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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

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.

From RagsTo Riches, by Sam Gorden

The title is usurped from a paperback by Horatio Alger, a prolific author of "Penny Dreadfuls" at the turn of the century. All his literary efforts projected the same theme. They showed how a young man from humble circumstances, through honesty, courage, perseverance and industry, achieved financial success and happiness (in that order).

Fragments of classical carpets became popular at the beginning of this century with a group of collectors who could not compete with the Rothschilds, Fricks, et al. for complete specimens. A fairly recent development in the field of my great obsession has been a renaissance of this interest which might well be named "The Lure Of The Fragment". At this point, it should be remembered that the style in collecting was set originally by academicians like Von Bode, Sarre, Trenkwald, etc., the first modern promoters of the Oriental carpet. Their chief concern was the art historical importance of these textiles. Under these circumstances, it made very little difference whether a rug was complete or a fragment. If one examines "Islamic Carpets" by Joseph V. McMullen, their pervasive influence on early 20th century collectors may be readily observed. Today, more and more of these dilapidated remnants are being featured in exhibitions and the literature. This is partly the result of strenuous promotion by those who have a large stock of such items, cheaply acquired.

A case in point is "Connoisseur's Choice - THE VAKIFLAR DOMES AND SQUINCHES CARPET", presented by John Eskanazi (HALI #32). This tattered remnant must have been a splendid creation, but has little aesthetic merit now. Another is plate 2 of the catalogue "Antike Anatolishe Teppiche 1" (1983) by the Society for Textile Art Research Vienna, a highly truncated and abused medallion Ushak. If it was of great historical importance and extremely rare it might warrant exhibition, but neither of these circumstances exist. Again, in "Antike Orient. Teppiche II", plate 37, we see the pitiful remains of a once-splendid 19th C. Turkish rug. Plate 38 in the same source is a Kurd piece of similar age with a monotonous field design, missing one longitudinal border and with reduced end borders. Certainly, better examples were available. It seems to me that the exhibitors were not totally concerned with aesthetic considerations, and that these were chosen over many more satisfying weavings, perhaps by virtue of their ownership.

Mythology has it that an ancient Greek, Diogenes, walked about holding aloft a lantern. When asked what he was doing, he replied, "I am looking for an honest man." It is my considered opinion that time has caused this tale to be garbled. I suspect that Diogenes was planning an exhibition of collector carpets and was looking for honest, objective judges.

That this insidious lure is not confined to piled carpets may be seen in "Anatolische Kelims" by Bertram Frauenknecht. Plate 14 is described as "A great fragment of a wonderful early madallon (sic) kelim" (my emphasis). How can a textile so extremely impaired be described as "great"? Another series of examples may be seen in "Flatweaves" by Belkis Balpinar and Udo Hirsch, with tattered rags featured in a number of plates. I urge the readers to compare Yanni Petsopolous' excellent work "Kilims".

In 1939, Harry Weaver gave a paper on "Der Kazarian Carpets". Der Kazarian was a repairer of Oriental rugs skilled at patching damaged carpets, so his shop was stocked with a supply of rags and tatters that he used to patch other rugs. Thus, only the tattered wrecks in his possession could be true Der Kazarian specimens. Weaver defined this species as follows: "Perhaps the first thing the observer notes about a Der Kazarian is its remarkable openwork effect….The claim that it is the best ventilated rug in the world is no idle boast. It anticipates by centuries the modern craze for ventilation and air-conditioning. Hung on a line in the stiffest breeze it will not even tremble. Hung on the wall, it reveals more wall than rug. To some this might be considered a disadvantage, but to a true Der Kazarian addict it is hailed as a sure and delightful proof of the genuine article." Weaver's humor was intended to spoof the fragment lovers of that time. It was appropriate then, and is even more so now. I proclaim all of the rags alluded to herein as Der Kazarians.

At the Fifth International Conference on Oriental Carpets, I was standing with two fellow afficionados viewing a dilapidated remnant. I asked them, "What is the difference between an outworn , holed and faded fragment created in 1952 and a similar piece made in 1552?" I answered my own question, "The former is an old rag and the latter is an antique rag!!!" They did not agree. My next query the was, "If it were for sale, would you buy it?" After some hesitation, both replied "No"! My last question was, "Why don't you put your money where your mouth is?"

Having a deep interest in psychology, I long wondered what attraction these pieces have. My conclusion was that fragment admirers held the Dadaist philosophy of art appreciation. This was a movement at the turn of the century that negated all previous concepts and maintained that the more a work of art depended on the fantasy of the viewer, the greater it was. I now could comprehend that the more incomplete a remnant is, the more is required from the observer's imagination, so the greater it must be. I am certain that any true Dadaist would consider plate 116 in "Flatweaves" as one of the most beautiful artistic creations. Applying reductio ad absurdum, the ne plus ultra exhibited carpet well might be a blank space without a title. The fantasy of the viewer would have free rein.

The next point of discussion is the question of rarity. Isn't a fractional portion of a rug, a type for which there is no complete specimen extant, important and consequently a collectible? The answer for the art historian is yes, but for the average collector, no. I aver that the most important attribute a rug can have is the aesthetic satisfaction it offers. Many less talented contemporaries of Rembrandt painted far fewer pictures. Some of their works survive in minor European castles, unhonored and unsung. However rare, they are neither desired nor collected. The demand for the works of the great masters indicates that the paramount onus of any work of art is its aesthetic values.

Most serious lovers of Oriental weavings regard these as aesthetic valuables. Dividing artistic creations into "Fine Arts" and "Applied Arts" is an outworn and passe cliché. It assumes that the former consists of creations whose only function is to provide aesthetic satisfaction, sometimes dubiously, whereas the latter provide some other useful purpose. Those still holding this concept believe that "Fine Arts" is superior to "Applied Arts". Following this philosophy of art appreciation would make Andy Warhol's "Tomato Can" greater than the marvelous silk Mamluk carpet in Vienna's Museum of Applied Art. It is not necessary to belabor the point. Deponent rests!

What aesthetic values do "dream fragments" offer? These pitiful, abused residues are a far cry from the original creations. It is rightly contended that they may be important to art historians in the study of carpet design and its connection to that of related arts such as architecture. However, most rug collectors are not art historians. For the overwhelming majority, a rug's beauty is the first and foremost consideration.

The true collector loves the artifacts with which he lives. Their beauty enriches his life and refreshes his soul. It is difficult to accept the idea that the items mentioned above could do so.
People who disagreed with me have asked, "Isn't the Venus de Milo a great work of art even if it has lost its arms?" I consider this question irrelevant because the Venus is three-dimensional art and the Oriental rug is basically two-dimensional. It would be much more fitting to compare a rug to a painting. Have you ever visited an art museum or exhibition and seen faded, worn and holed fragments of paintings?

Why are these derelicts so heavily promoted? There is no doubt that dealers who own cheaply-acquired rags are highly gratified with this activity, as are the collectors, who could not afford complete specimens and bought these pieces when they deservedly were of little monetary value. Overjoyed that fragments are being considered practically equal in value to complete similar carpets, and with the sharp increase in the worth of their collections, they are, of course, enthusiastic fans of this art form.

One of the most enthusiastic supporters is Friedrich Spuhler, as can be seen in "Alte Orientteppiche" by Martin Volkmann. Spuhler, after quoting Lu-Shihua's three qualities of the revered fragment, states, "Of course, this does not in any way mean that an intact work of art does not possess these three qualities, but they are more apparent in a fragment. As the latter is the result of destruction, of long use, wear itself does not affect these attributes. Quite the contrary, it makes them more manifest." From the same source, "When a carpet no longer fulfills its original function as a domestic article, a new criterion of values opens for it: on the condition that it is a work of art, its ideal value increases as its service value decreases." (my emphasis). Again, "The love of ruins in the age of romanticism must not be forgotten as paving the way for appreciating fragments. In both cases a wave of compassion and yearning overcomes us." Fortunately, this age had a very short life span.

At this instance, it may occur to the reader that the vast majority of collectors, like myself, devote themselves exclusively to old or antique rugs. It would seem that, since condition plays such an important role for us, a simple solution would be to collect new pieces. The reason we eschew them is that age may add a beauty to a textile which is totally above and beyond that of a recent product. What originally was a solid color, develops through the years a multitude of nuances that give it a surface interest that was lacking when new. With reasonable use, fine wool achieves a sheen that the English call "icy". Also, it should be noted that the rug must originally have been of excellent quality to have lasted these many years. We should remember that the older rugs, especially tribal weavings, are more apt to incorporate the cultural tradition of their creators. It now becomes evident why old carpets, in acceptable aesthetic condition, are in great demand and fetch far higher prices than their modern counterparts. In this connection, it is obvious that one must take into account some defects. The paramount consideration must be, if restoration is required, will the beauty of the piece be enhanced? If we regard the Oriental rug as an artistic creation, its aesthetic qualities must be our first concern!

In conclusion, let us contemplate this artistic creation. It begins in the MIND of the weaver who then proceeds to actualize her conception. It should be noted that I am not alluding to factory- produced carpets regardless of the century from which they stem. It goes without saying that today's surviving, abused remnants are a far cry from their original conceptions. Whatever these might represent to present day Fragment Fanatics, these have little in common with the latter! Considering the Oriental carpet as a work of art, we must condemn these abortions!

I am certain that there will be many who disagree with me. Your comments, negative or positive, are welcome!


Some Additional Material:

Sam Gorden's web site, Ruglore
Sam Gorden, Pandora's Box (Carpet Fragments). HALI #49, p. 9, 1989.