Friday, 30 May 2008

Arabesque Mamluk Carpets Mix Perfect Art With Perfect Mystery

CAIRO, June 7, 2008 -- Are Mamluk carpets the most mysterious rugs of all?

The are many reasons to think so.

The rugs were created during the reign of the Mamluk sultans in Cairo from 1250 to 1517 at a time when medieval Islamic art was at its pinnacle in Egypt.

And it is clear that the sultans spared no expense -- from the painstaking weaving of the rugs’ mosaic-like designs to their saturated colors to their superb wool.

But no-one is sure exactly where these masterpiece workshop rugs were woven. Some carpets experts say Egypt, some Spain, some Turkey.

One of the reasons for considering so many places is that the rugs appeared under the Mamluks as if out of thin air. Elisabeth Greenberg observes in her article ‘Jewelled Carpets: Treasures of the Mamluk Empire’ that “prior to these rugs there was no pile-rug weaving tradition in Egypt.”

Examining the rugs for clues just offers more riddles. Their lustrous wool is unlike that used in other Egyptian textiles of the time, but doesn’t clearly come from somewhere else. The wool is spun clockwise, when most carpet wools are spun counterclockwise. And, the red dye is obtained from lac – an Indian insect – at a time when master weavers in Turkey and Iran were using entirely different pigments.

That leaves only the carpets’ designs as a guide. And these are consistent with other artworks created under the Mamluks. That makes many experts conclude that the carpets must have been woven in Cairo under the close supervision of the Mamluk court.

As to who the Mamluks were, their story is no less extraordinary. Although they ruled Egypt and Syria, they originally came to the Mideast as slave-solders from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Arab rulers purchased or recruited them as youths from Turkic, Mongol, and Circassian tribes in Central Asia and trained them as elite palace troops.

But the Mamluks revolted and seized power for themselves. And still more surprisingly -- despite a warrior ethos so competitive that, on the average, the Mamluks killed or removed their own leaders every five years – they were huge patrons of art.

When the Mamluk empire fell to the Ottomons in 1517, their distinctive carpets disappeared with them. Today, only one remains in Cairo and the rest of the some 100 or so pieces that survive are the prizes of a handful of top world museums. The images above are of a rug in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Museums rarely display their centuries-old Mamluks for fear they will be damaged by too much exposure to light. But when the rugs are shown, they always amaze viewers -- just as their designers intended.

The Mamluk’s complex Arabesque patterns evoke the harmony and infinity of the divine. Astonishingly, they do so with patterns that appear both perfectly mathematical and perfectly mystical at the same time. And the carpets literally shimmer before the eyes, making a them appear as much like a vision of a rug as a reality.

Small surprise, then, that some carpet producers today are interested in trying to recreate the Mamluks in whole or part.

Woven Legends, a Philadephia-based company, has for several years worked with Turkish weavers to try to duplicate some of the Mamluk Rugs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The results – Woven Legends’ ‘Sardis’ line (right) – have won critical acclaim. The retail price is $ 968 per square meter and the rugs come in a variety of sizes and patterns.

The original Mamluk weavers not only produced the complex geometric medallion carpets they are most famous for but also full-field rugs as well.

The full-field designs are best exemplified by the so-called para-mamluks produced in Damascus. The rugs are often referred to ‘chessboard’ carpets in Europe and are highly coveted collectors’ items.

This one (left) is from the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.

Today, the chessboard designs, too, are inspiring some carpet producers to explore new possibilities.

This rug produced by Afghan weavers in Pakistan, who have become among the most innovative designers for the popular market today.

Simply called 'Mamluk' (right), it is offered by Nomad Rugs of San Francisco, has an Arabesque field with cartouche borders – both staples of Mamluk design.

At a price of $ 488 per square meter, it can only hint at the charms of more complex Arabesque patterns.

But that may be just where many first-time rug buyers would want to begin.




Related Links:

Jewelled Carpets : Treasures of the Mamluk Empire, by Elisabeth Greenberg

Mamluk Carpets - Legacy of the Conquering Nomads, by Roy Chatalbash

Art of the Mamluks – Saudi Aramco World, Nov/Dec 1981

History of Mamluks – The Battle of ‘Ain Jalut

Saturday, 17 May 2008

The Jazz Age: Gowns, Tuxedos, And Chinese Art Deco Carpets

WASHINGTON, May 30, 2008 -- One of the most elegant times in America was the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 30s. It was a time when, after the horrors of World War I, there was a taste for extravagant clothes and debonair film stars. Long silk gowns, men in 'smoking' attire and, on living room and bedroom floors, not antique Turkish and Persian carpets but – surprisingly – newly made Chinese ones.

Why Chinese? The answer is the strange story of the “Chinese Art Deco” rugs. They were carpets that perfectly fit the spirit of their time and today still evoke that time and no other. But they came about almost by accident.

One of those accidents was the fact that World War I badly disrupted the usual Mideastern trade links for luxury carpets from Turkey and Iran. Another was that people wanted a break from the past in the design of virtually everything, from buildings to furniture to fabrics.

These opportunities were recognized by American entrepreneurs working in Tianjin, China. The port city, south of Beijing, was a major center in the international wool trade and until the 1900s had no history of rug manufacturing. But the expatriate U.S. traders soon turned it into one of China’s biggest weaving areas as they filled the vacuum in the American market, first with traditional Chinese carpets and then with more and more Western-looking variations of the originals.

The most successful design that emerged was something that perfectly fit the Art Deco style of the day. The carpets so complimented what was going on in the West that they became known as Chinese Art Deco even though there was no Art Deco movement in China itself.

One American entrepreneur’s name in particular is associated with the rugs: Walter Nichols. He produced so many of them in Tianjin that Chinese Art Deco rugs are also known generically as ‘Nichols’ rugs. But it has long been debated whether he and other American producers actually designed the carpets or whether the Chinese artists which they employed did so.

Elizabeth Bogen, one of the few rug scholars who has studied Tianjin rugs closely, believes it was the Chinese artists. She finds her evidence in the fact that while the rugs were made for the American market – where Art Deco was characterized by industrial-looking, streamlined forms – great numbers of the Chinese weavings are effusively curvilinear and floral. And those curvilinear patterns seem much less inspired by what was happening in America than by the more naturalist-looking Art Deco tradition in France, half-a-world away.

So how to explain the contradiction in styles? Bogen observes that by the 1920s there were Chinese students who had studied art in many major art schools in Japan and Europe and were familiar with international trends. In Paris, particularly, they found Western art was being heavily influenced by “Japonisme,” or a fascination with Japan’s styles. If these students later became artists for the Chinese Art Deco rugs, it might explain what Bogen calls the rugs’ “exuberant experimentation with Chinese, Japanese, and European design styles and pallets.”

Bogen made these suggestions in her article “What the Wool Trade Wrought,” which appeared in the September-October 2001 issue of Hali Magazine.

The design origins of the Chinese Art Deco rugs may never be fully known. But the whole story leads to some interesting speculation about how Eastern designs get modified for Western tastes and whether the results are in fact Eastern or Western creations.

Bogen argues that the Tianjin rugs were not just the result of an interplay of market forces but also of “contemporary currents in Western art – currents that in turn were heavily influenced by exposure to the arts of Japan and China.”

Put in other words, this is a reminder that the greatest tradition in art, even in the most traditional arts, is to freely borrow ideas across borders. To try to classify art – and particularly the contemporary art of any period – as belonging to one region or another is to miss the excitement of how art reflects a universal human experience as much as it does a local one.




Related Links

Elizabeth Bogen:

Elizabeth Bogen: What The Wool Trade Wrought

Elizabeth Bogen: "In Search of Walter Nichols"

Chinese Art Deco Rug Galleries:

Absolute Rugs

Cyber Rugs


Art Deco:

Art Deco Society of Washington, D.C.

ArtLex Visual Dictionary

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The Orient

(Fiction - By Karel Capek, 1923)

The well-known Czech journalist Karel Capek wrote about buying oriental carpets in Prague at the beginning of the last century. In his short tale 'The Orient,' he describes Old Europe's fascinating world of carpet connoisseurs and carpet sellers – both honest and not so honest.

It can happen that you win the lottery, or that you get married, or that one day it simply strikes you that you want something beautiful at home; whatever the reason, you decide to buy a Persian carpet. But in the process of actually purchasing an oriental rug, your life is going to turn upside down. First of all, you will have to smoke -- a lot -- because smoking is part of the oriental atmosphere. Second, you will have to walk all over mountains of valuable carpets with the air of one who has never set foot upon anything else. You will have to assume the look of a connoisseur, fingering the pile and the back of each rug as you mumble to yourself. There will be a whole array of initiation ceremonies, from special Persian jargon to passionate Turkish haggling, until finally you reduce a carpet seller to tears as he says he feels so close to you that he is ready to give you his rugs almost for free, even at a loss, and simply as a present between equals. There will be, I say, an entire string of extraordinary things but still you will have only reached the threshold of the Orient. And then, thinking you have finished, you will safely choose a modestly priced Kazak and race home with rosy visions of how it will look beside of your bed. In so many ways, a first carpet is like first love.

The next day, someone will ring your doorbell. It is a polite, lively little fellow pushing another, silent, man in front of him. Immediately, he blurts out in the doorway that he is coming to you because you are an exceptional and extraordinary connoisseur of Persian carpets and that he has brought his business partner with him who just arrived yesterday from uh, well uh ... Constantinople ... with some carpets that, truly!, are just for specialists, and he has brought them first to you so that you can just look, nothing more than look, at them, just for the pleasure of it. And already he is opening the door again and shouting, “Vaclav! Come here!” And in comes a delivery boy with a huge pile of carpets on his back. The man from Constantinople really does have a kind of Persian air but he never says anything, and the active little man starts laying out the first carpet with Vaclav. “Now, this is a fine piece, isn’t it? This one is worthy of you ...” You mention it isn’t quite the kind of thing you are looking for. “That’s just what I thought myself!” the vivacious little fellow shouts victoriously. “You, sir, are a marvelous connoisseur; but here I have a Shiraz which is truly perfect for you, only a real specialist can appreciate it!”

This Shiraz seems horrendously pricy and now your lively guest is whispering something to the silent oriental man in a language that might be Persian or might be Turkish. “Also meinetwegen,” the Persian mutters in German, or “fair enough,” and the lively man announces that his friend is giving you the Shiraz simply as a present, almost completely free, because you are you, and just for 40,000 crowns. You fight off the temptation, you will neither accept as a gift a Shirvan, nor a Gendje, nor a Bukhara, nor even a Baluch, not to mention a Kerman and a Senneh and all sorts of prayer carpets; this time you defend yourself against everything, until this obliging fellow asserts that you have truly prodigious taste and that the really valuable rugs he has are still tied up in customs and if you could see those, well, you would cry with joy. Then, he leads out the Persian and Mr. Vaclav, promising to come back later.

So far, so good. But three hours later, a man in a top hat rings your bell. He hands you his visit card and introduces himself as Mr. So and So, an industrialist who is in momentary financial difficulty. He has decided to sell his private rug collection and ... already he is calling down the corridor “Vaclav! Komm hier! ... and Mr. Vaclav is bringing in a new load of carpets on his shoulders. The man in the top hat discreetly speaks of family problems, saying he has to sell at any cost, even way below market price, but only to a real judge, to a true authority, who knows how much a beautiful carpet means. For example, this authentic Hamadan, the man in the top hat breathes, or this fabulous Mosul. To your surprise, each piece in his family collection seems to still have its inventory tag and its customs seal.

You escape from the heavy-hearted monsieur. A day later, a thin man appears who wants to speak to you very privately about things that are “just for four eyes.” Then he tells you that he has … that he has Persian Carpets ... perfect museum pieces ... that he has obtained under rather special circumstances that, well, to be honest, that he personally spirited out of a Sultan’s seraglio, only please don’t speak about it. In short, they are one-of-a-kind pieces for connoisseurs only and staggeringly underpriced. And already Mr. Vaclav is back with a cargo of rugs on his back and on all of them, too, are customs seals and inventory numbers, And, if you don’t make use of this exceptional purchasing opportunity, then there is no reason to worry, because tomorrow a Russian couple will come to you, from a noble family which has had to flee the country and which escaped with nothing but some rare Persian carpets and now, out of the most dire necessity must part with them. Mr. Vaclav is already waiting in the corridor. And, afterwards, you will get a visit from a resplendent Levantine who does a little business with carpets here and there and the other day came across some pieces that he has not shown to anybody, that are only for true enthusiasts. And after him will come a juvenile delinquent who won’t have Mr. Vaclav with him but who knows of a superb Persian carpet that could be sold to a discreet and well informed collector. And then there still will be the solicitor from Vienna, the widow in need, and the Greek who has no money to pay customs and so has to sell at least one precious Persian carpet -- far below its price, of course, and only to an initiate.

In short, if you keep your eyes and ears open, in a little over a week you will learn how to evaluate the weave, material, age, color quality, and finesse of the design of an oriental carpet. You will meet rogues, cognoscenti, eccentrics, entrepreneurs, and small-time crooks; you will make a kind of pilgrimage to the Orient and, doing so, you will discover a strange, wily, ancient, modern form of business that you will never encounter any other way and that is well worth your investment.

(‘The Orient’ was published in the newspaper 'Lidove Noviny' in 1923; Photo of carpet is courtesy of Ali Majdfar/Persian Carpet Museum Photo Gallery.)


Related Links:

Karel Capek

Barry O'Connell: Notes on Oriental Carpets and Persian Rugs

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Morocco's Berber Tribal Rugs Offer A Different View Of Oriental Carpets

RABAT, May 23, 2008 -- When people think of oriental carpets, Morocco is not the first place that comes to mind.

But the Berbers, whose nomadic ancestors settled this land around 2000 BC, have an ancient tradition of tribal weaving that is both similar to and distinct from other Middle Eastern rugs and carpets.

The Berbers still make up some 40 percent of Morocco's population -- the rest are Arabs and Moors -- and their stronghold is the Middle Atlas mountains. The peaks rise up as a tall, temperate barrier between coastal Morocco and the vast Sahara desert. On the slopes, which are often better suited to grazing sheep than to farming, about a fifth of the tribes still weave pile carpets and flatweaves in styles that bear their names.

The rugs tend to be large, long, and loosely woven with bright, earthy colors including lots of oranges, yellows, and browns. They have simple geometric designs. But their simplicity is deceiving.

The motifs, often based on diamond shapes, change size and sometimes orientation. And the symmetry is deliberately never perfect.

The result is something that not only looks sui-generis. Often, it feels that way, too. That is because many of the Atlas pile weavings are unusually soft and flexible. They call to mind blankets a much as they do carpets – a light quality which makes them practical for mountain life.

Ancient Berber beliefs, which survive alongside Islam, also find their way into the rugs. Some tribes will burn the frings of their carpets to make them less attractive to the demon of envy. It is part of their belief the duality of life and their desire to invoke positive power, or Baraka, to ward off evil.

Baraka is thought to exist to some degree in all things and artists try to transfer it to their creations through a whole vocabulary of symbols and techniques to protect themselves, their work, and the consumer.

The best place to buy the tribal pieces is from the tribes themselves. But as Western interest in weavings from the Atlas Mountains has grown since the 1970s – and the renewal of curiosity about tribal art worldwide – the rugs also have become a staple of the shops in Rabat, Marrakesh, and Fez.

In these cities at the foot of the mountains, some workshops have even begun producing Berber-type designs. The workshop products tend to be heavier and hold to the floor better than the tribal pieces as they aim directly for the Western interior design market.

Interestingly, Morocco has a long-standing workshop tradition – but not for Berber carpets. Instead, the tradition is for Turkish designs and it dates back to northern Morocco’s long period under the Ottoman Empire from the 16th to late 19th century. The style was loosely modeled on the famous Anatolians from Gordes and Ladik, among other Turkish weaving centers.

These ‘city rugs’ from Rabat and Casablanca do not enjoy much critical acclaim. They are often described as coarsely woven imitations in bold colors that are not likely to please fans of the Turkish originals. But some of the designs offer unusual local twists and they are a historical curiosity.

Older pieces are likely to include cochineal reds from the days when, beginning in the late 18th century, was one of the main centers outside of Central America for farm-raising insects for dye. Now, such rugs are one-of-a-kind because chemical dyes have long since replaced insect dyes and other natural dyes in all Moroccan weaving.

These days, Moroccan city carpets are moving from Turkish designs to Persian-like medallion patterns in a new bid to compete in the world market.

But the strength of the country’s weaving remains, as ever, in its Berber traditions. If the Berber weavers return to natural colors, just as village and tribal weavers are now doing in many other parts of the world, Morocco’s tribal pieces could well gain the greater notice they deserve.


Related Links

Brooke Pickering Moroccan Rugs

Nazmiyal Collection: Antique Moroccan Rugs

I Love Marrakesh: Ethno Art Gallery

Turkotek: Discussion of Moroccan Weavings

YouTube: My Favorite Rugs Come From Boujad, Morocco

Euratlas: Pictures of Morocco

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

From Table To Wall To Floor: Oriental Rugs Keep Moving Around European Homes

PRAGUE, May 16, 2008 -- Oriental carpets are the great nomads of European homes

Over the centuries, few furnishings have moved around as much as they have. Rugs have been put on tables, hung on walls, stretched over sofas, displayed on floors and, finally, tucked under the furniture.

In the process, they have helped express the social values of their owners – from medieval merchants looking for status symbols to modern families looking for creature comforts.

All that makes the history of rugs in Western homes a fascinating study.

Rug experts date the first imports of oriental carpets into Europe to around 1200 – the time of the fourth Crusade – or earlier. The knights leading the crusades were keen observers of Eastern court life and eager to acquire the trappings for themselves.

By 1300, Europe’s court painters began to show some of these acquisitions in their artworks and by 1450 the depictions are so highly detailed they can be cataloged. The carpets – then all from Anatolia with geometric motifs – appeared in many paintings with Christian religious themes and were usually placed at the feet of the Virgin Mary or on the steps of alters. One example is Alessio Baldovinetti’s Madonna and Child with Saints, circa 1454.

Giving the carpets such a place of honor in religious paintings may have been a reflection of the awe the oriental rugs inspired in the European public. And it may show how easily the Eastern textiles found a place within Europe’s own tradition of using luxurious tapestries as symbols of power and prestige.

Through the 1400s, carpets began to become sufficiently available to rich Europeans to also appear in portraits of the nobility and wealthy merchants. By 1450, paintings of festivals in cities like Venice and Florence show wealthy merchant families draping their rugs out their windows for all to see.

The public displays seem intended to emphasize the wealth of the merchant families and their growing social status as Europe moved into the Renaissance. And the rugs from distant lands seem a perfect symbol of the cosmopolitan mood that accompanied Europe’s emergence from centuries of feudalism.

By 1550, Persian carpets began to be imported into Europe along with Anatolians. The Persian designs, with their richly curvilinear designs, equally became part of portraits of the rich and powerful – only now the oriental carpets were displayed most frequently on top of tables.

At times, the tables included conference tables, as in a famous portrait of British and Spanish officials concluding a treaty in 1604 over an Anatolian. This painting is The Somerset House Conference, by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz.

Carpets continued to be draped over furniture in European houses through the 1600s and 1700s, but by 1800s they were on the move again.

During the 1800s, the accelerating industrial age made many Europeans and Americans wealthier and they began acquiring the luxury goods of the rich, including oriental carpets. The new owners experimented with putting rugs of many different sizes in many different places in their homes.

The first half of the century saw carpets move onto the walls and, in small formats, onto the floor. They were status symbols to be displayed and, when they were on the floor, other furniture was pushed back to give them pride of place. Different designs became associated with particular rooms. A lady’s boudoir would have a bright and floral Persian rug. A man’s study or smoking room would more likely have a red-and-black Turkmen.

But by the second half of the 1800s, the trend was toward big format carpets covering more and more of a room. As a result, carpets began to go under furniture. Compared to the earlier taste for putting carpets on top of tables, this was history stood on its head. Yet the practice, and the sense that a carpet – or carpeting – adds comfort to a room but need not be considered as artwork continues today.

Could carpets one day come off the floor again? If they do, there are two directions in which they might go.

One direction is suggested by Europe’s periodic taste for draping colorful carpets over sofas. The famous Austrian psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, raised his couch to iconic status partly by covering it with a beautiful nomadic Qashqai rug. He maintained that the mysterious motifs in the carpet helped his patient relax and wander back into their memories more easily.

At times, carpets even have become the upholstery of the furniture itself. Jon Thompson writes in his 1983 textbook 'Oriental Carpets' of a fad in the 1870s and 1880s for cutting up tribal carpets to use them as the covering fabric for armchairs. He credits the destructive practice with saving at least parts of some valuable rugs that might otherwise have been worn out by use on the floor. The fad inspired one German businessman, Carl Wilhelm Koch, to machine-weave furniture fabrics in Turkmen and Qashqai designs.

The other direction is for carpets to go back onto the walls, the usual place for artwork. They have often been there before. The 19th century craze for prayer rugs from across the Islamic world made many homes look like museums. And still today, a small silk rug of almost any design is more likely to be hung than walked upon.

The future is never possible to predict. But it is interesting to think that putting an oriental carpet on the floor – so automatic today– is historically a recent trend in Western interior design. And if history is a guide, it may only be a step on the way to something else.


Related Links

Oriental carpets in Italian Renaissance paintings: art objects and status symbols

Turkish Rugs In European Paintings

Kilim Sofas