Published: November 19, 2002
WASHINGTON, D.C. – For centuries Oriental carpets have represented an expression of refined taste and aesthetic sensitivity in many cultures. They have been an integral part of religion and secular life, reflecting social status, commercial connections, wealth and power. Whether used in mosques, in nomadic tents or in urban homes for prayer or daily living, Oriental carpets have served as both essential home furnishings and rdf_Descriptions of luxury. “The Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets,” an exhibition that explores the rich and complex history of Turkish carpets, is on view at The Textile Museum through February 16.
The exhibition includes more than 50 carpets dating from the Fifteenth through the Nineteenth Centuries, drawing heavily on the museum’s core collection of masterpieces of Anatolian carpet weaving amassed by the museum’s founder, George Hewitt Myers. The exhibition also includes loans from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Jewish Museum in New York and from a number of leading private collectors.
For more than 700 years, Oriental carpets were imported from the lands east of the Mediterranean Sea, and became a part of European and North American material culture and art. Europeans and Americans imported the idea, associated values and symbolic uses of carpets as well as the carpets themselves. It was not until the late Nineteenth Century that collecting carpets, which exemplified the classical era of carpet manufacturing, became of interest.
By the 1900s, Oriental carpets, especially “classical” carpets, were deemed worthy of collecting by art enthusiasts such as James Ballard, Joseph V. McMullan, Robert Wood Bliss and George Hewitt Myers. Scholars, Wilhelm von Bode and Ernst Kuhnel among them, and the public started appreciating Oriental carpets as objects to study and as works of art. Oriental carpets were seen as products of creativity and artistic accomplishment that were influenced by cultures in which their makers lived.
Many of the carpets collected during this period enrich museum holdings today, thanks in part to a group of collectors that were very conscious of the significance of their collections and worked to place them in museums where they could reach a wide audience. George Hewitt Myers, founder of The Textile Museum, was such a collector. Myers started actively collecting Oriental carpets in 1909. His passion for carpets and other types of textiles, and his interest in educating others to appreciate this art form, led him to establish The Textile Museum as a public museum in 1925. Carpets from the Myers’ collection form the core of the presentation in this exhibit and related catalog.
Myers considered weaving to be one of the most fundamental forms of human expression. The beauty and variety of textile designs had a directness of appeal for him that other, what he termed “more self-conscious forms of art,” did not possess. Myers wanted his collection to be available for study by scholars for the education of the public and the enjoyment of everyone interested in Oriental carpets.
What preceded a piece and helped make it what it was? This was the question that motivated and guided Myers to start collecting and drove him as he continued collecting throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century. For Myers, textiles from non-European cultures experienced a coherent development; one that was recorded in their designs, colors and structure.
By the time of his death at the age of 82 in 1957, Myers’ collection had expanded to include nearly 500 rugs and more than 3,500 of other types of textiles. Of these 500 rugs, 104 were Anatolian carpets. Since Myers’ death, The Textile Museum has continued to strengthen the collections.
In part due to collecting practices and the material available to the Western collectors at the time, Myers’ interest was focused on early Anatolian carpets (today known as the Asiatic portion of the Republic of Turkey). He rarely acquired any village pile or flat-woven rugs from Anatolia. The Textile Museum started turning its attention to these other weavings of Anatolia after the early 1960s. With the help of major donations in the 1970s and 1980s, the museum broadened its holdings better to represent the full spectrum of Anatolian weaving.
Tradition Versus Innovation
The pile carpets of Anatolia make up perhaps the oldest and richest carpet-weaving tradition that survives in a significant number of examples today. These examples form a highly diverse body of art, almost seven centuries old and immensely varied in technique, design, symbolism and function.
The exhibition looks at the ways in which artistic traditions in Anatolia develop from roots in a “classical” period of carpet design, whose masterpieces have exerted a compelling influence on many generations of Anatolian weavers. In exploring the classical examples of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, produced at and around the Ottoman Court, through the village weaving traditions of later times, the overriding theme that emerges is the creative tension that exists between tradition and innovation. Organized in duos, trios and quartets of carpets sharing the same designs, the exhibition emphasizes the twin themes of continuity and change, clearly illustrating how carpet designs have been adapted and have evolved over time.
What Makes an Anatolian Carpet?
“The Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets” poses questions and probes many aspects of the origins and evolution of Anatolian carpet designs. These questions include: What were the major design sources that inspired the Anatolian carpet weavers? How can we recognize these sources in later Anatolian carpet-weaving traditions? And what was the impact of the techniques used in weaving on the designs produced?
In examining design sources for Turkish carpets, the exhibition investigates the influence of Anatolia’s neighbors (Syria and Egypt to the south, and Iran to the east), and looks at the artistic environments in which carpets were produced. In the late Sixteenth Century, the nakkash-hane, literally “place of design,” that was attached to and directly subsidized by the Ottoman royal court in Istanbul, had a professional staff of salaried artists to execute royal artistic commissions in a variety of media. This court style exerted a great influence on the development of the classical style of Anatolian carpet weaving.
“The Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets” also looks at the transfer and evolution of designs and motifs that were used. The exhibition puts forth evidence that weavers looked to architectural forms and tiles, as well as to other kinds of textiles for inspiration. Historically, Anatolian weaving demonstrates an interplay and transfer of designs between woven luxury textiles patterned with elaborate curvilinear designs (often silk) and pile carpets (almost always woven of wool).
Another question posed by the history of Anatolian carpet weaving and examined in this exhibition is the effect that pile carpet weaving techniques have had on design over the centuries. For example, one of carpet-weaving’s most interesting challenges — the vertical-horizontal knot ratio — affects the weavers’ ability to create complex curvilinear designs and is the primary factor that influences the artistic forms expressed in carpet motifs. The exhibition shows that while technique can sometimes limit the execution of designs, it can also enhance them.
As a case study to illustrate the endurance of specific designs and their transcription from one type of textile to another, from one culture to another, and from one generation to another, the exhibition explores the origins of the coupled-column Anatolian prayer rugs. Woven in many different parts of Anatolia in a continuing tradition for many centuries, coupled-column prayer rugs are among the most distinctive and interesting Anatolian carpet designs.
Anatolian Carpets Depicted in Western Art
Pile carpets were one of the luxurious objects used for everyday life in the cultures where they were woven, but they also transformed the lives of Europeans in many ways for centuries. For Europeans, Oriental carpets were products from the mysterious and “exotic” East that were affordable only to the very wealthy. In tracing the history of pile carpets as an integral part of Western material culture, the primary source of Western knowledge on their arrival in Europe comes from paintings. Most Oriental carpets pictured in European paintings dating from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries were contemporary with those paintings. Included in the exhibition are a number of these so-called “painter” carpets — known for the sake of convenience by the names of European painters who preserved images of their designs and colors.
The earliest recognizable group of carpets depicted in Italian paintings is the small-pattern Holbein carpets. The exhibition includes several of the finest examples of this style of carpet, named after the Sixteenth Century painter Hans Holbein the Younger. Lotto carpets are another group represented in the exhibition. While this type of carpet is named for the painter Lorenzo Lotto, the earliest representation of this carpet design is seen in a Sebastiano del Piombo painting from 1516, “Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, His Secretary, and Two Geographers.” It now hangs in the Italian galleries of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In addition to Holbein and Lotto, Giovanni Bellini, Carolo Crivelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Hans Menling are among the European painters who inadvertently lent their names to early Anatolian rugs.
Catalog and Support
The exhibition is curated by Walter B. Denny, professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and consulting curator at Smith College Museum of Art. Coordinating curator is Sumru Belger Krody, associate curator, Eastern Hemisphere Collection, The Textile Museum. “The Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets” is accompanied by a full-color catalog with an introduction by Sumru Belger Krody, associate curator, Eastern Hemisphere Collections, The Textile Museum, and an essay by exhibition curator Walter B. Denny. The catalog is available for $25 from the museum shop website, www.textilemuseumshop.org.
Several special events will be taking place at The Textile Museum including three Rug and Textile Appreciation Mornings on November 30, December 14 and December 21. These are informal lectures where audience members are invited to bring related (well vacuumed) carpets in for review. The subjects are, “The Art and Meaning of the Anatolian Kilim” by Peter Davis (November 30), “Noteworthy Flatweaves from the Anatolian Plateau” by Saul Baradofsky (December 14), and “Antique Anatolia: Sixteenth to the late Nineteenth Century Turkish Rugs” by Harold Keshishian (December 21).
A formal slide lecture by Rosmaond Mack will be presented December 8, at 2 pm, entitled “Classic Carpets in Italian Renaissance Paintings: Art Objects and Status Symbols.” A $10 fee will be charged for nonmembers and advance registration is required for the lecture.
The Textile Museum is an international center for the exhibition, study, collection and preservation of the textile arts. The museum explores the role that textiles play in the daily and ceremonial life of individuals the world over. With a collection of more than 17,000 textiles and carpets, and an unparalleled library, The Textile Museum is truly a unique and valuable resource.
The museum is at 2320 S Street, NW. Museum hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday, 1 pm to 5 pm. For further information, 202-667-0441, www.textilemuseum.org.
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