An Introduction to the Exhibit

by Mark Hopkins

Eye Home


This exhibition explores the art of Asia's rug weavers and dyers, through whose ancient skills raw fiber became enduring art.  But it also does more.  It celebrates the collectors, whose dogged determination to track down the best and the irreplaceable has preserved these creations for others to enjoy. It celebrates the artistry of women, because they were the weavers of most workshop rugs and virtually all the tribal weavings of their time. Most of all, it celebrates the unheralded, nameless artisans whose work inevitably rises to the very top of their folk art through the sheer power of their talent.

In a way it is a sad salute, because the art displayed here is now for the most part a lost art.  Rugs are still handwoven by the millions, it is true.  But today they are manufactured, not created.  They lack the spontaneity, the exuberance, the care, and the sense of preserving ancient traditions that clearly attended the creation of each of the pieces in this exhibition. Beyond that, though, this exhibition bears a joyous context.  The reason why needs no further explanation; it should be clearly apparent throughout the exhibition and the pages of this catalog. To look at rugs as art, it must be remembered that most of them, throughout history, were woven as utilitarian implements.  They were made to be used.  After they were worn out they were thrown away.  But the artist in man cannot abide a blank expanse.  And so rugs were decorated, and over the centuries the traditions for their designs were remembered and passed down.  But within any tradition there is always room for improvisation.  And so, improvisation happened.  It is toward finding outstanding examples of that artistic improvisation -- the force that makes certain rugs stand tall above the others -- that so many of today's collectors focus their attention. Virtually without fail, people looking at the artistic aspects of old rugs for the first time ask the same questions.  Here in brief are some responses.


Where Do The Rugs Come From?

Surprisingly perhaps, this is one of the most challenging questions facing rug scholars today.  Most oriental rugs found in America and Europe today were not exported from the Middle East as art; they came in bales, to be sold as floor and furniture coverings.  At the source, they were sold by rural or village weavers to local merchants or export agents, who conveyed them to central distribution points to be purchased and shipped in bulk.  Where they came from -- which village, which tribe -- was seldom of consequence and became no part of the records.  Today, some of that knowledge has been painstakingly reconstructed.  But there is still much that is unknown.

Rugs are generally attributed to a tribal group, (if they were the products of active or once-active nomads), or to a village, (if woven by a sedentary people).  If the village cannot be determined, the region will suffice.  Thus Caucasian rugs of various types, for example, will be called Shirvans or Moghans or Daghestans, referring to the geographic region of their origin.  Or rugs woven in dozens of small villages in northwest Iran will be called Hamadans, named after the central market city for the region.  Many rugs that are named for specific villages, such as Perepedil or Bordjalou, lack hard evidence of actually having been made there.  More often than not, this nomenclature appears to trace back to traveling dealers of earlier decades who evolved a vocabulary of often-arbitrarily-chosen names to identify the various common designs that comprised their trading goods.  Mercantile convenience, not ethnographic accuracy, was primarily at stake.

The names that rugs go by today are far closer to describing their true origin than ever before.  But too much is still unknown to be conclusive.  Turkmen weavings are one of the easiest to identify as a broad tribal group.  They were once called Bukharas, named for the non-rug-producing city in Uzbekistan from whence they were shipped.  Now they are given tribal origins, such as Yomud or Tekke.  But all is not perfect.  What is really the difference between a Saryk and a Salor?  Who were the "Imreli"?  There is still much discussion among Turkmen scholars on many such matters.  In Anatolian and Caucasian weavings the question often arises as to which rugs were woven by Kurdish people....and which were not.  In fact, unanswered questions of this sort exist in virtually every rug-weaving category.

For these reasons, with hopes of guiding our viewers to the appropriate geographic and tribal point without burdening them with fine-tuned information that might hereafter be disproven or tumbled from vogue, we have chosen very broad categories with which to identify the rugs in this exhibition.


What Do The Designs Mean?

More fanciful if well-meaning fiction has probably been written on this subject than any other in the rug literature.  Much of it has been sincere attempts to make sense of the seemingly endless array of symbols, motifs and design elements that comprise the oriental rug design lexicon.  Little of it is of any value.

The problem is, most rug art is abstract enough to discourage widespread agreement on the origins or meanings of its elements.  The pictorial rug appearing in Plate 25 [Shirvan Pictorial] stands in stark contrast to the rest of the exhibition, where highly geometricized, mostly non-representational elements dominate the designs.  A careful examination of many of the pieces, (Plates 4, 12, and 15, for example), reveals design elements that most scholars believe evolved from curvilinear floral patterns of earlier times.  But did they?  Other experts contend instead that some of these forms originate not from plants and flowers at all, but from ancient motifs based on birds and animals.

There is little concrete evidence, one way or the other.  A nineteenth century rug design may bear strong resemblance to that of a prehistoric bronze figure or ancient wall painting discovered in its area of origin. But postulating a several thousand year connection unsupported by evidence of interim bridges is risky business.  There are many such discussions occupying the attention of scholars today.  Few conclusions, however, are forthcoming.

The problem is, no firsthand written evidence has come down through history.  Rug designs were passed along verbally from mother to daughter.  And the weavers of today retain no memory of where the designs they know by heart originated.  As in the story of the anonymous tourist who asked the Pennsylvania Dutch farmer about the meaning of the famously colorful "hex" designs on the region's barn doors, (the latter shrugged his shoulders and replied, "Chust fur pretty, I guess!"), they only know how to make them, not why.  And so the debate on design origins endures, and probably will for generations to come.


How Old Are They?

Determining the age of rugs is extremely difficult.  A careful visual comparison of the pile and structure of certain 19th Century rug with others from the 13th Century reveals few if any discernable differences.  Laboratory testing by carbon dating can be used, but with variances of plus-or-minus 150 years, the method is only of value for textiles many centuries old. 

Much of today's acquired knowledge on the age of rugs is based on studies of European paintings.  Oriental rugs have been extremely popular furnishings in Europe for centuries and appeared often in the work of many well-known artists -- especially in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Because their designs were faithfully recorded and the paintings themselves can be accurately dated, it has been possible to know not only when particular designs were popular, but also how the designs evolved as time progressed.

Many rugs, including several in this exhibition (Plates 14, 15, 16, and 20), have Islamic dates woven into the pile.  Once the date has been read, (for example, the rug in plate 16 reads 1253), the formula for calculating corresponding date on the Gregorian calendar is:

                  1253 - (1253 ) + 622 = 1837

Woven dates are helpful means of determining rug age.  But they are by no means authoritative.  Often weavers wove rugs by copying older examples, and if there was a date, they copied that too.  Also, dates can be easily changed by the alteration of a few pile knots, a fact not overlooked by unscrupulous merchants of the past when they detected strong market preferences for weavings of antiquity. 

The safest way to date old rugs, except when a woven date appears authentic and the date corresponds satisfactorily to other known examples of the genre, is to generalize within several decades.  The broad spans of dates assigned to most rugs in this exhibition are done with that in mind.


Must A Rug Be Old To Be Desirable?

Some collectors believe that any rug woven after the 17th Century is simply an inferior derivative of past grandeur.  Others collect only 19th and 20th Century rugs.  The reason may not necessarily be that they cannot afford classical weavings, (although such a reality is not unknown).  Just as often, it is because they find their sensitivities best gratified by rugs of later periods.

However if the question is addressed another way -- are earlier rugs better than later rugs?-- the answer in most experienced collectors' opinions is "yes."  If the reason for this were to be neatly attributed to a single cause, it would undoubtedly be the European Industrial Revolution.  While production of rugs for export has been a mainstay industry in Anatolia, Persia, and possibly the Caucasus for many centuries, activity intensified as the 19th Century unfolded.  In Europe and America, increasingly sophisticated production and transportation capabilities were creating -- and then nurturing -- an increasingly voracious consumer demand.  In the oriental rug world, inexpensive (if not particularly stable) chemical dyes became available in the 1850s.  Workshop methods and trade networks intensified.  Homes became cottage industry workshops.  Workshops became manufactories.  And as in every case where commercialism pervades a cottage industry, alarming trends became perceptible.  Quality declined.  Individual creativity was discouraged in favor of marketable consistency.   And a certain sameness began to characterize many outputs.

Eventually, of course, machine operated looms would bring durable, low cost carpets of all sizes to those who could never before afford the luxury.  The handwoven rug market never actually died.  But it was seriously eclipsed by the march of industrial progress in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and has only experienced a  resurgence in the last 30 years.  Today, handwoven rugs are exported in vast quantities by Turkey, Rumania, Iran, Pakistan, and India.   Although many are exemplary by rigid mercantile standards, they are invariably commercial products and seldom individual expressions of art.

The reverse then follows: the older the rug, the more chance it will be an individual expression of art.  And that is why many collectors, as they grow in sophistication, find themselves gravitating to antiquity in their searches.  The rule is not ironclad: many wonderful late weavings exist, even from 20th Century sources.  And there are still textiles being woven today that are unfettered by commercial restriction.  But the fact remains that while older in no way assures better, the older it is, the greater the chances it will have the qualities that collectors are seeking today.


Who Were The Weavers?

Nobody knows their names.  In antique oriental rugs, as with most unselfconscious folk art forms, the identities of the artists are almost never appended to the works they created.

On very rare occasions, individuals' names do bubble to the surface.  One of the best known examples is a famous 18th Century carpet from the Caucasus, whose large, bold Armenian inscription translates: "I, Gohar, sinful and weak of soul, wove this with my newly learned hands.  Whosoever reads this, say a word of mercy for me."

But who was Gohar?  The name tells nothing.  It has never appeared again in other weavings.  Other than being a curiosity, it casts no light on the origin or historic value of the rug.  Names of a few recognized weavers do indeed appear on a group of ornate silk rugs made in Istanbul for the late Ottoman courts.  Other than that, anonymity prevails.

For the collector, this creates an interesting challenge.  In determining the artistic value of any piece of art, there are many varied facets to be examined.  Of two comparable French Impressionist paintings, one bearing the signature "Monet" and the other unsigned, there is no question as to which way the "esthetic" preferences of most collectors would gravitate.  But oriental rugs offer no such convenient clues.  Decisions must be made entirely on the artistic merits of the individual piece.  The collector is on his or her own.  Esthetic judgment must prevail.


What Should One Look For In The Exhibition?

Rugs, like every other art form, are a sensuous experience.  Mainly, of course, their appeal is visual.  There is the tactile experience too.  (Even in museums, where for reasons of conservation the pieces cannot be touched, there still exists the visual aspect of tactile: the satisfaction of simply seeing things that are shiny, silky and soft.)  But the focus of this exhibition is on things to see in rugs.

What is there to see?  Answering that should be the viewer's goal; to explore each piece and discover what there is to see.  Rugs were (and still are) implements of social comfort.  Their purpose is to please.  They offer many elements intended to serve many sensibilities.  The great ones stand up to the most daring exploration, at the end imparting reason to return and explore again.  We invite you to explore.  And to return again, as often as discovery requires.


This essay was originally written for an exhibition program for the "Collector’s Eye" exhibit. Due to budget constraints at Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, where the exhibition was held, the program was never published.