Friday, April 4, 2014

WSJ: "From Rugs to Riches" article shows that as "works of art worthy to be in works of art", fine oriental rugs have significance beyond just being something to put on the floor.

From Rugs to Riches

How aesthetic ideas migrated creatively between civilizations during a period of globalization

March 25, 2014 5:07 p.m. ET   New York

There's a widespread fascination with tracking the fate of a human contrivance across centuries and regions—mapmaking, prayer rituals, the use of salt, and the like. The ways such ideas and inventions change, where they pop up and why, open unexpected windows onto the social pageant of our species. "Carpets of the East in Paintings From the West," a little gem of a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, taps into that fascination as it examines artistic cross-pollination between three types of 17th-century Oriental carpets and three Dutch paintings of the same era.

Carpets of the East in Paintings From the West

Metropolitan Museum of Art  (through June 29)
Housed in a small room among the Islamic galleries, the exhibit allows the museum to display seldom-seen, and even less-frequently juxtaposed, pieces from its permanent collection. The viewer gets a sense of how aesthetic ideas migrated creatively between civilizations during a period of globalization.

According to the show's curator, Islamic carpets expert Deniz Beyazit, she chose its particular historical focus because Dutch paintings, being primarily domestic, "give us a rich glimpse of the intimate life happening around carpets," and because "the Netherlands in the 17th century began trading with a wider slice of the Orient, so we could choose carpets from different countries—which made it much easier to find pairing counterparts in our collections." Carpets became a widespread symbol of affluence in Dutch homes of the time, where they were draped on tables or hung on walls rather than spread on floors as in their source countries.

This illustrates a poignant feature of the exhibition, a clash of civilizations: The paintings are eloquent of individual, identifiable lives, while the carpets stand mute, abstract, narrative-free. The paintings have signed names; they are by individuals about individuals. The carpets are inherently anonymous, not least because, according Ms. Beyazit, "many were often created by women and often in villages"—the least authorial members of their society.

The first pairing puts a 17th-century Persian "Floral and Cloudband" carpet next to "The Newborn Baby" (1675) by Matthijs Naiveu, who painted the picture the year his first child was born. We are invited into a deeply domestic scene—akraambozoek, or "lying-in visit"—where the mother receives female friends to celebrate the birth. Strangely, though, the overall color palette couldn't be more gloomy: a dark bedroom with women and children; a four-poster bed heavily shadowed by bottle-green drapes; a murky mirror to the side, where we glimpse the painter and his male friends chatting. On the wall above the men we can just make out a violently stormy seascape painting. The only cheery hues come from the carpet's glossy reds and oranges, which are minutely echoed here and there in cheeks, lips and a few red candles visible in the mirror.

According to art historians, Naiveu wanted us to ponder the folly of affluence, the vanity of possessions and the chanciness of birth, all of which he manages to convey by the subtlest of hints. From the ceiling hangs a white cupid with his bow outstretched—denoting, perhaps, the arbitrariness even of love.

The next pairing is anything but somber. We see a "Chessboard" carpet, from the late-16th to early-17th century, next to "A Musical Party" (1659) by Gabriël Metsu. While "Floral and Cloudband" carpets were commonplace, "Chessboard" carpets were (and are) much rarer. They hailed from Syria, and get their name from the design being divided into vertical rectangles within which dance fleurs-de-lis, stylized cypresses and rosettes. Comparing textile and painting, we're struck by how they share identical, sepia-toned color schemes.

According to Ms. Deniz, Metsu probably based the painting's hues on the carpet's faded reds, oranges, blues and greens. We see a young woman being entertained by two male visitors, one playing a cello. Musically notated pages spill out of a box on the floor. Clothing and carpet, which hangs off the table, luxuriate richly without shining garishly, while a maid brings drinks through a doorway from a slightly raised room beyond. Next to her we glimpse a caryatid nude in marble upholding one end of a mantelpiece. Tasteful, satisfying harmony seeps subliminally into the onlooker's senses. We realize, gradually, how much the Orient's aesthetics underpinned—indeed, buoyed up—the mood of Dutch home life, how much the inhabitants valued them and were aware of them.

The final pairing offers an "Ornamental Lotto" carpet, c. 1600, beside "A Young Woman and a Cavalier," a painting from the early 1660s by Cornelis Bisschop. This genre of rug—from Ottoman Turkey—was first featured in paintings by Lorenzo Lotto in the 16th century. It also appears in pictures by Peter Paul Rubens and Brueghel the Elder, among others.

Teeming arabesques interweave mesmerically as you view the carpet on the wall, but in the Bisschop painting the rug's ochreish orange ground sets the tone for a modestly presented romantic scene. In a darkened room at night, a rakishly hatted young man has seemingly just arrived. He caresses a distinctly willing if sleepy maiden, who stands in white and orange house clothes beside a table on which we glimpse the carpet. Expert opinion has it that the couple are the artist and his wife. Again, cloth textures partake in the scene's muted sensuality. One is left feeling that, for the Dutch, their beloved carpets function almost like banquets or fireplaces at the center of domestic warmth. These artifacts, so far from their home regions, from the anonymous hands and minds that shaped them, had the good luck to be cherished by a more self-revealing society, one that could openly dramatize their charms for the ages.
Mr. Kaylan writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.
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