Monday, 14 June 2010

Hungary’s Private Collectors Exhibit Their Carpets In Budapest

BUDAPEST, June 19, 2010 – Hungary’s Rug Society is hosting an extraordinary look at carpets in Hungarian private collections this summer.

The exhibition, which began on the first of June and has been extended due to popular interest to the end of August, is jointly sponsored by Budapest’s Jewish Museum, which is the venue.

The 35 carpets on display include both carpets kept in Hungary and several brought in by Hungarian rug collectors living abroad.

One of the most striking pieces is a 17-century Kula carpet (above) contributed by the family of the famous carpet collector Edmund de Unger, who fled Hungary in 1948. His son Richard flew in specially with the carpet, which is rarely seen outside the family home in London.

Another extraordinary piece is a 19th century Isfahan Paradise carpet (right) contributed by a collector of Hungarian origin living in New York. The collector has not revealed his name publicly.

The exhibit was opened by Hungary’s Culture Minister Gabor Gorgey, who himself has more than a passing interest in carpets.

Gorgey has written a well-received novel telling the tumultuous history of Hungary from 1940 to 1956 by following the fate of an Isfahan Hunting Rug belonging to a fictional Jewish family.

The novel, called “The Hunting Carpet,” tells how the carpet – like Hungary itself – changes hands from the family, to the fascists, and finally in 1956 (the year of the Hungarian Revolution) to a Soviet general. The novel has been re-printed five times since it was first published in 1988.

Still other fascinating carpets at the exhibit are several Tranyslvanian carpets (below) contributed by collector of Hungarian origin living in Transylvania, now in Romania.

Historically, much of the focus of Hungarian rug collecting has been in Transylvania, where families bequeathed rich Ottoman rugs to the area’s protestant, and sometimes Catholic, churches. Transylvania, which was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire for 150 years, became part of Romania after World War I.

The fact that the show brings together so many carpets from private collections inside and outside of Hungary is a tribute to the zeal of the Rug Society.

The group, known as “Ten” for the original number of its founders in 2007, wants to re-introduce the Hungarian public to oriental carpets after interest in them all but disappeared during the communist era.

Denes Sandor, one of the group’s founders in 2007, says the current exhibit is the largest to date and the first in the capital. For the first exhibit, in 2007, the group chose a small town, for the second, in 2008, the university city of Szeged.

Sandor would like to revive the days when Hungary was one of the most active places in the Western world for carpet enthusiasts and the home of a number of “firsts.”

Among those firsts was the formation of Budapest’s Carpet Lovers Society in 1923, which debuted with an exhibit of 149 privately held carpets. That was a decade earlier than the formation of the New York-based Hajji Babba Society in 1933.

Going back further, the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest was the first major museum ever to hold a single-theme oriental carpet exhibit – showing 352 Ottoman Turkish pieces – in 1914. That was when major carpet exhibitions were still very much a novelty and had taken place previously only in Vienna (1891), Stuttgart (1909), and New York (1910).

Here is a photo of the current exhibit at the Jewish Musuem, where oriental carpets are displayed in two of the halls and Jewish textiles in a third.

The huge historical – and growing present – interest in oriental carpets can’t help but make even Hungarian collectors sometimes wonder why rugs so fascinate their countrymen.

Sandor says most people assume it must be because the Ottoman Empire directly occupied much of the central region of Hungary for a century and-a-half. But he believes the ties to carpets go much further back than that: to the Hungarians’ own nomadic origins on the Eurasian steppes.

He argues that before the Hungarians, who were renowned horsemen, settled in Hungary some 1,000 years ago, they would likely have had the same carpet culture as other steppe peoples, including using carpets to cover the floors of yurts.

The Hungarian language today remains a Finno-Urgic tongue, so such cultural echoes might not be so distant as they seem. And, says Sandor, that would at least explain why other European nations under long Ottoman rule – such as Greece or Serbia – have never shown as much enthusiasm for carpets as has Hungary.

Here is yet another fascinating carpet on display at the current exhibition.

It is believed to have been woven in Hereke, Turkey, for Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi’s celebration of 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy in 1971.

One clue to the carpet’s identity is its unusual motif of peacocks – the symbol of the Pahlavi dynasty. Another is the border motif of lions holding a sword in the right hand – the same symbol used on the flag of Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

No discussion of carpets in Hungary would be complete without the extraordinary and tragic story of the Gold Train of 1945 – a tale which the location of the current exhibit in the Jewish Museum cannot fail to bring to mind.

During the 1930s and 40s, Hungary’s Nazi-allied government required Jews to deposit all their valuables – including their collections of carpets – in the national bank.

The majority of Jews were later sent to concentration camps but their seized property remained in the vaults until the end of the war. Then, as the Russian army approached, the fascists assembled a 40-wagon train to remove the goods to Germany.

The train was ill-fated from the start.

As it meandered through Hungary and Austria, anonymous trucks pulled up beside it to unload its gold and vanish.

Next, it was seized by Allied troops, first French then American.

Finally, most of its remaining valuables were sent to a military warehouse in Salzburg. From there, they went on to furnish U.S. officers’ homes during the occupation of Germany or were sold in U.S. military exchange stores.

The value of the paintings, jewels, porcelain, and carpets on the train – based upon the existing documentation – would be in the billions of dollars today. Yet most of them disappeared without a trace.

The events remained all but forgotten until 2005, when a U.S. court ruled that Washington should pay $ 6 million in compensation for the stolen property. Given the difficulty of knowing who exactly lost what, the payment was made to Jewish organizations rather than to surviving families.

The Gold Train and the tragic personal stories behind it amount to an inestimable loss for Hungary in every respect, including its once thriving carpet culture.

But the exhibit taking place in Budapest now is evidence that Hungarian collectors can still exhibit some astonishing pieces. And their pieces, plus those in the country’s famous museum collections, provide every reason for rug lovers to again regard Budapest as a carpet capital.




Related Links:

Exhibition in the Jewish Museum

The First Turkish Carpet Exhibition In The West, by Ferenc Batari, Hali

Friday, 4 June 2010

Two New Czech Postage Stamps Commemorate Caucasian Carpets

PRAGUE, June 5, 2010 -- It's a rare event when a European country issues a postage stamp commemorating oriental carpets.

But this year the Czech Republic has issued two.

The pair of stamps depicts 19th century Karabakhs, from the Caucasus area of the same name.

One stamp (above) shows a Chelaberd.

The Czech post office described it this way:

"Chelaberd is the best known carpet pattern woven in Karabakh. It is also known by an older designation, Eagle Kazak, which comes from interpreting its main motif – a large, medieval-looking medallion radiating beams – as a two-headed eagle. The oldest carpets of this type have an almost square format, a single dominant medallion, and an unusually expressive bright coloring. It is to this small group of carpets that the piece depicted on the stamp belongs."

The second stamp shows a Kasim Usak.

Here is the accompanying description:

"Kasim Usak carpets are considered by professionals and amateurs alike to be Karabakh carpets from the Trans-Caucasus. Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous land located in western Azerbaijan not far from the Armenian border. Individual types of Karabakh carpets are named according to their village of origin. As with other Karabakh carpets, Kasim Usaks are notable for bright coloring, typically flowered borders, and large geometric forms in the center field. The Kasim Usak shown on this stamp is from the 19th century."

The stamps, which were issued in April, are a reminder of the rich collections of Caucasian carpets held by the Czech National Gallery and the National Museum and the importance both curators and the public put upon them.

Most of the Caucasians in the collections are village and city weavings from 1850 to 1910 and they were the object of a major exhibit in Prague in 2007.

The exhibit, which also included carpets in private collections, was accompanied by a book, 'Caucasian Carpets,' describing the exhibited pieces and the history of Caucasian carpets overall.

Since then, some of the Caucasians have also been presented in other periodic exhibits of carpets from Czech museums' and castles.

What the stamps don't tell is the interesting story of how many of the Caucasians came to the museum collections.

And that, in part, is the story of how oriental carpets once played an important role in art schools in the 19th century throughout Europe, only later to be relegated to Asian Art and ethnographic museums as fashions changed.

The Chelaberd on the stamp above, for example, was purchased in Vienna as early as 1886 by the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. It -- along with fabrics and other oriental handicrafts – was part of the study collection the museum maintains for students in applied arts schools.

When the carpet was purchased, Orientalism was at its height across Europe and design students regularly and systematically explored oriental patterns for inspirations.

Just how systematically can be judged by the contents of one of the design bibles for English-speaking students at the time: Owen Jones' "The Grammar of Ornament." Published in 1856 and included some 100 full-color plates of designs ranging from Greek, to Roman, to Byzantine, to Moorish, to Egyptian, to Persian, to Indian to Chinese.

The image shown here is of one of the Persian plates.

Students in other parts of Europe had access to similar archives of material carefully collected by their art school faculties.

National Gallery curator Zdenka Klimtova writes in 'Caucasian Rugs,' her book which accompanied the 2007 exhibit, that Prague's Museum of Decorative Arts purchased the Chelaberd for 55 guilders from Vienna art dealer Theodor Graf.

The school's purchases of rugs were carefully logged and represented considerable investments then just as they would today.

Among the most visible results of the passion for Orientalism in Prague are two major neo-Moorish buildings in the heart of the city. Both are synagogues built in the early 1900s.

One is the Jubilee Synagogue, built in 1906 and named in honor of the 50th anniversary celebration, or the silver jubilee, of the reign of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria. At the time, the Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The interior of the Jubilee Synagogue is a whimsical blend of Moorish elements with intricately painted Art Nouveau details. Many Art Nouveau elements here and elsewhere were derived from oriental patterns, which were a major design inspiration for the art movement.

The honored status of oriental rugs in the teaching collections of European applied arts schools began to decline once the lush styles and fashions of the 19th century gave way to the spare modernism of the 20th.

By the 1950s, most lay forgotten in school basements and had been long removed from the schools' curricula.

Some of the pieces in Prague's Museum of Decorative Arts – including the Chelaberd – were transferred to the National Gallery in the 1960s. There they took on a new status as examples of Asian art distinct from European fashions -- much as European homes in general separated with their oriental rugs after their peak popularity during the Victorian era.

Still, the story of Prague's Caucasian carpets does not end there.

The collection at the National Gallery continued to grow throughout the past decades thanks to a succession of curators interested in expanding it by acquiring some of the good privately owned pieces in the country.

Curators say that Prague has a special relationship with Caucasian carpets because historically they were not only popular in the Czech market but readily accessible.

As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prague had a direct link through Vienna to the rug markets of Istanbul.

Then, after the first World War, many White Russians brought a wave of Caucasian rugs and other valuable belongings to newly independent Czechoslovakia as they fled west.

And finally, even during Czechoslovakia's long period as a Soviet satellite, it was still possible for ardent collectors to visit two rug-producing areas -- the Caucasus and Central Asia – although the Soviet bloc was cut off from the rest of the global collectors' market.

The newly issued Czech postage stamps are a reminder of all these reasons Caucasian carpets hold a special place in the country's life.

One can only wish other national post offices and museums would team up to tell their carpet stories as eloquently.

(For more on rugs in the Czech Republic, see: A Rare Oushak Carpet In A Czech Castle Catches The Rug World’s Eye.)

(For more on orientalism, see: Orientalism and Oriental Carpets.)

(For more on Owen Jones, see: Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament.)