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Posted by Sophia Gates on December 31, 1998 at 16:18:59:

In Reply to: TRANSFORMATION OF FLORAL MOTIFS INTO ANIMAL ONE posted by Daniel Deschuyteneer on December 30, 1998 at 17:03:46:

This is an interesting concept which has also arisen in the context of "Eagle Group" carpets as well as Chelabird (or "Eagle") Kazaks. I have some ideas to offer, as well as some thoughts on related ideas which overlap a bit with the last two Salons, the "Oops Thesis" and Jim Allen's theories on Turkomen iconography. I am concerned as well with the relationship between "realistic" and "abstract" forms, because an understanding of this relationship is in a sense fundamental to the topics presented in all three of these Salons.

First, I feel that the assertion that the animal forms actually evolved from the floral or tree palmettes, is a difficult one at best to substantiate. (I've always wondered just exactly how tribal weavers would have gotten ahold of a city carpet in order to be inspired by [and "misunderstand"] it in the first place!) Even if this occurred, I am more comfortable with the idea of a cyclical transfer of design, from country to village to town and back again. For example, let's agree that the Chelabird medallion took as its original inspiration a blossom in a Persian workshop model, as argued by Barry O'Connell in a previous discussion on RugNotes. The blossom travels to the village and/or tribal looms of the Caucasus, where over time it undergoes its transformation into the stunning and vigorous and arguably zoomorphic form we are familiar with from 19th century rugs. Now, in the late 20th century, the medallion perhaps finds itself the subject of workshop copyists all the way from Turkey to China. So in this model, the interaction of city refinement and carefully naturalistic design with the vitality and possibly animistic abstraction of village and tribe creates a whole new symbol, which in turn becomes part of the universal "language" of Oriental rug weavers everywhere. However, it is a symbol which possibly embodies not only a unique new visual idea but which may imply the energy of parallel but disparate mythologies or intentions. The city designer's elegant motif, a small part of an elaborate naturalistic concept, has been exploded into enormous size and infused by the village/tribal weavers' sense of pulsating growth, endowed with animalistic vigor.

The "Zoroastrian flaming palmette" symbol presented in these (Kurdish) carpets is probably very ancient. It appears of course in the Torah as a symbol of YWH ("burning bush") and I believe has a corollary in the Buddhist flaming lotus. The lotus itself is an ancient Egyptian symbol; with its flame-shaped petals, it's probably no accident that the blossom/tree, as a symbol of the Unknowable, the divine, finds itself on fire from North Africa to China. (Isn't there a fragment in the Orient Stars collection with a flame design? - it appears to be Anatolian.) After thousands of years, it's difficult to say whether the symbol migrated from one source or whether it appears spontaneously - an archetype - in the symbol-language of people throughout the Asian world.

Both concepts could be supported, but let's assume for the sake of argument that the symbol arose perhaps in Egypt or the Near East, appearing on visual art of all types, perhaps even in carpets! - and was copied with varying degrees of accuracy by first one artist and then another until "everybody" was doing it! Variations can be accounted for in several ways. First, copying is hard. Even if somebody, a weaver perhaps, wanted to copy what she regarded as an "ideal" model of this design, mistakes happen. Try it sometime! Make a full-scale copy (colored drawing) of something "simple" like a Jaf Kurd bagface, using no projection devices and no tracing, please - just your eye - and you'll see what I mean. Thus, the "Oops Thesis": a design doesn't come out "right" simply because the weaver couldn't reproduce it exactly, and the error itself is transferred to her sisters and her daughters. This is easy to understand particularly in case of a tribal weaver who may catch only a glimpse of an admired carpet in the bazaar, and who tries to copy it from memory.

Secondly, weavers do not always WANT to make an exact copy. I've had experience with this, having designed some carpets for a large hotel chain. The most careful scale cartoons, colored and meticulously detailed by me, (without a computer, oi vai) were in certain aspects cheerfully ignored by the weavers in Hong Kong. So, variations on the theme can occur because even workshop weavers have their own ideas on the matter. However, common as these two scenarios undoubtedly are, I don't think they account for the evolution of the "flaming palmette" into a type of "animal tree". Here, I think that what possibly occurred is the intersection of two mythologies, having in common one element of a complex symbol: the tree itself.

It's probably no accident that Marvin thinks this "palmette" could possibly be a tree, variations of which appear on all types of carpets and which in mythological terms is also very ancient. People working with a symbol will interpret it according to many various factors, including the fact that, in addition to "borrowing" from other art, they also observe nature. Thus in some interpretations, the "flaming" aspect may be emphasized while in others, the "tree" aspect will be emphasized. Artists use what they see and incorporate ideas from natural forms with which they are familiar. If you now factor in the fact that various weaving groups (or individual weavers within a weaving group) will be of different ethnic origin, with different religious/mythological heritages, you can see how the symbol might evolve into a different form. In other words, the design aspects of a symbol might translate across cultures, but the mythology behind it probably would not. A symbol woven by a Zoroastrian would have a different emphasis than one woven by an animist - even though both were nominally Islamic; the old ways might still be remembered and translated into the rug. The Zoroastrian weaver would emphasis the flaming palmette aspect of the design while the animist weaver would emphasize the tree aspect - finally even incorporating her two pet ducks into the symbol - and we have an animal tree.

Jim Allen says the animal-tree weaver may have been Turkoman, even though we have attributed her carpet to the Kurds. It is quite possible that the women we call "Kurdish", for example, are actually not all Kurdish. Recent DNA studies have revealed an interesting fact: whereas the men of a family or tribe may remain in the same general area for 1,000 years, say, in that 1,000 years the DNA of its women may be found on the opposite side of the continent. In other words, "people" do not migrate; women do. Through various mechanisms such as marriage, perhaps even slavery and warfare, the daughters of a tribe may find themselves scattered to the winds, and their mythological and artistic heritage with them. It's not hard to see how a woman of Turkoman descent could have wound up working in a Kurdish group and weaving an animal-tree.

Finally (hallelujah), we come to my point about symbols and abstract design vs. naturalistic drawing. Several of you, going back to Daniel's comments in Jim Allen's Salon, have commented that, since these weavers obviously could make naturalistic drawings when they wanted to, what we are seeing as meaningful symbols are either 1.) Not there 2.) Meaningless squiggles 3.) degeneration of naturalistic designs. Well, I think these are all thoughtful questions and there is no doubt that Jim's (and my, I guess!) assertions are in the theoretical stage at this point. However, what I have to say is this: abstract/symbolic art and naturalistic art are two different things with completely different intentions and meanings. The fact that a person can draw "realistically" does not preclude him/her from ALSO working with abstract forms or even choosing the abstract form over the naturalistic. (We see this all the time in "modern" art; in carpet art, look at Southern Persian tribal rugs, in which relatively naturalistic chickens cavort side by side with "stick figure" creatures and "animal head" medallions.) This is because the symbol, precisely BECAUSE of its ambiguity, is often more capable of carrying the true meaning of an idea, including double or multiple meanings, than the "realistic" drawing. For example, if you wanted to make a portrait of a specific racehorse, maybe Secretariat, you would pose the horse or since he's dead, use photographs and carefully delineate what is specific about him. You would note of course that he has four legs, (natch), a chestnut coat, certain white markings, a very muscular body, etc. etc. If you are a good painter, you will make a picture recognizably Secretariat. However, what if you wanted to paint the IDEA of racehorse. Perhaps you would take your sumi brush and sketch a blur of delicate legs, a white-rimmed eye, a bloody nostril, the tulip shaped ear flattened backwards, a flare of mane and tail flying in the wind. Your picture might be almost completely abstract but would nevertheless convey the essence of this animal, horse. It would be a symbol. Add a couple of feathers and it becomes eagle-horse; add a flower petal and it's horse-eagle-flower, etc. Flaming palmettes and animal-trees are definitely in this category: complex, ambiguous, abstract symbols created to convey complex abstract ideas. And like certain Turkoman figures, such as Yomud "eagles" or "trees", they can be read many ways - eagle-iris-butterfly, feather-arrow-tree. No "realistic" drawing could convey the scope and mystery packed into these outwardly simple forms.

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