Reconsidering the Carpet Paradigm

Reconsidering the Carpet Paradigm

Session chairs:

Johanna Rosenqvist, PhD, Postdoctoral researcher, Division of Art History and Visual Studies, Dept. of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University, Sweden

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Martin Sundberg, PhD, Eikones NCCR Iconic Criticism, University of Basel, Switzerland

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“Figures in the Carpet: Figure-and-ground relationships in works by Félix Vallotton and Edouard Vuillard”

Merel van Tilburg; Université de Genève, Geneva, Switzerland

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“For himself, beyond doubt, the thing we were all so blank about was vividly there. It was something, I guessed, in the primal plan, something like a complex figure in a Persian carpet.”

Henry James’s novella The Figure in the Carpet (1896) revolves around the quest of a literary critic to discover the hidden “secret” in the work of a famous novelist. The novella brilliantly gives form to an artistic concern typical for the turn of the nineteenth century, and perhaps for every beholder of art: the desire to unravel a hidden truth, to unlock the “secret” of an artwork, to discover the “something” that might enlighten, transcend, transform or fundamentally affect our lives.

“Is it something in the style or something in the thought? An element of form or an element of feeling?”, the critic desperately asks the novelist. To this, the latter replies that what no one has yet discovered in his work (his “secret”), is rather “the organ of life” itself.

Interestingly, the critic compares this undiscovered, and supposedly very concrete “life” driving the oeuvre of the novelist to a “complex figure in a Persian carpet”. The metaphor seems particularly apt, since in carpet weaving, figure and ground are woven simultaneously. The “figure” thus is part of the entire carpet, just as the “organ of life” would be present in every element of an art work. Nevertheless, a trained eye can easily discern figure from ground in a Persian carpet.

This seeming paradox of figure and ground takes on an even more poignant presence in Fin de Siècle paintings and prints by Édouard Vuillard and Félix Vallotton. The thematic of hiding and discovering, or, if you will, of mystery versus materiality, is explored in images playing with the relationship between figure and ground. This relationship is notably staged through the depiction of carpets, and designed objects related to carpets. The carpet, as Edgar Allan Poe had noted in “The Philosophy of Furniture” already in 1840, was the “soul” of the (nineteenth-century) interior.

In paintings by Vuillard, the oscillation between figure and ground, or the near-disappearance of the human figure in its surroundings, begs for an almost metaphysical exploration of the limits of the self. In works by Vallotton in which carpets or rugs are depicted, the emphasis on abstract decorativeness rather – temporarily – seems to counter the animism constantly lurking in the objects in his interiors. Nevertheless, Vallotton’s carpets, I would argue, play a crucial role as pointers within a larger aesthetic, in line with the late nineteenth-century trend of “unmasking” psychology – a trend equally present in authors such as Schopenhauer and Ibsen.


“Fernand Léger, La Maison Myrbor and Signs of Culture”

Maureen Shanahan; James Madison University, Virginia, USA

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The carpet’s historic fluidity between floor and wall, function and contemplation, and horizontality and verticality, offers a paradigm for thinking through artistic anxieties in an era of autonomous art and positions the carpet within unstable binarisms:  art versus craft, humanism and culture versus animality and debasement; the architectural versus the nomadic.  This conception of a carpet paradigm is aligned with modern painting’s contentious relationship with the realm of horizontality, animality, and sexuality as traced through Leo Steinberg’s interpretation of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon as both horizontal and vertical, Harold Rosenberg’s characterization of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings process as the bull in the arena, and Steinberg’s reading of Robert Rauschenburg’s combines as “flatbed pictures.”  Similarly, in Muralnomad: The Paradox of Wall painting 1927-37 (2009), Romy Golan revived Le Corbusier’s term “muralnomad” to argue that from the 1930s to the 1950s, the “mural,” including large-scale canvases, frescoes, mosaics, tapestry as woolen walls, and photomurals, became a metaphor for “fundamental questions about the modern condition – home versus homelessness, the erosion of aura, monumentality versus nomadism.”

In this paper, I explore Fernand Léger’s pictorial production and the textile paradigm at the nexus of these collapsing oppositions. In 2003, the Musée national de Fernand Léger created an exhibition dedicated to his tapestry production, emphatically positioning the artist and his work in the realm of culture and nation. However, the story is perhaps more complex.  In the 1920s, Léger lived in close proximity to the Musée de Cluny whose tapestries informed his paintings.  For Léger and his contemporaries, medieval French art represented an authentic French artistic legacy and signified collective creativity in opposition to the Italian Renaissance model of verisimilitude and individualism. Throughout his career, Léger had multiple occasions to design carpets and tapestries:  an abstract textile design modeled on one of his earliest mural paintings for Robert Mallet-Stevens’ Embassy Pavilion in the 1925 International Exposition in Paris; tapestries for Notre Dame de Sainte-Grâce d’Audincourt in 1947; and a number of tapestries produced in the 1950s and afterwards based on earlier work, such as Les Constructeurs sur fond bleu (1951), La Danse (1952), La Création du monde (1963), Liberté (1963), and La Grande parade (1989).  Marie Cuttoli and her boutique, La Maison Myrbor, had an important role in reviving artistic production of tapestry works, notably through her collaborations between avant-garde artists (Rouault, Picasso, Léger, Lurcat, Arp, Klee, Miro and others) and the Aubusson workshops. However, in 1934, Cutolli offered her gallery space for an exhibition of Léger’s recent drawings and paintings, new object pictures that turn away from his machine aesthetic to the organic (holly leaves, flint rock) whose uncanny resemblance to exploded metal and skulls point to revived memories of the battle fields of World War I, an allusion to another kind of carpet and carpeting:  the earthly ground, the terrain damaged by war.  Where the recent exhibition on Léger’s tapestry production serves to elevate the carpet as French patrimony, Léger’s 1934 exhibition at Cutolli’s Galerie Vignon betrays a disturbed memory of debased humanity.  Léger’s work thus exemplifies the carpet paradigm not only because his designs were translated into mural painting, carpet and tapestry, but also because horizontality, the repressed and debased emerge even in the work of an artist so deeply tied to rationality.


“Earthly Paradise in Concrete Form. A modern Moorish carpet by Randi Fisher”

Linda Fagerström, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

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Randi Fisher (1920-97) was active amongst the so called concretist sphere in Stockholm during the 1940s and 1950s. She worked in various fields; painting, textile and glass. Book cover design and public art formed important parts of her work, always on the verge between figurative and non-figurative during high Swedish modernism. In 1955 Randi Fisher made a carpet for the Sofia Magdalena church in Askersund. It was executed at Libraria and exhibited at H55 in Helsingborg 1955. The motif is a non-figurative one, asymmetrical with geometrical forms. Most prominent colours are golden yellow, reddish pink, black and white with smaller fields of green and blue. The carpet was made shortly after Fisher had visited the Spanish island Tenerife in 1953-54. She came there in order to experience art and architecture from the Islamic period on the island, and her carpet is inspired by Arabic, and especially Muslim, textile art. Like many contemporary European artists (Matisse amongst others) and authors, Fisher was interested in (what then was called) Moorish art and architecture. During her stay on Tenerife, she saw lot of architecture and art from Islamic times, especially in small town of Orotava.

Patterns in Muslim prayer carpets are traditionally centered around a niche which, during prayer, should be directed towards Mecca. Fisher uses this compositional idea by placing a large white triangle in the center of her carpet, pointing eastward in the direction of the altar. Apart from Muslim textile art, western early modernism also formed important inspiration for Fisher. Most obvious names are Kandinsky, Klee and Albers – all of which worked with abstract geometry. Via another source of inspiration, her mother, textile artist and professor at Konstfack in Stockholm Eivor Fisher, Randi Fisher was well aware of the artistic potential in textile as material. Also, Fisher’s own work in stained glass painting influenced the composition of this carpet. The same way carpet patterns and/or book illuminations often formed inspiration for stained glass paintings in medieval cathedrals, Fisher’s carpet connects to her stained glass paintings. The different artistic techniques interact when crossbars (used in stained glass painting) as well as pointy, strongly coloured glass pieces reappear in the carpet pattern.

The overall design connects in several ways to yet another well known motif in Arabic textile art; the paradise garden. In the paradise garden, four life-giving rivers are always present. They often meet at an intersection where, as in Alhambra in today’s Spain, a fountain is placed. According to tradition, those heavenly streams bring with them water, wine, milk and honey. In Randi Fisher’s carpet the streams are represented by four forms in blue-green, reddish pink, white, and golden yellow – water, wine milk and honey. On their sides flowers and green plants flourish – big triangular green leaf-forms and smaller red circles and white dots. A reading of the ambient black and white-pattern as a modern desert, a cityscape where white windows and neon lights flickers against black buildings, enables you to think about the circle-shaped center of the carpet as a modern oasis; a place – or, perhaps, a condition – in the middle of the city which provides life-giving water, greenery and mental peace.

She thus – by juxtaposing a technique linked with interior (textile/carpet) and a motif linked with public realm (the cold, modern city) – blurs the interiority and softness often connected to textile material in general and perhaps especially carpets with the cold roughness of a modern cityscape.

Randi Fisher works in a style where the contemporary modernistic imagery – in contemporary Swedish art world known as ”concrete” or ”concretistic” – meets historic Arabic art both in motif and composition. By combining a modernistic expression and a motif inspired by historic textile art and Arabic culture, Fisher creates a modern synthesis between both styles, cultures and historic periods.


“Knotted Submission and Textile Revolt. Figure and Ornament in Central Asian Carpets”

Vera-Simone Schulz; Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck‐Institut, Florence, Italy

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When Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii undertook his documentary survey of the Russian Empire in colour photography on the eve of World War I, among the greatest challenges he had to face in his pioneering work was the presentation of textiles. From around 1907 through 1915, Prokudin-Gorskii pursued his project, which had won the support of Tsar Nicholas II, in order to educate the schoolchildren of Russia about the vast and diverse history and culture of the empire by means of “optical colour projections”. Thus photographs of Uzbek and Turkmen tribesmen, merchants and politicians show them wearing colourful dresses, standing or sitting on floors laid out with richly decorated rugs. Prokudin-Gorskii demonstrated a relationship between man and carpet in Central Asia that was about to disappear. As a first sign of the changing role rugs were to play, in 1925, Baili Sharapov and Sapar-Gul Sharapova proudly claimed to have woven a Turkmen carpet with Lenin’s portrait.

Traditionally handmade rugs soon gave way to the mass production of Soviet propaganda items which – by changing the pattern to figural portraits and by taking the carpets from the floor and putting them on the wall – resembled political icons, often framed by traditional border ornaments.

The Christian association suggested by a portrait in the textile medium became even more evident when, in 1970, machine-made rugs depicting Lenin as a young boy resembling the Christ child were woven in order to celebrate the centenary of the former leader – thus also adding an interesting twist to the idea of “images not made by human hand”. Ironically, although these propagandistic rugs marked a Western alteration to the weaving tradition of Central Asian carpets, willingly or unwillingly, they also referred to a second tradition – Persian figurative carpets.

The paper will address this rarely studied group of Soviet portrait carpets and contrast them to the highly popular war rugs from Afghanistan. Shortly after the Soviets invaded the country in 1979, tribal groups in the region started to weave carpets with figurative war motifs. Repetitious depictions of airplanes, tanks, machine guns and artillery shells were incorporated into traditional geometric and floral ornaments, and since 9/11, with the US military presence in the region, new war rug designs have emerged. Although directed explicitly against the various invaders, these carpets appeal especially to them, becoming both collection objects in foreign art galleries and souvenirs of US soldiers.

This discussion of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs, Soviet portrait carpets and Afghan war rugs shows three different, but interconnected modes of dealing with the cultural heritage of Central Asian carpets as well as their various transformations, thereby touching both on the aesthetic relationship between figure and ornament and on the political realm. It will thus give an opportunity to analyze the multi-faceted cultural transfers evident in these mobile objects in the contact zone between Russia and Persia, and the way in which soft carpets became sharp weapons in a fight for national identity.