Oriental rug designers have been creating abstract art long before the modern era in the West. Indeed, carpet design has influenced modern arts and many of its celebrated leaders, such as the Nabis, Matisse, Klee, and Denis, to name a few. Yet, it is not recognized as an art in its own right, but is usually viewed as decorative in nature by art critics.
Admittedly, the principles underlying Oriental rugs design were never articulated formally, nor did they experience radical stylistic changes in history that could attract scholars and art critics. Rather, they were left at an intuitive level, transmitted by local customs, and incorporated over time into vaguely demarcated, stable, bodies of style, associated with centers of production and tribes.
Also, the abstract design in Oriental rugs was driven as much by inherent constraints as by creative expression. To begin with, the hand-knotting technique used in Oriental rugs is not ideal for producing subtle gradations in tone and light needed to create illusions of real objects with depth and contour. Besides, Oriental rugs are generally intended to be laid on the ground and are not well fitted for such illusions, lest they appear to open an abyss or raise an obstacle under one’s feet. Finally, Islam discouraged the depiction of living creatures, further limiting objective representations. These constraints forced to some extent Oriental rug designers to develop alternative, abstract, forms of representation and expression to realistic, three-dimensional reproductions.
Nevertheless, Oriental rugs design went well beyond the informal, “decorative” craftsmanship to which it is usually relegated. Over its long history, it created forms of representation which distilled our perceptions of Nature and anticipated many of the ideas in modern arts. Long before the latter, it developed new perspectives adapted to a flat surface on the ground, explored linear patterns and color for objective and subjective expression, and created purely abstract, stand-alone objects d’art. Thus, Persian rugs depicted idyllic settings and the sublime in rich, stylized, “flat” gardens, or in perfectly balanced allover patterns of arabesques. Caucasian rugs or Quashgai kilims produced dynamic, expressionistic or purely abstract, compositions of color and motifs. And prayer rugs combined near-cubistic displays of a flat ground within an upright arch with religious expression.
Ironically, the lack of recognition for Oriental rug design limited it to its decorative function and held back new creativity in the modern period. Only very recently, do we see encouraging attempts to create something a bit more fitting to these times. Still there is quite a distance to cross before carpet production can reclaim a standing as an art form.
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