Flowers Underfoot at the Met: A Review.

By Randy Crist

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has given the public the opportunity to view some of the greatest works of textile art even created in its exhibition of Mughal rugs entitled, "Flowers Underfoot: Indian Carpets of the Mughal Era". The exhibit is in honor of India's 50th year of independence. Actually, the word "textile" should be removed from my first sentence. Several of the exhibited carpets rival any great art object I have seen.

The Display

Entering the special exhibit hall was amusing. Coexisting with the Mughal exhibits (the Windsor Padshahnama is also on display and worth a couple of hours of examination) is a Degas exhibition, which attracted most of the museum patrons. Getting past the throngs gathered at the entrance of that exhibit presented something of a challenge, but it was easy sailing afterwards.

The Mughal rugs are exhibited in a very large space, befitting their monumental nature. The lighting is very annoyingly low. Although not as low as the Textile Museum's lighting, which is extremely annoying, the Met's lighting still makes it difficult to appreciate the magnificent colors in these wonderful rugs. With the omnipresent motion detectors, it also was hard to get close to any of the pieces. Efforts to view the carpets from above inevitably elicited a "beep-beep-beep…" that drove all visitors to distraction. Apart from these two problems, however, the presentation of the pieces is very well done.

The Two "Jordans"

The reader must temper what follows with the following fact: I would gladly trade all the rugs and bags I own, along with most of my other worldly possessions, to own one of the pieces in this show (there are a few exceptions). To say that a piece is bad relative to some of the stars of the show is akin to comparing your average NBA player to Michael Jordan.

That being said, I can't help starting with the "Jordans" of the show, two pashmina prayer rugs (Catalogue numbers 19 and 21). Sadly, these pieces are not available on the Met's website and cannot be depicted here. Both are prayer rugs with a single plant growing under the mihrab. The coarsest of these rugs (if you could use the word coarse in this context) is 1,000 knots per inch, the finer being 2,000 knots per inch. It is a wonderful thing to find drawing and color worthy of such a fine weave. The drawing of these plants, especially the poppy rug from a private European collection, is the finest you will see on any work of art. Colors are incredibly deep and beautiful. The shading, accomplished by respinning the wool of two distinct colors, gives depth that you will find in no other weaving. They are the best rugs I have ever seen, bar none (including all of the remarkable things in the Met's collection).

It is impossible to describe these exquisite rugs on paper. Even the high quality photographs in Daniel Walker's outstanding catalogue are pale imitations of these gems.


Some Lesser Carpets

These two carpets almost ruined the rest of the exhibition for me since most everything else suffered in comparison with the two "Jordans." Three casualties were the McMullan prayer rug, which had the misfortune of being displayed next to my two favorites, and the millifleur pieces that came later in the exhibition.

The McMullan Prayer Rug

The McMullan rug should have been elsewhere. It looked like a rather crude knockoff of the poppy prayer rug (no.19). The millifleurs (nos. 35 and 36) are stiff, crowded and ugly by comparison. I should temper this with respect to one of them. The older of the two is actually very nice, but still suffers in comparison with my two favorites. I am not a big fan of the millifleurs and find it amazing that someone spent $800,000 on one a couple of years ago at auction. By this standard, what would my two "Jordans" be worth?

The Pashmina Carpets

Next to my two favorites, the 10 or so pashmina rugs were the highlight of the show for me. Clearly extra effort was made to create truly beautiful art objects with this rare material. Pashmina is the yarn spun from the hair of certain mountain goats, and it is a fine and difficult yarn to obtain. These pieces have only the finest design, color, and weave incorporated into them.

A particularly good example, illustrated at right, is one from the Met's own web site. The depth and richness of the colors completely draw you into the rug-it is hard to pull your eye away.

Pashmina Carpet Fragment

Mughal Design

A very interesting aspect of the exhibition is observing the evolution of the Mughal rug design. The obvious Persian influence can be seen in many of the earlier rugs (not all-more on this below). Number 12, a Lahore carpet from the Detroit Institute of the Arts, dated around 1620, certainly has a Persian feel. It is filled with scrolling vines, blossoms and two large medallions. Then you start to notice a more naturalistic appearance to the drawing of blossoms and other features, rather than the more stylized designs of Persian work. This is most evident in the pashmina pieces. The designers found a style that seemed to fit their aesthetic.

Animal Carpets

The Widener Animal Carpet

One final group that I found absorbing was the animal and hunting rugs. For an example from the Met's web site, click here.

These are wild rugs! Not placid and contemplative pastoral pieces, these are energetic and brutal. Any hunter would be happy with one of these in his den, for it is akin to mounting an animal head on the wall. The interesting thing about this group is that they are some of the earliest rugs made for the Shahs, providing a counterexample to my generalization on design.

One of the earliest is a fragment from the Textile Museum (no. 1B). The colors in this rug are fantastic. A stylized cat's head in a beautiful salmon color sits in the center (a tiger?), with other animals' heads swirling around it, sometimes eating the head in front of it. It is a piece that would always hold my interest and never bore me.

Another great one, depicted on the left, is the National Gallery of Art's Widener carpet (no. 10). Ordinary and fantastic beasts rush around the field, being pursued, pursuing and doing battle. A detail from this rug can be viewed at the top of this page. A wonderful cartouche border, each with a grotesque head at the center, complete this marvel.

There are many other great rugs in this exhibit-seeing a 52' long Deccan hanging down a wall and extending out 35 feet is physically pretty impressive. This exhibit is worth a trip to New York. When will you see anything like it in the next 20 years? The catalogue is a must for any rug library and the Met's website is pretty nice. The exhibition runs through March 1.

To comment on this article, you may e-mail Randy Crist, or Steve Price.


TurkoTek Home