. Its vast walls and halls reminded me of the Tate Modern in London, housed in a huge old power plant on the south bank of the Thames, which I visited last year, and I learned that both museums were designed by Swiss architects Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog. The main entrance to the De Young features a walkway of pavement stones and boulders designed by environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy which includes a series of earthquake-inspired cracks. The giant box of a building, which has been likened by critics to a rusty aircraft carrier, is sheathed in stamped and dimpled copper to simulate the dappled texture of sunlight filtering through leafy trees. At one end is a 144-foot tower that twists in a clockwise direction and appears, from a distance, to be falling. The view from the 9th floor, even on a foggy and rainy afternoon, was stunning. Below, the eccentric landscaping of Walter Hood which defies symetry, could be seen to best effect. "This is not your standard art-filled box," wrote the Chronicle's John King. If the building "doesn't have the skin-deep romance of its predecessor, it offers something deeper: a hint of mystery, of secrets that might reveal themselves over time."

After lunch, our group of eight pilgrims walked in the rain through the dramatic Osher Sculpture Garden at one end of the building to the almost subterranean "skyspace" designed by James Turrell. The artist, known for his visionary work with light, calls it "Three Gems," for reasons that escaped me, and it has the feel of sacred space. The round chamber modeled after a stupa is entered through a tunnel walkway, and includes a stone bench where visitors can view the sky through a round hole cut in the ceiling. Subtle lighting changes color which alters the sky's perception. For our visit, an almost white sky and spraying rainwater gave a unique perspective. After a time of silence, we almost spontaneously broke into song, our voices echoing deeply with the chamber. It was a priceless moment.

The old de Young was fatally damaged by the 1989 earthquake. When a bond measure to rebuild the museum failed in 1998, socialite Dede Wilsey embarked on a capital campaign to raise $190 million from private sources, $10 million from her own fortune. More than 7,000 donated money in amounts as small as $5. It is one of the largest private gifts ever given to a city for cultural purposes.

The history of Michael de Young, who first established the museum, is shrouded by scandal and rumor. Known primarily as the founder of the San Francisco Chronicle, de Young and his family arrived in San Francisco during the Civil War. The de Jongs were Dutch jews. According to historian Grey Brechin, author of the fascinating Imperial San Francisco: "Rumors kept circulating that Mother de Young had run a whorehouse back in St. Louis, and that Charles and Michael de Young's sister had worked, gainfully, in that establishment. They were considered shady people." The Chronicle was famous for yellow journalism, and Charles was shot and killed by the son of a Baptist minister he had defamed. The minister, Brechin says, called the de Young brothers "the bastard progeny of hell, the illegitimate offspring of the keeper of a whorehouse." Later brother Gustavus de Young was sent to an insane asylum in Stockton. In 1884, Michael de Young himself was shot by the son of sugar baron Claus Spreckles over a supposed libel, but he survived. The jury acquitted the shooter on the grounds of reasonable cause. Ambrose Bierce wrote, "Hatred of de Young is the first and best test of a gentleman."

The M.D. de Young Memorial Museum was established with profits and artifacts left over from the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1893. The fair was de Young's idea and the original museum housed over 6,000 objects left behind as well as his own collection and thousands of items donated by local families wishing to preserve artifacts from the Gold Rush era.

The descendents of the de Young continue to rule San Francisco today, Brechin says, and he details the in-bred exploits of more recent generations in his book which he says was written to explain the basis for the power structure's current legitimacy.
These people with vast wealth and power today are self-conscious aristocrats. I think its important to go back and see what these fortunes were built on — essentially blackmail, extortion, and other criminalities were at the roots of some of these family fortunes.
The legacy for us is the new and very modern de Young museum and exhibitions which include the beautiful and insightful story of the quilting artists of Gee's Bend. Not a bad tradeoff, it seems to me.

To visit the de Young's web site, click here.

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