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Tibetan Carpets

by N.F. Karlins
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Tibetan rugs sit at the crossroads of folk art and fine art, featuring both freewheeling subjects from everyday life and a traditional attention to craft and materials. Some colors -- specifically red, yellow and orange -- are reserved for use in monasteries, and the finest weaves are frequently used for honored guests, often lamas. But rugs, mostly small, show up everywhere. They are used less as large-area floor coverings than for sitting and sleeping.

Produced in large quantities for all types of occasions, both secular and religious, rugs are among the most varied art forms in Tibet; their producers borrow abundantly from many other traditions to create something distinctive and joyous. The weaving is looser than in fine Persian rugs and the symbolic decoration less exactingly used than in most Chinese rugs, but a playful spirit more than makes up for these technical imperfections.

Robert W. and Lois Baylis first went to Tibet in 1986. Taken by the rugs they saw everywhere, they have amassed one of the finest collections of recent Tibetan carpets. As patrons of the Rubin Museum, they have put a generous and varied slice of their collection on view there in “Patterns of Life: The Art of Tibetan Carpets,” Apr. 8-Aug. 22, 2011. The exhibition is augmented by painted religious wall scrolls, or “thangkas,” and a few sculptures from the museum’s permanent collection.

These rugs pack a huge visual wallop. Always colorful, their compositions range wildly from the innocent and cartoon-like to the abstract. Traditional plant dyes co-exist with brilliant synthetics. And tradition always seems subverted to the creative license of the weaver.

Many of the rugs picture animals, real or imaginary. Animal groupings are rarely formal, as in many other Asian rugs. One sitting or sleeping rug, the kind of rug that every Tibetan would own, depicts a rather stiff and folksy tiger in a bamboo grove on the right, and a mythical snow lion ranging among mountains, on the left. The left side’s mountains and clouds recall simplified borrowings from Chinese art, and the rug’s composition is awkward yet charming -- in part because this kind of mash-up is so unusual.

The same snow lion, which was, before China’s invasion in 1959, a symbol of Tibet that appeared on the national flag, also figures in a pillow cover that probably belonged to a monk, as indicated by its red background. Pillow covers were less necessary for nomadic peoples than for the more settled populations, like the landed gentry or members of monastic orders.

The more balanced rug compositions include Buddhist motifs, like the flaming jewel (which symbolizes wisdom) and waves of water (purity), yet both have been so liberally interpreted from their Indian and Chinese sources that they become something entirely new and different. Because weaving was considered a craft and not a religious art, like “thangkas,” weavers were free to combine elements that attracted them without giving thought to propriety.

Most of the rugs here are cut-loop woolen pile carpets from the 20th century. A center medallion was, and still remains, a common design. One variant, though, can be seen on a sitting or sleeping rug with three central designs: a sun or moon bracketed by “clouds” which seem to float in a blue-green expanse. The “clouds” are reminiscent of paired ram’s horns, a Central Asian motif used throughout Tibet. Yak horns symbolize fertility in certain Tibetan dances and can be seen above doorways as talismans for protection, probably courtesy of Bon, the early Tibetan, pre-Buddhist religion.

The background of this rug boasts varying intensities of color (“abrash”) that result from the use of separate dye baths with varying amounts of mordant and dye, a practice common for the production of many Tibetan rugs. One rug in blue, blue-green, and green against red in a checkerboard design -- another common decorative element -- becomes a jazzy masterpiece with its erratic and unexpected color modulations.

Geometric patterns were and remain popular -- and not just checkerboards. My favorite rug is a small square, sitting rug (or “khagangma”) that seems to have two borders: an old Tibetan design. Talismanic crosses seem to line up in rows that skim across the surface only to morph into other colors or sweep into adjacent rows. This powerful, subtly asymmetrical composition had my eyes popping.

In 1904, the British forcibly entered Tibet. Lord Curzon sent Major Francis Younghusband on an expedition with the ostensible purpose of settling disputes over trade and border issues -- but really his mission was to investigate possible Russian intrusions into the desert regions of Tibet as part of “the Great Game,” when European powers jockeyed to wield power over large parts of the East. One unexpected result was a change in the shape of saddle rugs in Tibet.

Rugs were used under and over saddles. Usually, the under-saddle rugs were ovoid, composed of two pieces with same design that were joined in the middle, with rounded ends. But once British saddle rugs were seen throughout Tibet, the form of Tibetan saddle rugs morphed into a “butterfly” shape that copied British saddlery. One such rug on view in the exhibition depicts phoenixes beneath a blue sky. In Chinese art, these birds are usually depicted mid-flight -- but here, they are on land.

Purely monastic carpets are also featured, including sitting rugs in tiger or leopard-skin designs. Power over the self was the symbolism behind the use of real tiger skin rugs in monasteries, but as tigers grew scarce, more rugs that simply mimicked the design of tiger-skin were used instead. Even rarer is the leopard-skin rug on display. The bunching of spots at the top and bottom and the “abrash” makes it a stunning work, visually, even beyond its rarity.

Lovers of abstraction might relish a sitting rug with a tiger-skin motif in the center, surrounded by an inner border of pearls and an outer one of crossed thunderbolts, or “vajras” (associated with indestructibility and compassion), with yet another “vajra” in the center. Clearly created for monastic use with its Buddhist symbols and red border, it probably dates from the late 19th century.

Here’s hoping that the complex mixing and matching of motifs in Tibetan rugs continues to flourish.

“Patterns of Life: The Art of Tibetan Carpets,” Apr. 8-Aug. 22, 2011, Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, New York, 10011.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.