Posted by R. John Howe on 02-04-2002 07:54 AM:

Sources and Likely Directions of "Flow"

Hi Sophia -

Good to see you as host after enjoying your posts for some time.

Your beautifully illustrated essay triggers several thoughts for me.

First, I think you provide a basis for arguing that there may NOT be distinctive Caucasian designs in your enumeration of various possible sources of influence.

Second, although I am put off sufficiently by what I have read of Gantzhorn to read all of his book closely (it is a PhD thesis and PhD candidates are under great pressure to do something original and that can produce strange hypotheses and arguments), I do not think that the opposing claim that designs might have primarily Muslim influences is tied at all to the thesis that many designs originated among pastoral nomads. Murray Eiland has made a very plausible case for believing that the primary flow of design is from urban centers into the country-side. His argument is based on the notion of the technological prerequisites of some aspects of nomadic life some of which impact weaving. For example, he suggests that dyeing with indigo is technologically complicated enough to be mostly beyond the ken of, say, Turkmen weavers. They used blue sparingly because they likely had to buy indigo dyed wools in settled country. Similarly, our picture of the nomad as largely independent of town life is seriously impinged on by the likelihood that the production of the frames for Turkmen trellis tents has for a long time been the work of settled specialists. But I don't think this later argument is entailed in the belief that rug designs often show Muslim influences.

Third, although the Wright/Wertime "Tabriz hypoethesis" is not accepted by many, they seem, in my view, to pretty well demolish the likelihood that the "dragon carpets" carpets could have be woven in most of the places in the Caucuses where they are often conjectured to have been woven. And I have mentioned a couple of times in our conversations that Christine Klose, the German student of rug design, has argued that the "eagle Kazak" design (these rugs also often still show the "armatures" that seem, despite their fragmentary character, rather like the lattices in the "dragon" carpets) are sourced in 17th century Persian "vase" carpets. So I am not sure that one can begin an argument for the likelihood of a distinctive "Caucasian" design tradition on the basis of the "dragon" carpets.

Fourth, although your essay is rich in its allusions, I often had trouble telling what your conclusions are about the questions you raise.


R. John Howe

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-04-2002 03:38 PM:

Hi John! Thank you for the excellent post.

You are right - I am not making conclusions so much as asking questions. But I disagree that there is no distinctive Caucasian design - because I think there are several that are their own - and the "eagle gul" is one of them.

I believe I've encountered the Close theory before and I really do not like it. For one thing, like all such theories that seek to link bold, modern designs with older, more "refined, figurative, realistic" designs - they don't leave room for the creative mind, for the leap of imagination that breaks the chain and creates a new idea. What they propose is a process of "degeneration" - a term which I really hate. And - it's impossible to prove. Just because one can point to a 17th century vase carpet and say "ah hah" - doesn't mean the 19th century artist had anything to do with the thing, had ever seen it, or if she had, somehow mistakenly created an eagle gul because she didn't know how to make a flower!

The same sort of thinking is floating in and out of the thread on the dragon-or-leaf Herati discussion - I am going to do some more thinking on both these ideas, make some scans, and post some more coherent thoughts. Right now I'm still sleepy from having wrestled with dragons, fish, leaves, botehs, and scorpions all night

But before I forget - I think the white-ground prayer rugs are distinctively Caucasian. I think the Marasali rugs are too. Also the Talish designs with the long, narrow central fields. In general I think the bold, geometric appearance of even the more delicate Caucasian rugs indicates that they have evolved a very definite design pool of their own - and I do not think that this is because they are making degenerate Persians or whatever - as others have suggested - because they lack the skill to make more curvilinear rugs. In my opinion there is a very definite Caucasian esthetic - let's call it that - it's more precise than design, and covers more territory - which has taken influences from several sources but made them, over time, into a unique type of rug with a distinct flavor. Admittedly some of the Kazak types do seem to overlap with the Turkish and Kurdish - but that makes sense, actually, as there is both travel back and forth from those regions as well as some shared ethnicity.

One question - could you please clarify what you mean by Muslim influences vis a vis nomadic? I'm not sure that I understand what you're trying to say.

Thanks John!

Posted by R. John Howe on 02-04-2002 04:55 PM:

Hi Sophia -

Thanks for your response.

Something you said late in the post above first:

You wrote in part:

"...what you mean by Muslim influences vis a vis nomadic? I'm not sure that I understand what you're trying to say..."

Me: In your initial essay you wrote in part:

"...the Gantzhorn theory that many, if not most, Oriental carpets owe their design, manufacture and iconography to Christian Armenian weavers working in towns, rather than the far more glamorous - and generally accepted theories - that Oriental rug weaving and design is primarily an Islamic art and has its origins both in the cities and villages of the Middle East and Central Asia, and among the nomadic tribes who travel throughout the region."

It is that "and" after "Islamic art" that triggered my objection. I don't think that this is necessarily an "and" since one can believe that oriental rug design is source primarily in Islamic art without also holding that designs migrated from the nomads to urban areas. The seeming suggestion that if you hold one of these thesis you must also hold the other was what I objected to.

Now to back up to your most general question. You acknowledge that you are musing to some extent but then do go on to say that you believe that there is distinctively Caucasian design and that the "eagle Kazak" is an instance and you explicitly reject Kristine Close's careful argument that is based on showing similarities.

The fact that you reject this rather specific argument and the evidence that Ms. Close mobilizes in support of it seems to suggest that you have some standards against which you are evaluating arguments about your basic thesis. We had in the immediately preceding salon some discussion of the use of evidence in argument and in the testing of whether a given assertion is likely true or not.

Now at some level such goings on must be a bit tiresome to an artist (and in fact I objected to some versions of it myself) but would you say a bit more about how you reached your conclusion? And it might be useful, for example, to describe, even hypothetically, the evidence it would take to make you say that perhaps there is not such a thing as distinctively Caucasian design after all.

I trust that in attempting to participate I am not being merely tedious.


R. John Howe

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-04-2002 07:05 PM:

Nomadic Muslim vs. City Christian

First - this one!

Yes - I see what you're saying. The existence of Christian city weavers and/OR Muslim nomad weavers is quite possible. I believe I was echoing, for the sake of argument, what GANTZHORN is proposing: that the design sources as well as the weavers of most pile carpets were Armenian Christians who wove in towns - not Islamic nomads.

Personally I do not think it is so clear. Nor do I believe that carpet design is necessarily Christian OR Islamic - it might be quite possible, probable even, as Jon argues, that many basic designs can be found in Prehistoric artifacts. There is also a powerful influence on Central Asian and Middle Eastern art in general, which comes from India. As I've mentioned there's also the Chinese influence. This applies to art forms other than carpets of course.

However, I do think, in the case of Caucasian carpets, that they may be drawing upon two fairly distinct design pools: those of (Armenian Christian?) weavers working in towns, and those of nomadic people - who could be of any faith, incidentally, but many of whom tended to be Islamic - and who made flatweaves.

Now - is there "trickle down" effect from the town carpets into village and nomadic carpets? Sometimes I think, looking at the really intricate floral Indo/Persianate "court" carpets, and then at a Turkish kilim, that these are parallel universes. That's like suggesting a link between Beethoven and bluegrass, or between Michaelangelo's Sistine Ceiling and Grandma Moses. Or Mies van der Rohe and the Watts Towers. No - there isn't. And if anything - it's a TRICKLE UP effect - from the basic structure to the more elaborate, and not the other way around.

In the case of weavings, I think Marla Mallett has made some profound observations connecting the basic structure of warp and weft with the first, basic, essential designs of carpet weaving. Just so with music: the SOUND came before the melody. Does this make sense? I think, in general, we need to acknowledge certain root forms before we go off on tangents attempting to show that things actually move from the most complicated ideas to the simplest.

At this point I want to make something clear: I do not feel that flatweaves are inferior to town carpets, or outsider artists to gallery masters, or bluegrass to Beethoven. These are all distinct forms. They require different strengths, levels of committment and training. But it is possible to be a great artist, to create a great statement, in any of these milleux or in any medium.

However, the world is not a place in which "pure" forms stay pure for very long - thank heavens! - what boredom! - and there is most definitely cross-fertilization between forms - both up - if you must - and down. This is especially easy to define musically - so consider the case of Flamenco and Manuel de Falla, a classical composer who moved fluidly between the two idioms: the raw, sometimes brutal music of the gypsy, most of which isn't written down in any kind of final form but improvised on the spot, like jazz or Arabic music; and the delicate, infinitely refined and orchestrated music of the classical maestro. If you listen to the soundtrack of the film "El Amor Brujo" you will hear this vividly: in this case, a classical work has been infused directly with the blood of the gypsy. There is Egyptian music like this as well, wherein complicated pieces of great depth and passion are arranged for full orchestra. But - the drums and rythyms are the traditional driving force of North Africa and the Arabian desert. Similarly, listen to Aaron Copeland's orchestral works - bursting with bluegrass strings and traditional melodies.

In Caucasian rug design, the influence from flatweave forms is so obvious it shouldn't need to be stated. Which is why I didn't belabor the point in my essay - I sort of skimmed over what I'll refer to the Turkic influence because I thought it was so basic to Caucasian design everybody could see it. Do I need to make it more clear? Let me know. Again - let's make this clear: this is a design influence coming up, not trickling down. Or if you prefer, coming IN to the city, rather than going OUT.

However - I think there is clearly movement back the other way too: look at the boteh devices in Ersari Turkoman (or Beshir) rugs; the Quashquai' rugs mentioned earlier, by Michael, in which they've adopted the classical central medallion and corner spandrels; even, though it pains me to say it the possible use of the Herati format in certain bagfaces. These are very clear examples, to my mind, of design elements moving out into rustic forms.

It seems clear to me that basic forms came first, but that there is extensive cross-fertilization and intertwined development of design ideas.

One final thought, just to complicate matters nomads in the Near East and possibly Central Asia did not necessarily come first, or evolve into townspeople. Rather, there is evidence of an influx of nomadic pastoralists from the North, monotheists, who came into the largely agricultural regions of Egypt and Mesopotamia much as the Athabascan people, now known as Navajo, swept into the American southwest from Canada via the high plains. The arrival of the pastoralists into Mesopotamia is thought to have occurred about 3100 BCE, and their arrival had devastating consequences for the region.

More about that anon.

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-04-2002 07:08 PM:

Providing More Proof

John - I don't think I can "prove" anything! But I'll try to provide some more examples and explain the creative process, as I understand and experience it, once I've had a bit of time to think and also to do some scans.

Meanwhile, thank you for your thoughts!