(Soon after this book was published the review below appeared on rugkasbah.com. Our critical analysis was quite different than the one written by the editors of that rag hali, who hailed it as the title states a "milestone" in carpet studies. This, of course and like much of what has appeared in that rag hali, was nothing but gross overstatement and unwarranted vain glorious praise. The principal thesis author Dr jon thompson advanced is seriously flawed but at least not as questionable as the "Imreli" debacle his text for the 1980 "Turkmen" publication opened, or as foolish as his role in the now famous LACMA/dodds bogus 'bellini" affair. Since there is no peer review in oriental carpet studies history will be the only judge of thompson's supposed contributions, as well as that rag hali's and publisher Moshe Tabibnia's "milestone" claims. It will likewise judge the validity of this critique, as well as the many others RK has published.)
Milestones in the History of Carpets” was published in 2006 by the Moshe Tabibnia Gallery in Milan, Italy.
The ‘book’ is a lavish production – big, glossy and well produced in all regards.
However it is, in the final analysis, a dealer’s catalog of pieces that are/were/will be for sale rather than a “scholarly tome”.
The text, written by dr jon thompson attempts to, as Mr Tabibnia told me in
October of 2006, “…be controversial but that’s good as the carpet world needs controversy.”
RK only recently acquired a copy -- actually it was a trade with Mr Tabibnia for one of our paper-bound Anatolian Kelim books– and digging into thompson’s text was often hard work regardless of the salubrious writing style thompson brings.
As our readership knows RK is surely no fan, in any way mind you, of “classical carpets” and since that’s all this book is about we resisted getting a copy.
But after being out for five years, and the opportunity to acquire one was present, we decided to go ahead and add it to our already groaning shelf of rug books.
Our readers also know we are no fan of dr jon thompson, and since we have already written enough about our past ‘relations’ with him on RugKazbah.com we will not revisit that topic here and now.
RK also finds it hard to believe Mr Tabibnia’s purpose in publishing this book, said controversy or not, was anything more than a glorification to any and all prospective buyers of the “collection” it illustrates.
In keeping with this unspoken but clear as a sunshine reflected in a mirror purpose the “introduction”, written by Marino and Clara Dall’Olio, extols the value of the rugs within to prospective buyers.
In fact, their introduction is so pointed in that direction one wonders if they are going to profit from any sales along with Tabibnia.
Tongues in rugdumb have been wagging about Mr Tabibnia and his gallery for the past ten years or so – both for his high profile and expensive auction buys (a number of them turn up in the Milestones book), as well as the swank and ritzy gallery he has established in Milan’s central district.
Those tongues have also speculated as to where the money has come from to allow Mr Tabibnia to create such a rug-palace, but since RK has no knowledge of the where and the how we will just put it down to his good fortune to have been in the right place at the right time.
But RK’s intention here is not to discuss Tabibnia, his gallery or dr jon thompson’s rug career, as reviewing what thompson has written is our objective.
There is no doubt thompson has an excellent command of the English language and has been, after all, at the rug game for 50 plus years.
Those two attributes should definitely allow him to produce a text that is both important and lasting.
We say should because in our opinion he fell short of either and we hope to make this clear with our review.
Basically dr jon thompson advances one major and several lesser thesis which provide for him a springboard to try and reclassify the history of certain Ottoman and Safavid carpets.
Hence the controversy Mr Tabibnia mentioned to us.
We will in the next parts of this review get down and dirty critiquing them but before we do a couple of additional comments.
Firstly we need to bemoan the sad lack of commentary and review in RugDumb and our republishing A.U. Pope’s 80 plus year old rant on the subject shows this is nothing new.
RK wonders how many of the ruggies who bought, or were given, the “Milestones” book actually read it?
Frankly, we’d guess very few, but that alone is not the real reason for the silence of the lambs.
Fear, and fear of crossing the line of bogus propriety and ‘political correctness’ that dominates rugdumb, is far more the answer.
Yes, of course, there is that rag hali but their self-interested and even more objective purpose to further, and never question, the status quo of those in RugDumb, who belong to the in-group, prevents anything other the predictable praise from ever appearing in their pages for what someone like a dr jon thompson or a Moshe Tabibnia might do.
So without a real audience of readers, or honest critics, someone like dr jon thompson is free to float any balloon he can blow up and never fear it being burst by any well-aimed or errant pointed object.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the “Milestones” book is the goodly number, and their quality, of photographs of early classical rugs used to illustrate the text.
Though many have been previously illustrated, some many times over, it is still one of its good points.
RK can’t help but draw analogy to the Ganzhorn ‘compendium’, as both it and the “Milestones” book have alot of pics with a text that, when carefully read, does raise a number of flags of well-put objection.
While we stated we are not going to discuss thompson’s rug career we need to mention the following that bear witness to dr jon thompson’s credibility.
In thompson’s introduction to the “Milestones” book two sentences stood out so far RK must mention them and provide some comment.
This is the first
“…it has become clear to me that for people to have an opinion that is genuinely their own is a rarity.”
And here is the second
“In the academic world the endless rehearsal of what this or that person said on the subject in the past carries the risk of stifling fresh and independent thought. While at the same time it assists the process whereby constant repetition slowly transforms hypotheses into ‘accepted facts”
It is fine for thompson to make these claims but how does one judge him in such regards?
Years ago when he was still a Turkmen rug collector dr jon thompson’s discovery of “S” group, and the evidence he presented to support that discovery, was a great accomplishment. In fact it made his career.
However, some years later his “discovery” of Imreli weavings was a huge mistake and his attempts to cover-up the error even worse.
This event would have, in any other ‘academic’ or collecting universe, served to diminish if not destroy a reputation.
But in RugDumb this was not the case, and thompson’s fame and reputation grew – go figure.
Then soon thereafter thompson was involved in a messy affair when he and several other high profile rug-dealers gave their approval for an important American collector to purchase at considerable expense a supposed “dragon-phoenix” rug fragment.
the fake “dragon-phoenix” fragment dr jon thompson and several other rug experts claimed was genuine and counseled an important American collector to purchase
The fragment in question turned out to be an old forgery.
Then, of course, there is thompson’s role in approving for purchase the late genre-period reproduction “bellini” carpet dennis dodds sold to the Collectors Committee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Late genre period reproduction “bellini” carpet dennis dodds sold to the Collector’s Committee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2004 claiming it was circa 1550 and a masterpiece of its type. Three rug experts, including dr jon thompson, agreed with dodds appraisal and were instrumental in convincing the buyers of the rug’s supposed historical importance.
So how would one judge dr jon thompson’s track-record of opinions, and how do they stack up in reality?
RK would have to say pretty poorly.
Long ago, also in the 1980 Turkmen catalog for the Washington textile museum exhibition where the Imreli fiasco was published, dr jon thompson also presented the “cloud-collar” idea.
And although this one, unlike the Imreli, does have some substance, it surely does not have the all-purpose import thompson claimed in that publication, nor does it have the import he is again trying to give it by reusing it in the “Milestone” text.
Trying to explain the many varied and unrelated ‘appearances’ of a medallion outline pattern like a cloud-collar, both in the Turkmen publication and now in “Milestones” , as being derived from cloud-collars, is nonsense and for dr thompson to continue to harp on this idea bodes poorly for his ability to judge his own ideas.
These ring rather hollow and one must ask: Do dr thompson’s comments only apply to others and is he, himself, immune?
Apparently from the facts one would have to say yes.
One additional quote from thompson is rather telling, though surely not in the way he meant it.
In discussing the Salting group of Persian carpets thompson states:
“Such was the status of Kurt
Erdmann was an expert in the field of Islamic art and a pioneer in carpet studies…that his opinions readily passed into the realm of accepted wisdom”(pg.220)
Anyone who knows thompson’s work could rightfully ask if his situation in carpet studies is now similar.
RugDumb is synonymous with self-importance and over-arched egos and in RK’s opinion none are greater than dr jon thompson’s.
OK, enough of measuring dr thompson by his own words, let’s start to review what he says about the rugs Tabibnia has published.
Plate 24, “Milestones”
Before we get into our objections with thompson’s text let’s mention where we find agreement.
First is questioning the validity c14 dating provides for oriental carpets, as these statements from thompson makes clear
“We now have a dating method for organic materials based on the unvarying rate of decay of the naturally occurring isotope Carbon-14 which has been verified and calibrated by tree ring dating. But this has limited usefulness in the field of carpet studies”(pg 27)
“Recent focus has been on Carbon-14 dating, but it is a well-known pitfall to rely on a single test – especially a statistical test – in matters of diagnosis…”(pg.223)
A second point we find agreement with thompson is the reality most carpet designs can be traced back to an “original” or archetypal source, and degeneration of a particular design can be ascribed to it being a later copy of an earlier one. And, the earliest examples of every type were the models for all the later examples.
RK has often discussed being able to put any Turkmen or Anatolian weaving in a continuum of similar ones, and to relatively date any example by its place in such a continuum.
We have been a proponent of this methodology for as long as we can remember, and we are glad to see dr thompson thinks likewise.
“…one is led to the inevitable conclusion that an imperfect version of such a design was somehow derived from an earlier perfect one.”(pg.30)
And here is another of several we could cite
“Thus the degree of ‘design-decay’ increases in proportion to the number of copies separating a carpet from the original, and can provide an indication of its relative age. That is to say, the greater the design-decay, the younger the carpet. Using this intuitive principle, a set of carpets of similar design can be arranged in sequence according to the degree of departure from a presumed original.
The point of this digression is that so many of the earlier Turkish carpets we know do not appear to be the ‘originals’ but, in light of the intuitive principle outlines, seem to be derivatives based on older models. One is therefore always looking for the most perfectly formed designs, which will be the earliest and therefore closest to the source – perhaps even representing its origin.”(pg.31)
The third, and regrettably last thing we could say with which we whole-heartedly agree, is the importance and beauty of Plate 24, the 2003 Brunk auction carpet.
So-called, and most erroneously in RK’s opinion, “Karapinar” carpet from the Foy-Casper collection sold in Ashville, North Carolina at Brunk Auction Gallery in 2003
“Far surpassing in grandeur and condition its nearest rival, the fragmentary Bernheimer piece, this hitherto unknown Karapinar carpet has extraordinary visual appeal and...appears to be the oldest and best example yet known of a group of carpets about which there is still much to learn.”(pg.236)
Try as we might that’s it for anything else thompson has written in the Milestones text with which we can honestly say we find complete agreement.
Of course, from what we have learned from our somewhat cursory studies of western Asian history, we do not find any objections with thompson’s recounting of the major historical events he cites.
But when it comes to just about everything else he has written about Tabibnia’s carpets, besides his praise for a few of them with which we’d concur (Plates One, Seven, Twelve, Fifteen, Seventeen, Eighteen, and Twenty One) and some of his analogy with ceramics, art from other media and archaeological weavings like fig. 5A, all we can say is either we have serious doubts or completely disagree.
The main thesis thompson’s “Milestones” text advances is the following
“It is generally not known that representations of carpets with octagons having a radially arranged interior pattern appear in Jalayrid painting from western Iran around 1400 (Figs 24 and 25). This is an extremely important piece of evidence and it should go a long way to restoring the importance of western Iran in the history of carpets. This is especially so since nothing of the kind is known in mainstream Timurid painting.(35)”
This idea -- western Iran being the source and origin of the type of medallions seen in the earliest known Turkish, Persian and Mamuluk rugs – is one thompson bases a great many of his “opinions” on and surely is the basis for Tabibnia’s controversy comment.
Here are figs 24 and 25
Left: fig 24, Right: fig 25; caption fig 24 states: “The aesthetic discovers his child is safe in the cradle from a copy of Kalila wa Dimna painted by a Jalayrid artist from Tabriz or Baghdad, 1380-1400. The carpet has a large octagon with an eight-fold radial design and a Kufesque border with mitred corners. TKS, H. 362 f. 113v.”; caption fig 25 states: “The thief is beaten in the bedroom from a copy of Kalila wa Dimna painted by a Jalayrid artist from Tabriz or Baghdad, 1380-1400. The carpet has a large octagon with an eight-fold radial design and a Kufesque border with mitred corners. TKS, H. 362 f. 24r”.
And this is footnote(35)
”The actual date of the paintings in THS, H.362 is unknown and the subject of much scholarly debate. The problem here is that the paintings have been cut from and earlier manuscript and pasted into a text copied for Baysunghur in Heart in the year 1431. Opinions as to their source (Jalayrid or a Jalayrid artist working for the Timurid court) and their date (1375-1385, O’Kane 2003; or c.1400 Grube 1991) differs, but the paintings are of high quality and were evidently valued. Either way the occurance of octagons in(presumably western) Iran is important.”
The thompson “Milestone” text then immediately states
“These representations(the two Jalayrid paintings) make it possible to propose that the style of carpet having large octagons with radial volutes, to which the Qatar silk carpet belongs, originated in Iran and that there was an important locale of carpet weavings in western Iran in the fourteenth century producing designs that were the source of what was to become an ‘international style’ in carpets”
The bold emphasis is mine to highlight the fact this is thompson’s main thesis in the “Milestone” project – ie there was an ‘international style’ of carpet design that originated in western Iran prior to 1400 and then spread west throughout the carpet making world.
And what a weak and poorly supported one it is.
First off the octagon rugs in the two Jalayrid paintings have no tags documenting they were actually made in western Iran. Perhaps they are Turkish or from somewhere else and imports rather than local production?
Second, and this is equally important, the fact the provenance and dating of the paintings is questionable provides little security for thompson’s going out on a limb declaration.
Forget about basing his thesis in the book on them, or drumming up another phony Imreli-type controversy.
At the worst this appears a repeat of the Imreli debacle and at the best nothing but thompson’s poor scholarship in floating an idea with only the flimsiest supporting documentation.
We also do not buy dr thompson’s conclusion octagon carpets with Kufesque mitred corner borders are Persian and not Turkish, another point thompson uses almost ad nauseum to substantiate his comments about some early octagon carpets.
Why do we not agree?
Simply, while this feature might have been the case in the later editions of many types of octagon carpets, when it comes to the earliest of them the paucity of examples, and the lack of secure provenance, destroys any attempt to make such a blanket statement.
Another major bone of contention concerns dr thompson missing the supreme importance, and its probable dating, of what RK agrees is, in thompson’s words, “a remarkable fragment in the Nationalmuseum Stockholm (Fig 5A), which is probably fourteenth century.(22)”
Caption in “Milestones” ”Detail of a fragment in the Nationalmuseum Stockholm, NM 39/1936; illustrated in Lamm 1985, no.4”
Here is footnote 22
“ Lamm 1985, no.4, pg. 68. Though I have not examined it personally, it is possible to see from the photo that the shedding sequence for passing the wefts is as follows: row of knots, A,B,A: row of knots B,A,B; row of knots A,B,A… ect. This rather unusual feature is typical for the so-called ‘Seljuk carpets’ from Konya and Beyshehir in the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, Istanbul, which I consider to be fourteenth-century and therefore post-Seljuk.”
RK is no stranger to this fragment.
In fact we have not only seen it in person, and examined it as carefully as possible, but we have published the photo we made of it at that time on the Weaving Art Museum “A New Look at Some Ancient Carpet Fragments” exhibition with our comments.
Along with that photo, Plate Two in the Weaving Art Museum exhibition, we also illustrated another fragment from the Lamm collection (Plate Three), which we believe was originally from the same carpet.
Lamm fragment RK believes from the same carpet as the fragment above
It is interesting to note this second fragment has some of the main border visible and guess what?
It is Kufesque!
Detail Plate Three Weaving Art Museum “A New Look at Some Ancient Carpet Fragments” exhibition
We cannot give comment on dr thompson’s assertion about the shedding sequence but unless jon thompson has x-ray eyes, or far better pictures than the one published in his “Milestones” text, we would be surprised if he is correct.
Regardless of the validity of his shedding sequence conclusion, ie this fragment is post-Seljuk and 14th century, or even if that idea is correct we stick to our position this fragment is considerably earlier than the Seljuk carpets in the Ala al-Din and Beyshehir mosques and decidedly not later.
Also it is clear the Lamm fragment is Anatolian, not Persian, and it displays what is the earliest known “stars and bars” type (octagonal) medallion.
These two facts stand in direct opposition to dr thompson’s theory of a western Iranian origin for this and other types of “interlaced” medallion carpets.
They are not the only ones but let’s move on and discuss some of the other thesis thompson attempts to advance in the “Milestones” text.
“This rare and interesting example (Plate 4 “Milestones”) illustrates and important principle in the study of carpets that has already been mentioned. To put it simply: new patterns and styles originate at centers of artistic patronage and radiate ‘outwards’ towards the cultural periphery.”(pg.74)(emphasis added)
It is 100 percent clear from this quote, and others we could easily cite, thompson is a classical rug snob who foolishly believes a myth as fallacious as the emperor’s new clothes.
First, such a viewpoint ignores the strong possibility the ‘inspiration’ for those “new patterns and styles” came from what thompson refers to as the “cultural periphery, which is a 'hi-falutin’ way to describe what in the carpet world is called village and nomad land.
The fact the cities and cultural mecca, where classical carpets were designed and produced, are not nearly as old as certain villages and inhabited nomadic territories, where indigenous weaving cultures existed, presents an undeniable monkey wrench in what thompson, and others mind you, are trying to spin.
This simple fact is enough to destroy the ‘top down’ theory thompson preaches.
Frankly, RK finds it bigoted and highly prejudiced to ignore, and worse to deny, the strong probability, and indications, the historic roots most genuine icon and patterns seen on pre-1750 oriental carpets originally came from that cultural periphery.
As the following shows thompson does, grudgingly, give the village and nomad weaver a modicum of credit but this is at best nothing but backhanded appreciation.
“Nevertheless, at the village level and among nomads modified patterns and motifs may achieve a degree of ‘stability’ which results in their preservation over relatively long periods of time with very little change.
This means that the vocabulary of ornament of village and nomadic weavings, like ancient words embedded in a language, can sometimes give vivid insights into the past. The village weaver, of course, is unaware of this since she learns both her spoken language and her patterns from the people with whom she comes in contact with as a child, she has no knowledge of their history.”(pg.74)(emphasis added)
Again, this is nothing but bigotry and cultural superiority and quite frankly puts thompson in a very poor light.
And, as if to prove his feelings of cultural superiority, this is the next sentence
“The linguist and the carpet scholar, in contrast, have the advantage of being able to study earlier examples from the past that enable them to understand the processes of change.”(pg.74)(emphasis added)
What thompson spouts is so full of holes and egocentric ‘white man’ superiority it truly reeks and stinks.
To believe those “village” and nomad weaver were not able to see and appreciate earlier generations of weavings their clans, and perhaps others, produced is unthinkable.
It is also unfathomable to think thompson does not credit those “village” and nomad weavers with enough insight and intelligence to understand the process of design origination and degeneration.
RK could go on discussing the disgraceful attitude dr jon thompson obviously carries but we feel we have shined the light on it enough for now.
Part Five and Six
Another sticking point RK found in the “Milestones” text is the glossing over of what Turkmen weaving is all about.
The historical struggle between the Aqquyunlu(white sheep) and the Qaraquyunlu(black sheep), and the part they played various times in the struggles of warlords like Gengis Khan and his successors, Timur and his successors, and the later Ottoman and Safivid dynasties, is well documented and thompson’s brief treatment of it does little to explain what, if any, types of weavings these two Turkmen groups might have had, or might have made.
RK does not believe they were much different, in relation to carpet possession and production, than the warlords and dynastic large-scale societies they served .
By this we mean they were clients who ordered weavings and not actually in any way part of the economic and cultural process that made them.
Unanswered in “Milestones” went the question: What did the weavings, if they had any and surely they must have, of the white and black sheep Turkmen look like?
RK does not believe they looked like the Turkmen weavings collected today but were more classical in style – large medallion(s) rather than the ‘gol-centric’ style.
RK also believes ‘gol-centric’ weavings existed during this period (say 13th-15th century) but this type of weaving was made by the independent Turkmen tribes who lived outside the spheres, and power-zones of influence, of the Aqquyunlu and the Qaraquyunlu.
During the period thompson discusses the Aqquyunlu and the Qaraquyunlu were more sedentary/settled urbanites than nomadic, and it is very conceivable their carpets reflected this difference.
But: Who were these independent groups, and what was their influence on the development of what thompson refers to as the “Turkmen style”, is the great mystery the history of Turkmen pile weaving
By the way, thompson only mentions a Turkmen style but does not discuss how or what this might have looked like.
RK has no doubt there were Turkmen, read ‘gol-centric’, weavings from 13th ,14th, and 15th century but this is not the place to expand such a discussion.
Another contention we have with dr thompson, but far less important or as close to our interests, is his apparent belief in the “story” of the “found in Tibet” 14th century “animal rug” purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1990.
“Confronted animal rug;14th century; Turkey; Purchase Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, Louis V. Bell Fund and Fletcher, Pfeiffer and Rogers Funds, 1990; Accession Number1990.61”
The story, and there are several permutations, tells it was found floating in a river after it, and early other rugs, were discarded during the “cleaning” of an old temple.
The rug then appeared in Katmandu, passing thru several hands until it ended up in London.
RK saw the rug, and two others – the Faces rug and the Kirchheim animal rug --, with a now deceased dealer, Lisbet Holmes, in London.
Basically RK does not believe for one minute these rugs came from Tibet or were discovered under the circumstances thus described.
Nor do we believe the Met’s rug is 14th century or for the matter even made in Turkey.
RK believes, and has said so in private for almost 20 years, it is 16th century and an Afshar made in Iran.
Not to put this out of proportion we will end here, as, after all, thompson only briefly mentions the rug once on pg.27. But in doing so he does state
“…the acquisition of a carpet by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that is believed to have been preserved in a monastery in Tibet”(10)
The footnote refers to daniel walker’s, the former curator at the Met, publication about the acquisition in 1990.
We also do not accept thompson’s rational for the scarcity of rugs from the 15th century
“The survival of carpets from the fifteenth century has been a matter of chance, determined by the historic patterns of trade and the accidents of political history, and in part by dry conditions, such as those in Egypt, which favor the preservation of of organic archaeological material.”(pg.28)
As RK sees it the paucity of 15th century, and earlier, carpets is due primarily to the fact very few were produced. This might be hard to imagine from the voluminous amount of later, ie 16th -18th century, carpets but this was, RK is sure, the case.
During those times, pre-16th century, these early carpets were far more non-secular than they eventually became, and while in some parts of the Near East, like western Turkey, there was “commercial” workshop carpet production, ie secular, it was not in near the volume seen in later times.
Dating carpets, be they classical, village or nomad, is at best educated guess work, regardless of the validity, or not, of a C14 analysis.
There are, however, certain parameters and clues one can rely on to provide evidence and substantiation for back-up.
However, it appears to us in the “Milestones” text dr thompson has ignored some pertinent factors and gone ahead and over-dated more than a few of Tabibnia’s carpets.
Let’s look, for example, at some of those in the Ottoman section.
Plate Two, a small-pattern Holbein carpet is no doubt an early example, but not mid-fifteenth century as C14 dating and dr thompson both claim.
Detail, Plate Two, “Milestones”
RK would date it a century later, well into the mid-sixteenth.
Well, for starters, when it is compared to a carpet RK believes truly is mid-fifteenth century there are significant differences documenting our position.
Fig.46, “Milestones”; detail of a small-pattern Holbein carpet fragment in the TIEM, Istanbul, 303, RK believes mid-fifteenth century
First, and most important, is the visibly compressed articulation the field pattern has undergone in Plate Two’s rendering of the iconic small-pattern Holbein design.
Any honest comparison of the smaller of the two main field patterns shows Plate Two’s are not nearly as spherical and well-proportioned as Fig. 46’s. This is due to vertical compression of the design (compare below the upper right medallions to see this compression).
Left: detail Plate Two showing the vertical compression as compared to Right: detail Fig. 46
The smaller medallions are not the only compressed element -- notice the octagon/stars from the interior of these medallions are equally compressed in comparison to what the weaver of Fig. 46 was able to achieve.
Compression like this is a tell-tale sign of later workmanship, but there are others.
The far more delicate, intricate and fluid interlace surrounding the larger of the small-pattern Holbein medallions, as well as the more detailed drawing of the central cruciform in those medallion, also demonstrate these tell-tale post-period qualities.
And, as the side-by-side comparison of the “Kufic” borders on Plate Two and Fig 46 below shows, it is quite apparent Plate Two is the later version and, again, Fig. 46 the earlier.
Left: Plate Two; Middle: Fig 46; Right: Fig 31
We do not think the TIEM’s small-pattern Holbein is 14th century, and concur with thompson’s calling it 15th, but how could he then believe Plate Two is its contemporary?
Here is a detail of Fig. 31 (“Milestones”), which is in the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin, I 5526.
Fig. 31, “Milestones”; Museum for Islamic Art, Berlin
It is a large-pattern Holbein with a “similar” Kufic style main and a secondary border with the rosette and star double kotchaks ‘cartouche’.
This is why we included it along with the Kufic borders from Plate Two and Fig. 46 to illustrate what we feel is the archetypal, and earliest, version.
We are not surprised thompson misjudged the small-pattern Holbein (Plate Two) as being contemporary with a genuinely earlier one (Fig.46), as he and many other classical-carpet snobs frequently view nuance like those we cited as insignificant, something they surely aren’t.
When all else fails it is often illuminating to carefully examine borders, as their drawing and iconography, and not necessarily what appears in the field, can often provide important clues to a weaving’s age.
By the same token Plate Three, dated early sixteenth century in the “Milestones” text, is in our estimation likewise over-dated by 100 years.
Plate Three, “Milestones”
It also is a small-pattern Holbein but anyone who believes there is only 50 or so years between it and an archetypal example like Fig. 46 is not only dreaming, they are sleep-walking as well.
Here compression has changed the proportions of the interior of the “holbein” medallion, but the far more serious error is the lack of delicacy in the articulation of the interlace surround, which has now become somewhat crude and obvious – the mystery of the original so well expressed in Fig. 46 lost or forgotten.
This problem is also present in the Kufic border, which shows what RK calls an early version of this border’s final incarnation.
Courtesy of dr. thompson Plate Four, a charmingly degenerate version of the small-pattern Holbein design, is also the recipient of a century over-dating in the “Milestones” text.
Plate Four, “Milestones”
And although thompson hedges his bet, as the quotation below shows, we still do not agree with his rational this rug is anything but late 17th.
“A carpet such as this with no known previous history is difficult to date. It has an unusual and intriguing design with archaic features. It is easy to ‘play safe’ and offer a seventeenth-century date and it takes a little more courage to make it earlier: but the form of its interlaced roundels is essentially fifteenth-century and they barely appear in later carpets. An exceptional feature is the structure, which has something in common with the Konya and Beyshehir carpets that are probably fourteenth-century. A sixteenth-century date thus seems easily possible.”
Well, anything is possible but what is probable, or more to the point what is obvious?
This rug, as charming or intriguing as it might be, is not sixteenth century. Just look at the main border in comparison Fig 46 and Plate Two – it screams: I am not 16th.
And by the way, in his short description for Plate Four dr thompson does not devote one paragraph, sentence, or even a few words, to discuss the “exceptional” structural feature he cites.
Again, here’s thompson talking talk but stumbling badly walking the walk.
However, RK does see eye-to-eye with thompson when he calls the Kufic main border of Plate Five, a “Lotto” carpet, “…the earliest form”; however, this particular rendition displays marked vertical compression and significant loss of internal proportion.
Therefore, we cannot agree with his dating it “…beginning of the sixteenth-century, though a date in the late fifteenth-century is also possible”
Plate Five, “Milestones”
RK would date it early 17th for many reasons, not only the border shortcomings.
Plate Nine, a “Tintoretto"-type double niche rug, is one of probably hundreds made from the 15th to the late 18th century.
Plate Nine, “Milestones”
It is an interesting variant, both for its candy-cane coloration and large filigree escutcheon suspended between the central medallion and upper niche.
These features are for more interesting than archetypal, but it is the drawing in the niche that signify for RK thompson has over-dated this rug.
The two-dimensional and somewhat fuzzy character belies any possibility this rug could be “…late fifteenth-century or early sixteenth…”
The same could be said for the main border, which though competently drawn lacks the salubrious mystique archetypal 15th century Tintorettos exude and a mid-17th century date is generous enough.
Plate Ten, “Milestones”
Plate Ten sets up an interesting comparison, as it is, in fact, actually a Tintorotto variant down to the similar escutcheon placed under the niche.
The Milestones text offers an “…end of the sixteenth century…” date, which RK thinks is over-dating to an extreme.
We’d prefer, instead, a more conservative and probable circa 1700 guesstimate.
Again the two dimensional quality of the field pattern, the visible vertical compression the ancillary octagon/stars in the field suffer, and the lack of any abrash in the red background of the field, all point to the later dating we suggest.
Over the years RK has spent some time analyzing how the pattern seen in the wide main border developed, as we formerly owned a late 18th century Anatolian village rug with a similar one.
We came to the conclusion this border is a very abbreviated version of the far more involved cloud-band on Plate 9.
Notice the minor element placed between each group of four “S” has been lifted from Plate Nine’s border, and, in fact, the curvilinear “S” motif and their perfect placement are actually a simplistic attempt to recreate the cloudbands from Plate Nine.
Left: border element Plate 9, “Milestones”; Right: border element, Plate 10, “Milestones”
This might, on first take, appear far-out but when you let your eyes relax on each group of those “S” motif, which are exactly and uniformly repeated in each group of four, they simulate the movement those cloudbands impart to the border’s overall design.
“The lappets in both end borders” thompson says “ are probably the relic of a style fashionable in medieval times and preserved in rural communities.”
This is laughable hogwash when thompson offers not one iota of evidence to support such a contention.
And besides didn’t thompson place himself on record, as we quoted this earlier, believing village weavers were too ignorant of the history of their design vocabularies to know their histories? If so, then, how could such a design remain potent for such a long period?
Let RK set dr thompson straight as the probable history of this symbol, and unless he knows what we know and for some reason does not want to mention it we must again say his statement cannot be anything but hogwash.
Archaic long-stitch embroidery, RK collection
We have published this embroidery several times, both on RugKazbah.com and on the Weaving Art Museum website, where we have stated our opinion the large medallion represents some type of astrological map or perhaps a calendar.
But no interpretation is needed to see the similarity the detail below has with the Plate Ten’s “lappets”
Left: detail long-stitch embroidery, RK Collection; Right: detail Plate Ten “Milestones”
This icon then, we surmise, shows up in later Turkmen weavings as a primary main border element.
Many long years ago RK coined the phrase “bat border” to describe this infrequently seen Turkmen main border.
Here are some examples
“Bat border” found on certain Yomud chuval
None of these are from an archetypal chuval and perhaps one day when one does appear the question as to whether or not this icon originated in Anatolia, Turkmeistan or elsewhere will have to remain unanswered.
We say elsewhere because at this point we are not so sure, as we formerly were, the long stitch embroidery is trans-Caucasisan or “Armenian”.
Plate Eleven, “Milestones”
Plate Eleven is an interesting rug that reminds RK of several other variants of the type.
We have taken the liberty of illustrating it upside-down and not the way it appears in the “Milestones” catalog because we believe it is a prayer rug.
This becomes clear when it is viewed as we have presented it.
The idea of the implied mirhab is one RK has championed for a number of years and while we agree it is a toss-up with a weaving like Plate 11 we do believe our perspective is correct.
But regardless of whether or not it is a prayer rug, dating it “…earlier sixteenth century…” as thompson did is no toss-up – it is incorrect.
This rug’s use of ornaments that never appear in 16th century rugs and its borders, which are also unknown from that period, discount any possibility it could be that early.
RK would propose a mid-seventeenth century date.
Detail, Large pattern Holbein carpet, Plate One, Milestones
Unlike any other time in the western world's history of oriental carpet appreciation the post-1990 era has not generated the number of top oriental carpet dealers and scholars seen in former times.
Presently Moshe Tabibnia is the leading dealer and dr jon thompson is the leading “scholar”.
RK might rightfully suggest both have inherited these mantles without much competition, but that discussion is well outside the confines of this review.
We likewise feel our critique of thompson’s text makes clear our somewhat depreciatory feelings, both personal and professional, for him and his position in oriental carpet studies are justified.
They also make clear thompson is surely no “carpet-god” beyond reproach or criticism – actually far from it, as we believe we have demonstrated here and elsewhere.
As for Mr Tabibnia and his quest to, as he states in his “Milestones” forward, “…begin an intensive search for the best examples…”?
Surely by normal standards Tabibnia has been successful but how successful has he been weighing his efforts against the imposing title of this book: “Milestones in the History of Carpets”?
RK would have to honestly say not very, as in our estimation only Plate One, the large pattern Holbein purchased in 2002 at the Finearte auction and Plate 24, the so-called, and incorrectly as we have proven, “Karapinar” carpet purchased in 2003 at the Brunk auction could be considered veritable milestones.
There are surely some other pretenders in his catalog but pretenders are just that, not the real thing.
The dictionary defines milestone as a significant event in history, and while publishing this book might be that for Mr Tabibnia and his gallery, it surely is not that for the larger world of oriental carpet studies.
Had Tabibnia followed the old adage “less is more” it surely might have been, but as it stands there is a lot of filler of less than milestone proportion, both text-wise and examples illustrated, between its blue and gold covers.
There is also no doubt RK is a hard taskmaster, but the whip we crack at others we surely have proven we are not afraid to turn on ourself.
So, please understand, while we respect Tabibnia and thompson’s efforts we do not believe they are of “milestone” proportions, something the title would lead a reader to expect.
Perhaps we are wrong, but the lack of review it has so far engendered cannot be interpreted as implying we are.
Rather, this should be seen as part and parcel of the epidemic of silence inherent in oriental rug studies today.
Something RK believes must be remedied before the ever hoped wider appreciation for oriental carpets will materialize.
Soon after we posted the conclusions to our “Milestones” review, a frequent reader emailed us and inquired if we had ever read the “review” alan marcuson had published about the “Milestones” exhibition in that rag hali and on his website.
We emailed back that yes we knew of it and had read it at the time but had forgotten about it while we were writing the “Milestones” review.
After re-reading marcson’s saccharine sweet and glowingly brown-nosed commentary we were, of course, reminded how those in RugDumb will never say anything critical of those who are high up in its hierarchy.
Even someone like an alan marcuson, who through unbridled hubris, greed and stupidity finally self-immolated, burning his rug-“career” to a crisp in the fireball that was www.cloudband.com.
The review our reader re-alerted us to was published in 2006 and, below we quote and include our comments for a few of the “gems” mr marcuson scribbled.
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.”
Clearly, marcuson has never made a pilgrimage to anywhere other than the imaginary shrine where he believes, he and his disaster-filled rug career, belong.
Yesshhh, we, too, visited Moshe Tabibnia’s gallery in 2006 when the exhibition was up, though not during the opening-night mr marcuson described. And, while we again say we respect Tabibnia’s “Milestone” efforts, they surely cannot in any real sense be described as creating a “shrine” on via Brera in Milan.
And whereof can anyone, even a rug-sycophant like marcuson, cite and quote louise mackie, who it must be remembered was one of the three rug-idiots who approved the purchase of the dennis dodds’ bogus-bellini rug for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, saying Tabibnia’s gallery was better than a museum?
And speaking of dr jon thompson’s “sweat-glands” remark……
Oh well: Then there’s
“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.”
Well, marcuson, you hyperbolist ,it has been five years since the “Milestones” catalog and your review have been out and where, might RK ask, has this much to be discussed and digested action occurred?
Again, RK can only point to the imaginary place somewhere under your hairline, huh?
“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(sic) the consistently high quality of the pieces in the exhibition. Not a poor choice among them. Not all were to my particular taste…”
Sure, sure, judged by normal standards of rug-dealer exhibitions the “Milestones” collection might be called a “magnificent triumph” but RK is again reminded of what a milestone actually is and finds marcuson’s glowing praise considerably OTT, ie over-the-top, overblown and overdone.
RK will agree there is not a “poor” choice among them, especially if the use of poor has any correlation with the prices Mr Tabibnia expects to receive for allowing any of his magnificent 30 to leave his gallery stash.
And, please dear readers, do not think we ever implied there was a poor choice among them – get it straight, our position is a number of examples are far less than milestone importance and quality.
We agree with marcuson the Brunk/Foy-Casper carpet(Plate 26) is a “delicious synthesis” of Ottoman and Anatolian village rug production. But we do not buy his referring to the large-pattern Holbein (Plate 1) as “It’s like the monolith in Kubrick’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey…”.
Frankly, we’d prefer to own the Berlin Museum example, which is in our opinion a far more important and interesting weaving.
But likes are subjective and mr marcuson is surely entitled to his opinions, even when he presents them as gospel “from his mouth to God’s ears”.
In that vein rings the final line in marcuson’s closing salvo in discussing the “Milestones” show
“It was one of those key moments, a milestone no less, that changes a field forever”
Oh yeah… And, please mr marcuson or anyone else, clue RK in on how the rug collecting “field” has been changed…or has RK missed it after having been sequestered in that proverbial ‘cave in Afghanistan’ these past five years with Osama you know who?