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As good as it gets

Rarely, if ever, has a dealer’s gallery been the venue for a historically important event in the rug world. Milestones in the History of Carpets at Moshe Tabibnia gallery in Milan in 2006 proved to be just that. Former Editor & Publisher of Hali, Alan Marcuson was there to savour the occasion.

Karapinar Carpet (plate 24)

For eight years Moshe Tabibnia has dedicated much effort to assembling a collection of the best old carpets he could lay his hands on. He has done exceptionally well, all the more so in that he has faced exceptionally powerful competition. At the height of his activity the Sheikh posed a towering force with most buyers withering in the face of his onslaught on the market for Islamic art and a lot else besides. It was thus in a fierce and not always rational environment that Tabibnia acquired this absolutely wonderful collection of carpets, kept them in Europe, and made them available for sale to individuals and institutions with the wherewithal to buy such treasures.

Of course, there were intimations of what Tabibnia was up to. Quite a number of the pieces were bought in auction in recent times, some amidst the glare of publicity. But it is one thing to see them at auction views or in illustrated sale reports, quite another to confront them beautifully prepared and presented in a Milan dealer’s stylish gallery setting.

The opening evening was warm, welcoming and relaxed with a big crowd of elegantly dressed Italians – what else would you expect - and a sizable contingent of visitors from elsewhere. From the “Oohs!” and the “Ahs!” and the “Look at thats!” it was clear that most people there – it was a knowledgeable crowd – were pretty darned impressed. And so we should be.

Glorious Survivors

As I walked around the gallery it had the aspect of being on pilgrimage to a shrine, to pay homage to glorious survivors from the distant past. It was thrilling to see pieces normally only found in a museum. “This is better than a museum, You can touch them,” said Louise Mackie, Curator of Textiles and Islamic Art at The Cleveland Museum with a wry smile. “But only with the back of your fingers which don’t have sweat glands,” Dr. Jon Thompson reminded us.

The one small disappointment of the evening was that the catalogue of the collection was not ready for the show’s opening and there was only a single digitally produced sample available. More of a monograph than a simple catalogue, it includes an in-depth study of the collection by Jon Thompson. It is quite some time since we have seen Thompson in print in a sustained discussion about carpets and having read a fair portion of his excellent text, I am sure it will provide rugdom with much to discuss and digest. Moshe Tabibnia should be congratulated for getting John Thompson to commit himself in print (at last), where many others have failed and resisting the dangerous temptation of writing the catalogue himself; the “My Rugs by Me” syndrome afflicting too many publications on rugs with, to be fair, some notable exceptions.

Large Pattern Holbein Carpet (plate 1)

The exhibition is a magnificent triumph of a show, with some 30 rugs, from the 15th to the 17th centuries, from Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, Persia, the Caucasus (perhaps), India and China. I cannot overemphasise the consistently high quality of the pieces in the exhibition. Not a poor choice among them. Not all were to my particular taste but all could be appreciated for their quality (and condition) and standing within their group.

My Top Ten

Here are my personal top ten, (or rather top twelve), reflecting my personal preferences and even prejudices but all chosen for their visual beauty and charisma. I should acknowledge that my top three choices are also influenced by their excruciating rarity.

  1. Karapinar Carpet (plate 24) & Large Pattern Holbein Carpet (plate 1)
  2. The Tapedi Damascheni (plate 12)
  3. The Parish Watson Tabriz (plate 16)
  4. Small Pattern Holbein on a Blue Ground (plate 2)
  5. Persian Carpet with Crimson Field (plate 21)
  6. Small Pattern Holbein on a Red and Blue Ground (plate 3)
  7. Caucasian Dragon Carpet (plate 27)
  8. Arabesque carpet (Lotto) with Cartouche Border (plate 6)
  9. Small Arabesque Lotto with Green Ground Kufic Border (plate 5)
  10. (tied) Yellow ground Anatolian Rug (plate 4) & Ushak Medallion Carpet Fragment on Red and Blue Ground (plate 7)

I have tied two recently discovered and already legendary carpets for first place: I cannot bring myself to put the Venice, “San Gregoria Holbein” in second place to the “Brunk Karapinar”, as they are known in the trade. If forced, I would have to go for Karapinar. None the less one cannot overestimate the glory and historical importance of the “Venice, San Gregoria Holbein”; it belongs to an illustrious and rare group and ranks with the very best of them – and then some.

Curiously both these grand monumental carpets share in common their recent discovery by rugdom in two rather out-of-the-way auctions in the last five years; the Karapinar at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, North Carolina in 2003, and the Holbein at Finarte Semenzato in Venice in 2003. Both were catalogued indifferently and given ridiculously low estimates, created great excitement in the international trade and went on to make $297,000 and €564,000 respectively. Whatever the brouhaha at the time over the prices they made, with hindsight and having seen them, these would appear to have been very astute and reasonable purchases.

The Tapedi Damascheni (plate 12)

Ever since Karapinar rugs were named by May Beattie they have been sought after by dealers and collectors. Amongst the published and known examples there are old and beautiful pieces but this one must surely rank as being in a class of its own – no others come close. Their most striking characteristic is their clear reference to Ottoman court art in the gently lobed medallions, tulip motifs and cloudbands and the fact that the areas of colour are not separated by a thin defining border.

Thompson is hesitant about tracing the inspiration of this last feature in knotted carpets. It seems very clear to me that the impetus comes from the kilims of Anatolia, which rug weavers would have seen in abundance and, by extension, the famous Ottoman court (or tent) tapestries in the Vakiflar which Thompson acknowledges in some detail. Why did the carpet weavers of Karapinar adopt this practice? This may be fanciful but perhaps rug weavers observed in kilims the visceral dynamism and tension created by two colours right up against each other with no separating border; liked it and copied it, even to the extent in this carpet, by simulating the saw toothed effect created in kilims and tapestries by the shared warp technique.

The immediate visual appeal and sublime monumental beauty of the Karapinar is mesmerising. The colours personify the Anatolian palette at its best, all brought together in a design and aesthetic sensibility which combines the archaic power of ancient Anatolian rug design and sense of colour with the graceful and studious refinement of the Ottoman court at the height of its glory; a delicious synthesis. There are those blinkered “Tribalists” for whom only the purity of an uninterrupted tradition will do; they may have a point, at times, but it is hard not to celebrate and marvel at the creative energy and technical mastery let loose when two modes of production and diverse influences come together, as they do here in this supreme example of carpet art.

As a new discovery the 15th century ‘Venice, San Gregoria Holbein’ is of such great importance that it is almost too much to take in. Only one comparable example, a carpet in the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin, is known, and like the Karapinar must rank as a best of type, a masterpiece. I would very much like to see this carpet hanging to fully appreciate the magnificence of its geometry and totemic power, but at over five metres long this was not feasible in Tabibnia’s gallery. And perhaps there is something to be said for seeing it somewhat as it would have been in its original situ, on the floor. Actually it and the Karapinar were shown on raised daises.

I am still somewhat stunned by the impact of this carpet; it is a lot to absorb. It embodies a huge wealth of carpet history and ornamental language. It’s like the monolith in Kubrick’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey, “full of stars” - and bars. It has a brooding majestic presence, and one is almost transfixed by the interplay of design and colour, the power of the boxed octagons with their surrounding octagons, like sentries; a work of abstract geometric perfection contained within two delicate Kufesque borders, in opposing directions. What more could you want?

Tapedi Damaschini

In second place making up my triumvirate of best-of-best rugs in the exhibition is a member of the group formerly known as “para-Mamluk” and renamed, by Jon Thompson as the Tapedi Damaschini group, identifying them as distinct from Anatolian and Ottoman and Mamluk carpets but sharing a vocabulary of ornament and some elements of the international style of the day.

The Tapedo Damaschino in the exhibition, another hugely important rug, is the one previously owned by the late Charles Grant Ellis. It is a member of a tiny important group of some dozen carpets that has been little understood in the past. Thompson argues strongly that they are “…descendants of a Turkmen weaving tradition in the former Aqquyunlu territory of eastern Turkey and Western Iran”, and that they resemble Mamluk carpets “because both derived their vocabulary of ornament from a common Persian ancestor.”

This is an ancient glowing jewel of a rug, made with the most lustrous wools imbuing the colours with an almost liquid quality. Woven around 1500, it is in the most astonishing condition, apparently in near full pile, with nothing missing and without any significant repairs. Standing close to this exquisite rug, you realise it literally hums with an almost playful geometric and spatial tension created by the quincunxial arrangement of what Chris Alexander would have us call the primary “centres” of the rug; the “exploding” radial arrangements of small motifs suggesting compartments or guls. The visual energy of the field is contained by the calm graceful drawing of the Kufesque border on a radiant blue-green ground; a rug of unforgettable artistry.

Space does not allow a discussion of other rugs in the collection but no amount of superlatives could do this extraordinary exhibition justice. I suspect that many of those who have been to the exhibition would not disagree with my enthusiasm. It was one of those key moments, a milestone no less, that changes a field forever.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Moshe Tabibnia for providing me with his high resolution images for this article.

If you would like to order Milestones in the History of Carpets by Jon Thompson go to: www.moshetabibnia.com/bookshop_en.php

I would also like to thank Hali Magazine for allowing me to republish this article here. To subscribe to Hali go to: www.subscription.co.uk/home/mpurchase.asp?m=70&src=tweb

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