The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion
group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental
rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please
include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.
Daghestan's Kaitag Embroideries - and Henri Matisse? by
Kaitag is a small district in Daghestan's mountains. It consists
essentially of two villages, and probably never had a total population
much over 7,000 people. Spectacular silk embroideries were produced
there from at least the 17th century to the early 20th century.
embroideries are done on a cotton ground, usually around
2' x 4', made of several pieces joined together before being
embroidered with silk floss. The embroidery technique is relatively
unusual, the floss being laid onto the surface of the ground
cloth in parallel lines and then tacked down (couched). This
results in nearly all the silk being on the same side of the
textile, with very little of it visible on the back side. The
style of drawing is also quite characteristic, tending to be
highly irregular and fluid, rather than angular. The embroideries
were apparently made for three broad classes of use, and reasonable
guesses of which use a particular one had may be made from the
designs on it.
One group was used to wrap a bride's dowry. These often have
designs that are clearly derived from Ottoman textiles, with
roundels, lattices and floral devices in fairly regular arrays.
A second group was used in funeral rites, either as cushion
covers for guests or to cover the face of the deceased. Covering
the face of the dead is apparently an important custom in the
local culture, and one folk song includes the lament, "Who
will cover my face when I am dead?" Embroideries assigned
to this group often include images of horses, presumably a mode
to transport the soul to the afterworld, and layouts that are
interpreted as cosmic maps.
third group, to which I believe the one illustrated here
belongs, were draped over the head of a baby's cradle to distract
the malevolent evil eye and direct it away from the baby. The
imagery in this group includes sun signs, fantastic animals,
and stylized eyes, and uses large numbers of bright colors.
It is not difficult to see what appear to be two large red dragons
and two golden yellow birds among the many zoomorphic forms in
the piece shown here. The concentric ovals that form the central
element may be a sun sign, and the numerous white dots are reminiscent
of stars in a night sky.
It is interesting to compare this embroidery to some of Henri
Matisse's prints (one is illustrated). The similarities
in drawing style is obvious, although I know of no reason to
believe that Matisse ever saw a Kaitag embroidery (they were
virtually unknown until fairly recently) so it is unlikely that
he was influenced by them. The embroidery shown here is estimated
to be an 18th century product by those who claim to be able to
estimate the ages of these things, so the person who made it
could not have been influenced by Matisse.
This raises an interesting consideration. It is common practice
to hypothesize interaction between textile producing groups when
clear similarities can be seen in their products. Most of us
ignore similarities that could easily be explained as coincidence;
for instance, crossed lines and simple geometric forms. But
similarities in form and style as striking and unusual as those
seen in this Kaitag embroidery and Matisse print would almost
surely provide the basis for a proposal that they are related
if they were found on weavings from two different groups. This
ought to give us some pause when considering such proposals.
Finally, this piece clearly shows the creative drawing that
an embroiderer can use by virtue of not being nearly as limited
as a weaver by technical factors. She can use floss far too
fine to have the structural strength needed in a weaving, and
has nearly as much flexibility in layout and morphology of motifs
as a painter does.
There are currently good collections of Kaitag
embroideries and Matisse
prints on the internet. I recommend that interested readers
visit these sites.
Robert Chenciner's Kaitag, Textile Art from Daghestan (Textile
& Art Publications, 1993) is the most extensive published
source of information on the Kaitag district, it's culture and