PRAGUE, August 15, 2008 -- Oriental carpets have caught the eye of Western writers ever since they began trickling into Europe in the 13th century or earlier.
But how Western writers look at these exotic creations has changed dramatically over the years.
In the early days, carpets were symbols of impossible luxury and power. They helped seal alliances between the Ottoman court and European kings, and ambassadors carefully recorded their acceptance and delivery.
Just what potent symbols these objects of art could be is apparent in this brief description of the victorious Sultan Suleyman II summoning the Hungarian king John to him immediately after the battle of Mohacs in 1526:
“Along the short mile the King traversed to go to the Emperor, Turkish and various fine carpets were laid on the earth as far as the tent of the Emperor.”
The words belong to the Hungarian royal chaplain George Szerémy, who was there. The picture of Sultan Suleyman II above is from an Ottoman court miniature.
Over time, carpets as trappings of royal command found their way (in reduced versions) into more and more Western households. First nobility, then merchants and then, with the industrial age, the ever more comfortable middle class bought eastern rugs. So many, in fact, that by the mid-1800s, the way carpets were displayed in Western homes could be an issue of public debate.
Edgar Allen Poe is best remembered today as an American pioneer of the Romanticist Horror genre. But he was also a well-known literary and, sometimes, social critic who contributed an essay entitled 'The Philosophy of Furniture' to Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1840:
“Carpets are better understood of late than of ancient days, but we still very frequently err in their patterns and colours. A carpet is the soul of the apartment. From it are deduced not only the hues but the forms of all objects incumbent. A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius. Yet I have heard fellows discourse of carpets with the visage of a sheep in reverie — "d'un mouton qui rêve" — who should not and who could not be entrusted with the management of their own moustachios."
Poe goes on to accuse the main commercial carpet centers of his day of violating all public standards of good taste. "Brussels is the preterpluperfect tense of fashion" in Western rugs, he claims, and "Turkey is taste in its dying agonies" for Eastern ones.
What does Poe like? Well, colors that are not too lively. "A carpet should not be bedizzened out like a Riccaree Indian — all red chalk, yellow ochre, and cock's feathers," he says, apparently having seen something like that on someone's floor. As for patterns, only non-figurative and preferably Arabesque. "Distinct grounds and vivid circular figures, of no meaning," are his maxim.
If Poe seems surprisingly argumentative about carpets, he is only a little ahead of his time. By the end of the 1800s, passions rose still higher.
Britain's The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs offers this view of carpet collecting in a 1903 commentary:
“There are, I must suppose, but few hobbies that claim so absorbing a devotion as does the pursuit of the oriental carpet. Every hobby, no doubt demands a good deal from its victims, but the exactions of most of them are tempered with mercy: thus the collector of old furniture does not necessarily cut himself adrift from pictures, nor does the lover of old arms from bric-a-brac; but the oriental carpet is inexorable and remorseless, and the true carpet lover gives himself to carpets and to carpets only. They are his pictures, his furniture, his bric-a-brac, his all. True, the field of the oriental carpet seeker is an immensely wide one. His horizon extends from Morocco to China, and the period during which the objects of his affections have existed, and existed as they do today, dates back to the days of the Pharaohs; in the palaces of ancient Egypt they were employed as decorations and the priests at Heliopolis used them at religious ceremonies.”
Whether these notes about the ancient Egyptians are well-researched, we can't say. But just a few years later, the same magazine makes it clear that a real connoisseur should and can get to a museum or bookstore to learn more about rugs:
"Not very long ago oriental carpets were bought only as house decorations. It is not much more than a decade since our museums accorded them notice on their own account. Today, however, we have turned over a new leaf. Bode, who may in one word be called the magnet of modern art dealing, has devoted intense labour to carpets and filled with them two rooms in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum at Berlin. Since the transition of our interest in this species of art from art-craft to the actual art museums, the carpet has become a distinguished gentleman in the salons of science. I know of at least half a dozen books already written or in the press which will go into the new problem. The first of these works – a standard work in compass and contents – lies before me: F.R. Martin’s 'History of Oriental Carpets before 1800.'
The article, which appeared in 1908 translated from German, is signed Professor Josef Strzygowski. Pictured here is the Central Asian collection of the Russian pavillion at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, an event that greatly increased Western interest in the rugs of Turkestan.
Today, good taste, a collector's passion, and scholarly interest are all part of our outlook on oriental carpets. And there is still a sense of medieval awe that overwhelms anyone standing before a masterwork of the Mamluke, Ottoman, Safavid, or Mughal courts.
But contemporary writers also express something new, and that is anxiety - with a capital "A" - about something no previous generation had to think about. The anxiety is that today the chance of finding any new, as yet undiscovered, weaving cultures is nil and that, meanwhile, all the known weaving cultures are rapidly modernizing.
This gives rise to worries that come in both mild and potent varieties. The mild version is that carpet collecting has now reached a dead end and the thrill of new discoveries must give way to recycling what we have. The potent version is fear that the growing globalization of the carpet market will eventually drive many weaving cultures to extinction.
Here is the abstract of a scholarly paper presented in 1999 by anthropologist Tom O'Neill of Canada's University of Western Ontario. It describes how classical Tibetan weaving (below left) has turned into modern Tibetan-refugee weaving (below right) in Nepal:
"The popularity of the Tibeto-Nepalese carpet in the European hand-knotted carpet market created a modern industry in peri-urban Kathmandu, Nepal, that established the Tibetan refugee population there as well as a new class of Nepalese entrepreneur. This paper employs Igor Kopytoff's (1986) perspective on the social life of things and Keith Hart's (1982) definition of commoditization to argue that the short career of the Tibeto-Nepalese carpet as an export commodity has been one of increasing homogenization that has transformed the materials, weaving techniques, and meanings of the carpet.Easy access to the lucrative 'middle' markets of Europe has meant that Tibeto-Nepalese carpets are now standardized to compete with other categories of floor coverings, and that the unique hand-knotted quality desired by connoisseurs and collectors is slowly being eliminated."
The article is entitled 'The Lives of the Tibeto-Nepalese Carpet' and appears in the Journal of Material Culture, 1999.
How will writers of future eras view the art of oriental carpets? As the 21st century only just begins, it is far too early to guess. But if the past is any guide, the subject will remain as full of surprises tomorrow as it is today, or was yesterday.
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Edgar Allen Poe: The Philosophy of Furniture
The Burlington Magazine: On Carpets
The Burlington Magazine: Oriental Carpets
Tom O’Neill: The Lives of the Tibeto-Nepalese Carpet