This ancient central Anatolian pile carpet fragment is the iconographic archetype of the ‘Karaman’ medallion rug from the Ballard Collection shown at the end of this commentary
As anyone active in rug collecting knows the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM) has dusted the long atrophied cobwebs off the carpets bequeathed by James Ballard and installed them in a heralded new exhibition.
Since nothing rug-wise is ever mainstream news, or anything but at best a footnote, RK did not expect SLAM’s efforts would amount to anything more than a passing hiccup on anyone’s twitter newsfeed.
We have already pointed a righteous finger of indignation at Professor Walter Denny, the for-hire gunslinger SLAM relied upon to write the catalog and organize the exhibition. Denny had the help of two SLAM employees Philip Hu, associate curator of Asian art, and textile conservator Zoe Perkins, both of whom presumably know next to nothing about Ballard’s carpets, and after reading the publicity we have to wonder if Professor Denny is somewhat likewise so inclined.
We are exaggerating. Of course Walter Denny knows something about carpets but his knowledge-base primarily concerns Ottoman and Safavid examples and regrettably his orientations are predicated on the notion all classical carpets are art and all non-classical carpets produced in village, clan and transhumant encampments are nothing but trickle-down lesser weavings.
Over the years, more so lately, Denny’s writing has implied this is not entirely correct -- actually it is completely incorrect -- and the converse far more likely to be valid.
But as yet Denny has not forsaken his treasured prejudice, it colors his publications and the Ballard catalog from the little we have seen suffers as well.
Now do not get RK wrong, we have not seen the SLAM catalog, only the publicity and hype for it, and until we do we are not willing to cast dispersion on an unread Denny work.
However, based on the publicity we have seen it appears Professor Denny will not be coming out of his classical carpet closet just yet.
Here is the SLAM press release with a few comments from RK in bold type
“The Carpet and the Connoisseur: The James F. Ballard Collection of Oriental Rugs highlights the extraordinary range of Oriental carpets assembled by one of the most important early 20th-century American collectors who set a new standard for collecting and scholarship.”
Fact: During his lifetime James Ballard surely did not set any broad new standard for rug collecting, as hardly any of his contemporaries took notice. They continued to concentrate on classical carpets and certain Turkish prayer rugs, like Ghiordes, Kula and Ladik.
It was not until the middle 1960’s the Anatolian, trans-Caucasian and Turkmen weavings Ballard acquired began to be taken seriously and enthuse a new young generation of carpet collectors.
And as far as Ballard’s efforts at ‘scholarship’? RK must admit we are entirely curious, as we own and have seen every publication Ballard published and frankly none contain any efforts in that direction.
Picture books yes, text heavy books no way.
To his credit Ballard traveled to the Near East to find carpets for his growing passion and left as museum gifts an important carpet collection, but surely he did not attempt to do any research that could be even called amateur, let alone scholarship.
Again, do not get RK wrong here—we are not trying to diss Ballard by any means. We are, however, dissing whomever wrote this publicity blurb that attempts to turn Ballard into something he surely was not—a carpet scholar.
He was a collector ahead of his time appreciating village and clan weavings for sure, but that’s as far as the legacy of his rug passions go.
“Large Fragmentary Ushak Carpet with Quatrefoil Medallion, 16th century; Ottoman period, (1281–1924); wool; 119 x 90 ¼ inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of James F. Ballard 98:1929” Shame one of his best Anatolian village carpets was not chosen for this or any other press release. Doing so would have confirmed belief SLAM’s profuse praising Ballard the non-classical carpet collector was not just lip service.
By having avoided this here, and in other equally as prominent opportunities, SLAM completely neutered any carry through showing Ballard’s interest and admiration for his village carpets and most importantly his prescience to have collected them.
“During the early 20th century, St. Louis businessman James F. Ballard became one of the country’s top collectors of Oriental carpets. An unlikely collector, he was celebrated for his approach to collecting Anatolian carpets from provincial centers in Turkey at a time when most other rug connoisseurs were acquiring the classical Persian and Indian carpets. ”
An “unlikely collector”, what does that mean, or more to the point what does it imply?
We are not going to put words in someone’s mouth, particularly a nameless someone who wrote this press release, but RK thinks it particularly poor modifier to hang around James Ballard’s neck.
OK, this word is surely not a hangman’s noose but neither is it a Hermes Silk scarf.
“In addition to his passion for collecting, Ballard was also a patient teacher, inveterate traveler, and, above all, the first Oriental carpet enthusiast to acknowledge the importance of Turkish influence on the history of the pile carpet.”
Ballard the patient teacher? Guess we will all have to read the catalog to learn who, where and where rug “professor” Ballard was enlightening neophyte ruggies.
But there is absolutely No doubt Ballard was NOT the first to “acknowledge the importance of Turkish influence on the history of pile carpet”. This is blatant nonsense and should be immediately corrected by SLAM if they have any respect for honest reportage, even in highly flattering self-generated publicity like this.
“Ballard ultimately divided his collection of carpets between The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1922 and the Saint Louis Art Museum in 1929.”
It should come as no surprise Ballard gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA), which was at the time of his gift still called the City Museum, the best of his collection and SLAM got the leftovers, which still by the way included a few major masterpieces.
“Another group of carpets were added to the St. Louis collection through a later donation by his daughter, Nellie Ballard White, in 1972. As a result of these two gifts, the Museum has amassed a collection of Oriental rugs recognized as one of the most significant collections in the world.”
This is another gross overstatement if one prides oneself on accuracy.
SLAM’s carpet collection is not top ten, and we’d have to say not even top 20.
“The Carpet and the Connoisseur will highlight 51 carpets from the Ballard collection, including three Cairene rugs, a Spanish rug, and examples of “Lotto” and small-pattern “Holbein” carpets, all important examples of works from the late-15th and 16th centuries.”
Notice anything wrong here?
What happened to promoting, or even mentioning, the idea Ballard was the great collector of non-classical rugs rather than hyping more of his classical carpets?
See, this is what we mean by accusing SLAM, and Denny by association, of complete inability to walk the walk, and only mouth the talk.
But we are not surprised, this is the modus operandi for all ‘carpet experts’, like denny, thomspn, etc.
It’s all about how important Ottoman and Safavid weavings are and how derivative, unimportant and art-worthless village, clan and encampment weavings are.
It’s easy for SLAM to talk the talk Ballard was avant-garde, but since Denny their expert still can’t walk the walk to discuss Ballard’s non-classical weavings, the result is seriously misleading to any uninitiated readers inquisitive and compos mentis enough to remember what was written in the first paragraph while reading the second.
“Ballard also acquired two 19th-century Persian pleasure tents that were used for outdoor gatherings. These are also featured in the exhibition.
The Carpet and the Connoisseur is guest-curated by Walter B. Denny, University of Massachusetts distinguished professor in Islamic Arts in collaboration with Philip Hu, associate curator of Asian art, and textile conservator Zoe Perkins. The Carpet and the Connoisseur will be on view in the Main Exhibition Galleries from March 6 through May 8, 2016.”
By the way, in another piece of publicity for the SLAM Ballard exhibition RK found this detail picture of a rather uninspiring 19th century eastern Anatolian decidedly common ‘Karaman’ rug.
Lord knows there were a goodly number of far better choices to demonstrate James F. Ballard’s unorthodox carpet collecting modus operandi and collection.
But obviously it is pointless to try and question why SLAM and Denny can’t get it together to showcase Ballard weavings that are far more important and enlightening.