Entrance to the renovated galleries
While there are a number of museums in America that could be considered first tier institutions, one that is on everyone’s list, if not always at the top, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art(MMA) located on upper Fifth Ave in New York City.
Arguably they have the best of the best in almost every field.
That includes their oriental carpet collection, which likewise is considered by many to be the most “important” in any American institution.
And while for RK’s interests and purposes we might successfully debate the point by nominating the Textile Museum in Washington DC, in the end such a discussion is moot.
Undeniably the collection at the MMA is far richer in large, complete classical Safavid and other court carpets, while the Textile Museum in Washington, DC (TMDC) has what we consider to be a more interesting collection of non-classical masterpieces, which are often fragmentary and/or fragments. It also possesses far better related non-classical weavings absent from the MMA’s stash.
This brings us to the central point of our comments: The amazingly ignorant choice by the MMA for including hardly any non-classical examples in their inaugural post-renovation display/rotation.
This smacks of the highest level of abject prejudice humanly possible.
It’s also a grievous display of current museum world confusion, and befuddled approach, concerning the art of the oriental carpet.
RK is offended; and we believe anyone and everyone who has spent time and effort to learn about, to collect, or just to be interested in, oriental carpets should likewise take umbrage over this obvious and feckless failure.
All that said and done, and it is a big said and done, here are some comments about what the MMA did do with carpets in the new galleries.
The exquisite James. F Ballard mini-garden carpet
The old “Islamic Galleries” were closed down for this renovation at least five years ago, and after that long a period RK honestly expected to see far more than we saw.
Yes, there is now some additional space allotted to this department, which by the way has dropped like a molten, red-hot lead ball the old name, “Islamic Galleries”, in favor of the now ""Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia". Obviously this name change is nothing but an attempt at political correctness.
As an aside, RK abhors anything and everything that is labeled politically correct. Unfortunately this moniker, like ‘new and improved’, almost never lives up to such designation and hype.
Rather, it signals some subterranean force has been at work, and in the process wants to desperately convince the intended audience to believe something that is untrue; something invariably done only to benefit a hidden agenda.
Getting past all that, and the tongue-twisting gallery’s new title (and even in its acronym(GAATICALSA), what does RK think of the changes this renovation has brought?
Again, we have to say more is not necessarily better. And regardless of the now more spacious quarters the objects occupy, and the somewhat less ‘crowded’ appearance the cases and wall-mounted objects of this department now have, was closing this department for five years, and spending who knows how much in the process really worth it?
Our answer is a big NO.
The old rooms were just fine as far as RK is concerned.
Far better would have been if all that effort, and money expended, had been spent acquiring more masterpiece weavings (or other objects for the department), as well as on curatorial research and acquisition of new knowledge – something the MMA surely needs to do considering their holdings of non-classical rugs are sub-par at best, and something carpet studies genuinely, and desperately, needs.
But hiring architects and “consultants”, and leaving the job to them, is far easier than rolling up the sleeves to do real research and curatorial work. Or finding masterpiece objects, ones to broaden the collection particularly non-classical rugs like Turkmen and Anatolian pile examples and related weavings like Kelim and Soumak -- a necessary but difficult task as these are very few and far between.
Frankly, and broadly speaking, in our opinion the renovation is a major failure on almost all accounts, considering how can a five-year renovation that is nothing but a face-lift be characterized as anything else?
We should also mention a good book could be written about the behind the scene politics and maneuverings involved in this make-over renovation. But do not hold your breath and expect to anytime soon see such a publication on Amazon.com.
As far as objects on view go there definitely are more, but again is more necessarily better? And while we do not remember exactly how many rugs or weavings were exhibited in the pre-renovation old galleries we sincerely doubt there are now more.
Plus all of the best weavings on view were formerly displayed in the old galleries.
As an aside RK first remembers visiting the Met in the late 1960’s when our interests in oriental rugs were first blooming.
The breath-taking huge Safavid carpet masterpieces hanging full length in the old galleries were just that: breath-taking.
And the few non-classical McMullan and Ballard Anatolian carpets unobtainable dreams on RK’s then wish-list.
Today’s galleries have far fewer, and surely not the best, of those stop-you-in-your-track rugs – a major mistake as far as we are concerned.
Also many of those McMullan and Ballard Anatolian rugs have been eclipsed, by examples which have come onto the market since the early 1980’s boom cleaning out Turkish mosques and shipping numerous great, far earlier, rugs west.
OK, enough of the criticism – what did we see there?
Entering the new galleries this is the first carpet every visitor sees.
Please note: This was exactly what you would have first seen when you entered the old galleries pre-renovation.
“The Confronted Animal Rug”, what the MMA has now taken to call it is displayed alongside this descriptive caption:
“ Confronted Animal Rug
Turkey Ottoman period (ca. 1299-1923), 14th century
Wool (warp, weft, pile) symmetrically knotted pile
Purchase, Harris, Brisbane Dick Fund, Joseph Pulitzer Request, Louis V. Bell Fund and Fletcher, Pfeiffer, Rogers Funds, 1999 (1999.62)
With its highly geometric design, this wool rug is very different from the refined courtly carpets found elsewhere in these galleries. It represents a separate and much earlier tradition of weaving that enjoyed popularity in Europe, where rugs like this are found in fourteenth and fifteenth-century churches and paintings. The depiction of a rug with the same design in an early fifteenth century Sienese painting allowed for the dating of this example, one of only three complete rugs of such an early date.
Its design of large confronted animals, each with a smaller animal inside, probably derives from contemporary textiles.”
Reading this description we were amazed at the snobbery and foolish holier-than-thou tone it intimates.
First off there is little to no proof this rug is really like those in the paintings.
Yes, it does “look” sorta like them, but it is really the same structurally and materially?
We have to say no.
RK has seen it a few times, and examined it in the flesh once, and the warp depression, coloration and fine weave we saw are all criteria not in keeping with what we believe the rugs depicted in those painting are like.
Added to those caveats:
1. We are sure it is not 14th century but rather 16th century
2. And it is not Anatolian but an Afshar made farther east in Persia
This is not the first time we have made these accusation -- the rug is an Afshar and not Anatolian -- in print and we’ll be glad to debate the facts with anyone who thinks we are wrong.
Plus, let’s all remember dan walker, who was curator in charge when the rug was purchased, was braying to all how the rug returned a “14th century carbon date (c14)”.
Mind you this c14 dating was heralded at the time as a major revelation; something RK never believed from the get-go, and now it appears neither does anyone else at the MMA.
But hanging their continued dating it to the 14th century on its visual similarity a 14th century painting is just as fallacious, and nonsensical.
Then on top to say the design is derived from “contemporary textiles”?
Please now, anyone, show me a textile, contemporary with the paintings or somewhat later, that looks like this 'animal-in-animal' rug.
And this from the leading museum in America, surely one of the leading museums in the world? Good Grief…
No wonder carpets, and carpet studies, are discounted at best, and at the worst avoided completely, by the world’s art and museum establishment.
On we go….
There are two star Ushaks on view:
Neither of them even close to a best of type, or among the best, most beautiful, or most interesting weavings in the MMA’s collection. Making their choice for exhibition a questionable one, at least in our opinion.
Speaking of star-type Ushak rugs, while looking through the database of the MMA’s carpet collection RK noticed the fairly recent donation, in 2009, of these two examples. The donation was by ms hilary black/dumas.
For those of you who do not recognize the name, and we are sure that includes most of our readership, ms black and her now departed long time ‘companion’ mr gilbert dumas were rug collectors from Berkeley, California.
RK met them in the early 1970’s when the Bay Area (San Francisco, Berkeley and Marin Counties) was the American hot spot of rug scholarship, collecting and dealing.
They, dumas and black, spent considerable time in Paris, France haunting Parisian rug dealers on rue Trevise, the Drouot auction house and the Marche au Puces flea markets looking for rugs to purchase for their collection.
Ms black is an heiress with a considerable fortune, so money was rarely if ever an object to their purchases.
Mr dumas had been her teacher at college and soon after their ‘affair’ began, while she was still an undergraduate, he quit teaching and became her ‘companion’.
No doubt being the companion to an heiress was more attractive than doling out lessons to students.
RK used to run into them in Paris quite frequently and early on we had some type of ‘friendship’.
However, their greed and singular motivation to get the rug at all costs ended any possible chances for a real relationship.
Plus although they sold willingly to others, their unwillingness to ever sell us anything we did not have to plead and beg for, and their selling pieces they told us were not, nor would ever be, for sale, eventually made RK say adieu. And after the middle 1980’s we rarely if ever spoke to them or had any interaction, however how brief, with them.
There’s an interesting story about the first of their star type Ushak rugs pictured above.
We have already, and in a completely different context, written about it on RugKazbah.com, and direct readers here for those comments.
They are in the “Bulletin” section entitled “Gifts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art”.
By the way this Ushak is not 16th century and the MMA’s curatorial department should at least know enough to date it to the mid-17th century, a date that is early enough.
The other Star Ushak ms black donated looks to be a very early example. However, looks can be deceiving, and RK doesn’t in any way buy its also over-dated 15th-16th century guesstimate.
Calling it middle 16th century is likewise far more reasonable and plausible.
Obviously because RK is not a star-struck groupie of classical rugs many might consider our comments somewhat prejudicial, but we can assure they are not and actually are factual.
Besides the following two masterpiece best of their type rugs -- the first a gift of James F. Ballard, the mini-Garden Carpet(which was formerly on view in the museum’s escalator hallway) and the second, the Joseph McMullan Mughal prayer rug(also formerly on view in the old galleries) -- none of the rugs we saw at the MMA were even close.
And besides the huge well-known 'Simonetti' Mamaluk or the magnificent, and in magnificent condition, large Mughal rug bequeathed to the MMA by J. Pierpont Morgan in 1917 many others, in our opinion, were instantly forgettable.
Again, what the politics were behind who ever made the decisions on which rugs would be shown RK is surely not privy. But we all can be sure they must have been hot and heavy, for if the choice was solely on their quality and rarity a number would never have made the cut.
Before we leave this commentary we should also mention the couple of, sorta, non-classical rugs, all of them Anatolian, which did make the cut.
Probably the best of them, though it is a jump-ball between it and the next as neither of them is demonstrably more important, is this ex-James Ballard Collection donation.
And here’s the runner-up, also an ex-James Ballard Collection gift.
Comically, the wall-labels describing the two Ballard rugs call them "Tribal Carpets".
Yeesshhh, and worse the second 19th century.
Seems Denny and his cohorts at the MMA need some immediate schooling on dating and attributions.
But then, again, Walter Denny is an expert of Ottoman period ceramics and as we have said before he is not nearly as brilliant, or knowledgeable, when it come to carpets.
Another Anatolian rug, this one a “loan” from the Kirchheim “Orient Stars” Collection and book, also can be seen.
Speaking of politics, it is probably no wild guess to suspect the reason for the two Ballard rugs being presented lies in the lap of our dear friend Walter Denny, who you all might know is finishing up writing a book about James F. Ballard’s rug collection for the St. Louis Art Museum.
It is there, to that mid-west American museum, James F. Ballard bequeathed the majority of his mighty carpet collection.
Were Denny not the major voice in the carpet selection committee at the MMA, actually he was in “charge” from what RK has heard, we sincerely doubt those Ballard rug would have ever been shown.
In closing, as they say, “every cloud has a silver lining”. So, too, did our trip uptown to the MMA.
It was seeing this Seljuk ceramic “harpie” that made our visit memorable.
When viewed from the side one can see the skillful restoration work, as the photo below shows.
RK is positive our detractors will be quick to say this commentary is another example of RK’s ‘negative’ attitude and approach to what goes on in rugDumb. Nothing but a baseless ‘hit’ piece.
Arguing this is pointless, as they already have made up their minds, and what mini-minds they are.
We will, though, gladly suggest they, and everyone else, read, or re-read, the comments A.U. Pope felt important enough to memorialize in one, if not the, most important art magazines of his day.
Way back in 1925 Pope decried the failure of American rug experts to engage in real, academic rug scholarship and/or honest debate.
This article makes clear Pope was not afraid, like RK today, to lambast the rug fraternity, and rightly so.
Here is the link:
Someone once said: “Be happy for small things”. So in that vein many will argue we all should be glad even one rug is shown at a museum like the MMA.
However, this is both circular logic and incredibly stupid. Plus, it does nothing but demean the status and art importance the oriental rug has always maintained for and to the art world.
The recent sale of the Corcoran Gallery’s sickle-leaf carpet is more than sufficient proof American museum’s don’t care enough about oriental rugs.
And considerable blame for this situation rests with rugDUMB, where a thief and cheat like dennis dodds escaped even the slightest mention, let alone proven guilt and censure, for cheating the Los Angeles County Museum of Art(LACMA) by selling their benefactors a late genre period reproduction, circa 1750, “bellini” rug as a masterpiece of the 16th century.
Let’s all remember RK proved and exposed all dodds’s lies, least of which his trying to sell the’bellini’ for decades with no success or takers, after telling LACMA it was from his private collection and never had been offered for sale.
So, as all you ruggies fall asleep this evening feeling good about your rug collections and knowledge, how about a little honest reflection?
Honest reflection that cannot help but verify what RK has written, and mind you, not for the first time.