Wendel Swan: Rugs 101: the Lecture
Dear folks –
On May 30, 2009, Wendel Swan
gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program at The Textile Museum here in Washington, D.C. on the topic of “Rugs and Textiles 101.”
The TM Bulletin in which these sessions are announced says that Wendel’s topic was to be “Rug and Textiles 102.” That may be a misprint, but it is perhaps a fortunate one since Wendel did not do the sort of thing that is often done on the “101” rubric. He’ll tell you about that shortly.
This program was divided, as RTAM’s often are, into a beginning lecture and a following related show and tell, the latter based on pieces that have been brought in. What follows immediately below is a virtual version of Wendel’s lecture.
I am speaking today on the topic of “Rugs and Textiles 101, because Aija Blitte
suggested that I do so.
She’s out of town and can’t appreciate that the task
the task became more difficult than I imagined.
I can’t give a condensed version of a book.
But most books don’t tell you how to begin at 101.
To paraphrase George Constanza
This lecture is not about the rugs.
It’s about how to learn and how to think about rugs and textiles.
What you want to learn about depends on your interests.
For some rugs and textiles are art.
For others it’s a matter of ethnography.
Some find them exotic and alluring.
For others, it may be a collecting compulsion — if your going to collect something, why not rugs? And why not lots and lots of them?
For others it’s simply a matter of decoration.
I doubt that is the reason for any of you being here today.
For a surprising number who attend programs here at the TM, or at rug societies everywhere, who do not actually own any rugs, it’s an intellectual challenge. Something like a puzzle where the path to understanding where, when and by whom any given rug was made is not clear at the outset.
I think we all pretty well know what an “oriental rug” is and where they come from, although this is not just about “rugs and carpets” but about the entire weaving tradition of which rugs and carpets, as we know them in the west, are only a part.
The Middle East was the home of many of the earliest civilizations. Expansion and war and commerce spread textiles, that were probably first developed in the western parts, through out these lands.
From the earliest times textiles traveled across the silk route.
Wool rugs are known in various parts of Central Asia, but much of the Far East is not home to sheep and therefore not to rugs. Han China did not produce rugs, although they were woven beyond the Great Wall to the north and west by the so-called “barbarians.” Japan has virtually no tradition of weaving woolen rugs. Because of occupation by the Turks or their connections with them, some rugs were woven in such unlikely areas as Spain and Sweden.
Because of the dry climate, some remarkably well-preserved textiles have been found around the Taklimaken Basin,
including the elk or deer in the image below,
that bears some resemblance to the designs found on the Pazyryk textiles.
If this is Rugs 101, the title implies a beginning. Whenever I want to learn something about rugs, this is where I begin –
by scouring my books. About half of my rug books are shown here, but you can begin in The Textile Museum’s shop, where many important books are available or can be ordered.
If I had to recommend one general reference book, it would probably be the Eilands’ Oriental Carpets: A Comprehensive Guide.
It has an excellent balance of description, history and technical analysis.
And the images have improved considerably from the first edition.
Jon Thompson’s catalog, From Tibet to Timbuktu is another good general survey,
placing familiar weavings in their cultural contexts,
but it lacks structural analysis.
If I were allowed only one rug book in my prison cell, it would be Joseph V. McMullan’s Islamic Carpets,
a recordation of one of the greatest carpet collections in America. Published in 1965, the plates are are of remarkable quality. The only problem is that it is very hard to find and very expensive when found.
Perhaps the best catalog of the best rug exhibition I have ever seen is the modestly-priced Flowers Underfoot, Indian Carpets of the Mughal Era,
which was at the Metropolitan Museum in New York about 11 years ago.
It may be impractical in that we are unlikely to see any Mughal carpets in the wild, let alone be able to buy one. But the exquisite carpets in this volume are exactly what you need to review over and over to train your eyes.
The rug below is one I will use to illustrate the nearly perfect use of color in a program I will give here in the fall on color theory.
Everyone should have at least one decent book on early Turkish rugs such as this one
on the rugs at the Vakiflar in Istanbul.
Turkey has the longest continuous documented history of all the rug weaving regions. I believe that to really understand the rugs that most of us collect from the last 125 years, we must know something about the Anatolian rugs of 300, 500 or 700 years ago.
You’ll find rugs like this eight-lobed medallion carpet from an Oushak village,
which evolved into the less sophisticated village rug on the left below, and that design, I submit, is the source of the powerfully attractive sumak bag face, on the right below,
that was on the cover of From the Bosphorous to Samarkand, the seminal exhibition here at The Textile Museum that sent scores of collectors in search of flatweaves.
The khorjin face above has long been called a “beetle bag,” because of its supposed resemblance to a beetle or to some other bug, no matter how silly that concept may be.
Another inexpensive book to which I frequently refer is Charles Grant Ellis’ Oriental Carpets in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
A few of his attributions remain controversial, but Charlie did a superb job of historical and technical analysis, and the carpets themselves are wonderful.
Many are on permanent display like this green-ground Holbein rug from the 17th century.
Philadelphia is only a little more than two hours away (from Washington, D.C.) and the PMA’s rugs must absolutely be seen. While seeing images in a book is great, examining the rugs close-up is even more valuable. The more you see and handle, the more you learn.
You can buy a decent small rug for what a copy of Christopher Alexander’s A Forshadowing of 21st Century Art
will cost you, but the Turkish rugs in it are spectacular.
I cannot recommend the text. Just look at the pretty pictures such as that of the small rug above.
A. Cecil Edwards was a producer of rugs in Iran during the second quarter of the 20th century, and his The Persian Carpet
describes not only the rugs but the industry itself. You may not be interested in Persian rugs but his insight is invaluable. He devotes a disproportionately large space to the rugs of Kerman, but this is a terrific book. He is not just hawking his wares.
Speaking of hawking, when I first became interested in oriental rugs in the 60s, Charles Jacobsen’s book
was one of the very few on the shelves of the Denver library. I didn’t know of the McMullan book at the time.
Jacobsen was a dealer in Syracuse, N.Y., who advertised heavily and sent rugs all over the country on approval. Some made their way into the Fisher collection which is now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Jacobsen’s plates are of mediocre quality, there is no structural analysis, but Jacobsen is perpetually joyous about his offerings.
For awhile a snickered at the thought of this book, but when I revisited it a few years ago, I recognized real insight in parts of it. It’s worth owning because its pretty cheap.
Looking at image after image in the book pretty quickly enables you to make the comparison between rugs that is part of connoisseurship.
You know that the rug the one below isn’t very good,
and that this next one below is pretty good.
You can also tell that the one below is great.
And then you begin to ponder how much similarity there is between the rug on the left below, from Northwest Persia or the Caucasus, and the yellow-ground rug, from Konya, on the right.
And then when you are in the Haghia Sofia in Istanbul and look up at the mosaic ceiling.
you see kinship with them both.
I firmly believe that our understanding and appreciation of rugs will be enhanced if we view them in the broader context of what we call “Islamic Art.”
Several books like this are available and they are very inexpensive.
The catalog below
from an exhibition at the National Galley a few years ago, is also useful in seeing that Islamic patternmaking and designs (of which the rugs and textiles are merely a part) are influenced by and constructed with Islamic religious tenets , BUT Islamic art
is not specifically religious, not even in the decoration of pages of the Koran and
most commonly does not represent living creatures.
Consequently, most Islamic art, including rugs, is either geometric
and associated with a belief in order, or floral,
or epigraphic (based upon calligraphy);
here we see at least four styles of calligraphy in this Safavid dome in Isfahan…incidentally, calligraphy has historically considered the highest form of art in Islam.
Most predominantly, however, we see a combination of these three styles: geometric, floral and epigraphic.
In the image below we see
the tiles are arranged in the very common, so-called “stars and bars” pattern. The eight-pointed stars and crosses are geometric, the internal decoration is floral and the edges are all done in calligraphy. A wall can be fully tiled using only two molds although each tile may be decorated differently.
However, Islamic designs are seldom exclusive to any one medium. In the images below we see
one version of the “stars and bars” format, in tile, on the left, and a Chodor pile engsi to the right, using another version of that format.
There is no structural reason for using the “stars and bars” pattern in a pile carpet, so we can only conclude that the engsi pattern was copied from the tilework.
A further example is the comparison of the sarcopholous in the upper of the two bands below,
with the border of a Kerman “tree-of-life” rug in the lower band.
The reciprocal border of the famous Chelsea carpet below,
is, substantially, identical to the decoration on the Iznik bowl below.
We can, also, see the clear relationship between the partial medallion of the Oushak, below
and the Iznik lid below.
And the Iznk tiles, on the left below, in the Rustem Pasha mosque in Istanbul,
were undoubtedly the inspiration for the class of rugs (on the right, above) called Oushak “bird” rugs. The birds exist only in someone’s fanciful imagination.
Islam did not create a new art form or style, but perpetuated and adapted the art of indigenous cultures some truly ancient.
Immediately below, is a Gordian or Anatolian wooden box from about 800 BC,
and below is another engsi with the same design in its borders.
The manner of the 16th century Koran cover below
is quite similar to the antique Serapie below
and to its new counterpart that follows here.
The prayer rug format is derived from niches or mirhabs in the mosques or other architectural elements.
Islamic art, including rugs and textiles, is traditional because the cultures repeat and copy designs and patterns. This is not to deny the skills of the weaver, but, fundamentally, and for a variety of reasons, it is the culture, not the weaver, who produces the rugs and textiles.
Because of this, I very much dislike using the word “unique.”
Almost everything is copied from something else or inspires copies.
To illustrate this, I’ll ask you how many of you have ever seen or heard of the silk Kashan depicting the dynamic duo of Maggie and Jiggs?
If you think this might be unique, you should know that at least seven versions of this design have passed through the auction houses over the years.
There is widespread sharing or copying of designs among textiles. Here, below, is an 11th century Coptic curtain in the David Collection in Copenhagen that was on view at Boston University a couple of years ago.
Note the medallions.
Here, below, are five Turkmen medallions that are at least similar.
It is impossible to say which came first, but the further back we look, the more familiar faces we see.
The Sasian textile below
has eight-lobed medallions that appear in various forms
in nearly every culture in the Near East.
To conclude, if you’re interested in rugs study other Islamic art. If you are interested in any one type of rug or textile, study others. As with languages, the more of them you know, the better is your mastery of your native tongue.
Now let’s return to the books. I will admit that the first thing I think about when I am considering acquiring anything is “How will it look on the wall?”
But very soon I want not just to look AT it, but INTO it.
That’s why every collector need at least one good book on structure. Easy to find, inexpensive and chock full of structural details is Marla Mallett’s Woven Structures.
If you want to know what you have, understand how it has been built, I believe this book is a must to have.
Besides attribution, there can be times when looking into a rug has its advantages. A couple of years ago a dealer sent me images of this small gabbeh.
I hadn’t seen anything quite like it. It was worn but had great colors and a minimalism that often appeals to me. When it arrived and I opened the box, I immediately knew that it was a fake, based on the unusual wear and the fact that it was brand-new clean right down to the foundation.
I sent it back and several months later saw this rug advertised on the internet,
all in full pile and new. Obviously, it was made by the same weavers, but it was because I am used to looking into rugs, not just at them, that I avoided an expensive mistake.
About two months ago I saw this fragment advertised on the internet.
I like the details.
It was very much like a fragment that a friend of mine owns. Actually, quite similar, although there is more left of the one advertised (here on the left below).
When I received a picture of the back
I had some doubts. This group should not have dark red wefts as this one had. The seller then withdrew it from sale, saying that he had just learned that it might be a fake.
Eventually, the seller provided me with the rare opportunity to see a fake before and after the distressing had taken place.
I never got to see it in the wool, but once again I am sure that looking into the rug, rather than just at it, would have revealed its secrets.
The rug below
was in an exhibition at ACOR in Indianapolis a few years ago, when some rug restorers took a close look that determined that it was a fake, made with old wool on an old foundation. There were various clues, but not one of them could be found in any of the literature. Making that determination required hands-on experience.
Yes, you need to read books and imprint your brain with as many images as you can. But you still have to handle, touch and feel rugs and textiles to learn about them.
There is, of course, a chance to do that here
on many Saturday mornings, but you should also visit dealers and attend conferences whenever possible.
The ACOR scheduled for St. Louis had to be canceled and there will eventually be another one although no time or place has yet been determined. However, ICOC is planning its next full conference in Stockholm in June, 2011,
with a post-conference trip to St. Peterburg.
I know that you will be impressed with the textiles in Stockholm and, certainly in St. Petersburg which has some of the greatest, including the Pazaryk carpet.
Read your books and you’ll be ready to jump in.
Wendel answered questions, then moved to the material that he and some participants had brought in.
To see a virtual version of this second part of this Rugs 101 RTAM, you need to go to this link:
or return to the entrance page and press the second item in the right hand listing.
I want to thank Wendel for both permitting and working actively with me to produce this virtual version of his interesting “cut” into “Rugs and Textiles 101.”
R. John Howe