Tuesday, April 1st, 2003

The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric by Michel Pastoureau

Soon after reading Michel Pastoureau’s fascinating book, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric, I noticed that the inside of the cardboard container that holds Macdonald’s french fries is lined with a pattern of delicate yellow stripes. Utilizing the information in the book, I was able to trace the historical roots of the Macdonalds’ stripes. They arrive from two distinct sources. On the one hand, the Macdonalds’ stripes continue the clown theme of fun, personified by Ronald Macdonald, who is rooted in the jester, a marginal figure in western medieval society that saw stripes as diabolic.

When stripes had first arrived in Europe, on the garments of a Carmelite order from the Holy Land, a great disturbance ensued because, according to Pastoreau, the medieval eye was accustomed to seeing strictly by a succession of figure-ground relationships, the ground had to be clearly established by the eye before what was in front of it was comprehended. The striped pattern disturbed this order, slicing up the conventional figure-ground relationship that the medieval eye adhered to as perceptual habit. Stripes, in this context, were the visual equivalent of “speaking in tongues.” As The Devil’s Cloth recounts, it appears that in the 13th and 14th centuries the wearing of stripes was a frightening transgression: the 19th chapter of Leviticus states that “one shall not wear a garment made of two” and in old French, “barre” did not simply mean stripe but illegitimacy. The stripe was full of perjorative associations, and signified a doubler, an insincere person. In feudal times, anyone not to be trusted – village idiots, prostitutes, disloyal knights, tricksters, jugglers and clowns – might be dressed or depicted in stripes.

The second signification of the Macdonald’s stripe comes later, when stripes became associated with hygiene. Pastoreau states unequivocally that from “feudal times to the second industrial revolution” the only next-to-the-skin cloth that was acceptable to western sensibility was white or undyed. Thus sheets, chemises, underwear etc. only became patterned or striped in the last hundred years and then very gradually, mostly with a pastel color, a kind of purified hue, with the association of animal dye drained from it. The lining of the Macdonalds fries cardboard container therefore quite unsurprisingly connotes good, clean fun, or, on a Freudian level, eating those crisp fries will involve an odd approximation of rooting around in Ronald Macdonald’s boxer shorts.

In “The Devil’s Cloth”, Pastoureau does wonder why Freud and his followers never noticed that “Our striped pajamas, our striped sheets, our striped matresses, aren’t they grills, cages?” But as a medievalist with a specialization in heraldry, it is full of more grounded observations, such as the metynomic quality of stripes: how a chevron on a railroad crossing, for instance, can stand for a whole barred gate or how a pedestrian crossing in Germany is called a “Zebrastreifen”. (Africans, incidentally, see the zebra as having white stripes on a black body and Europeans see it as having black stripes on a white body.)

The stripe seems an underused motif in contemporary art. Pastoureau, who is French, rightly references Daniel Buren, who has made a career of using the stripe in its socio-historic manner as a kind of public visual disruptor. In picture-making proper the pre-eminent figure is Sean Scully, who, in an old interview in Arts magazine, exclaimed, (echoing the Macdonalds’ slogan “Billions and Billions Served”): “I must have painted a million stripes”. He then goes on to compare his striped paintings with Cézanne. In fact, the paintings that Scully is most known for resemble large-scale fragments of the the striped awnings and fabrics in Matisse’s paintings from his Nice series. Scully, though he has written about Matisse, points to sources outside of a fine art context, as when he recently exhibited his photographs of the painted striped facades of dwellings in marginalized, pre-industrial countries, which ties the stripe into Pasterou’s idea of it as a barrier, a gate that protects and filters out evil spirits.

David Diao Little Suprematist Prisons 1986, group of 30 paintings installed at Postmasters Gallery
David Diao, Little Suprematist Prisons 1986, group of 30 paintings installed at Postmasters Gallery

The painter David Diao executed a series of paintings in 1986 called Little Suprematist Prisons which began,he says, because he felt “imprisoned by geometry”. Diao executed 25 versions of Robert Motherwell’s painting, “Little Spanish Prison”. These works, which appeared a few years after Scully’s, might also be interpreted as a rebuke to Scully’s work, it’s debt to Motherwells painting and Scully’s overall romance with abstract expressionism. In this sense, Diao’s hard-edged versions counter the heroic, rough-hewn stripe of Scully’s paintings with the positivism of Stella and his roots in Russian Suprematism.

Cary Smith, another artist with a long history as a painter of stripes, sees the painted stripe as possessing the same “matter-of-fact, powerfully beautiful magic” that is present in Cezanne’s work. “It’s the most rigorous thing I can do”, Smith continues “but that only pertains to vertical stripes of the same thickness, stripes which vary in size in a painting are mannered and not interesting. Also, horizontal stripes are at rest, which differs from the tension of the verticle. The world today is a tense place for very good reasons, and the only way I have found to replicate the obsessive energy of the modern world is in painting and repainting vertical stripes of the same thickness.” In the last line of The Devil’s Cloth Pastoureau states that “Too many stripes can drive you mad”. Cary Smith’s work suggests that painting them, perhaps, can keep you sane.

The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric
by Michel Pastoureau, Translated by Jody Gladding, Columbia University Press, New York 2001