Imagination, Spontaneity, and Balance
By Jan David Winitz
President & Founder, Claremont Rug Company
A fascinating phenomenon often happens when I find myself alone with a high-level antique Bakshaish carpet. My eyes move over its surface, stopping to enjoy the nonchalance of an unfinished flower or the profound depth of a color striation as layered as the ancient walls of the Grand Canyon. Inevitably I will start to smile and the same question always forms: “How did they do that?”
The “they” I am referring to are the weavers who inhabited this village in the Northwest Persian region of Azerbaijan at the end of the 18th-century and for a hundred years of carpet production after that. That slight time warp engendered a significant, non-classical, unfettered village artistic aesthetic, which produced in room-size knotted textiles a degree of expressiveness that, in my opinion, has never been achieved before or after.
This prodigious and visionary carpet style created or inventively reinterpreted over 20 significant contributions to Persian room-size carpets’ field design and over ten border patterns. Bakshaish’s large-scale, geometric proclivity was revolutionary among Persian rug styles. The independent Bakshaish weavers irreverently brought a tribal sensitivity to the pride and joy of Persia’s classical Safavid rug designs on a grand scale, replacing the adherence to absolute symmetry and curvilinear design with ingenious, geometric spontaneity. In so doing, they gave birth to a major, if short-lived, artistic tradition that was later eclipsed by the so-called “Revival Period,” in which great numbers of carpets were produced for export.
In writing about the 19th-century Bakshaish rug-weaving tradition, the information is scant with virtually no thoughtful deduction, visitor journals, or scholarly research either from Eastern or Western sources to draw from. So, I rely for my primary sources on the many relationships with Persian village elders I have had the privilege to know and the countless conversations we had together, and on my vast exposure to antique carpets as a dealer reviewing pieces for my gallery over the past 41 years.
Out of curiosity, I checked my company’s records and discovered the number of 19th-century Bakshaishs we have sold since opening our doors in 1980 exceeds 1200 pieces from this tradition. How many more I reviewed and rejected is multiples of that figure. This article is the reflection of my particularly prolific interaction with Bakshaish carpets, as I have been enamored with them since I purchased my first Dragon and Phoenix piece nearly 50 years ago.
Situated in the eastern portion of Azerbaijan some 50 miles from the major city of Tabriz, Bakshaish at 5,000 feet was and still is a small village within a cluster of hamlets in a mountainous frontier of fertile meadows, steppe lands, thick forests, and towering elevations. The region stretches north virtually uninhabited for over 200 miles, except for numerous nomadic confederations either passing through or settling to forge migration routes between lower and higher pasturelands. Much like tribal groups, the isolated villagers’ lives were shaped by their commanding surroundings and their reliance on the cycles of nature—daily impressions that inform their carpets.
It is no wonder the animated interpretation of “The Garden of Paradise” may very possibly be the most beloved of all Bakshaish designs. Known as “Bid Majnun,” this compelling all-over pattern stems from the Safavid Garden rug design fully developed in Khorasan and Kerman in the 17th-century. The Garden design usually joins together three trees that represent the experiences in the life of a human being: a flowering or fruiting, deciduous tree evoking the sense that life provides what is needed in abundance; the weeping willow capturing humankind adapting, contemplating and learning from its suffering; and the cypress tree, signifying the posture of humility in all circumstances, the pathway to eternal life. It is a complex, multifaceted design and a favorite of the most adventurous Bakshaish weavers.
Below is a study of the spontaneous handlings of the deciduous tree motif in four Bakshaish carpets (early 19th-century to circa 1875) that capture the range of originality this weaving group left behind.
Especially in those woven circa 1875 or earlier, Bakshaish Garden carpets offer an extraordinary breadth of fanciful interpretation. Inspired by this pattern’s origins in Persian Court carpets, Bakshaish weavers placed their innate trust in creating folkloric depictions of the same motifs that deftly combined symmetrical and asymmetrical elements. In doing so, they created a panoply of rugs celebrating the Earth’s magical, ever-changing nature.
I invite you to read Part 2 of this article in which I will introduce you to more of the 19th-century Bakshaish rug spectacle. I will reveal the secret of their dyes’ soft yet deep quality, and discuss how age matters in identifying the best specimens.
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Recapping our exploration of 19th-century Bakshaish rugs in Part 1, I posed the question, “How did the Bakshaish weavers create rugs that were so distinctive from all other Persian room-size traditions? I explained my strong conviction that the ornate formal botanical patterns of the 16th and 17th Persian Safavid Court workshops were a jumping-off point for the profoundly reimagined geometrized Bakshaish reinventions. I highlighted four extremely varied interpretations of the classical “Garden of Paradise” motif by the highly expressive Bakshaish artists.
How did the Bakshaish weavers create such an extraordinary aesthetic? I characterize it as such:
- Having a profound allegiance to an inner canon to never draw the same motif twice in quite the same fashion.
- Enlarging and either simplifying or elaborating virtually any room-size rug tradition’s medallion or allover field format until it appears as new.
- Having an emboldened spontaneity expressing the confidence that the overall harmony of a rug cannot be sacrificed.
- Valuing the profound effects of both radiant and subdued color and the eloquence of shading.
The artistic legacy of the eccentric Bakshaish tradition is mind-boggling and much broader in scope than that of any other Persian room-size style. Referring to photographs of the 1200-plus 19th-century Bakshaishs Claremont has placed in its history, I counted over a dozen substantially reinvented field treatments from directional graphic patterns such as the Garden and Tree designs to floating large, angular flowerheads sometimes connected by a faint latticework and large enigmatic motifs set in rows hidden by their asymmetry.
An energetic assortment of medallion styles abounds in Bakshaish rugs. These include singular or multiple medallions on unadorned or spaciously covered reserves, niched medallions, transparent medallions, stacked diamond medallions, oval ones, with pendants, without pendants, with and without spandrels (corner pieces), animal skin or boat-shaped motifs. They simply reveled in the challenge of new combinations of elements with each new carpet.
The Azeri, an ancient Turkic people who were the predominant Bakshaish weavers, relied on their innate sense of the underlying harmony in everything in the cosmos, informed by their own experience of living close to nature and probably amplified by Sufic cosmology. With their geography and genetic ties closer to the Caucasian peoples than to Persian affiliation, Azeris have more exposure to life lived instinctively rather than by preplanning. The carpets shown here lend a glimpse at the idiosyncratic visual art of pre-commercial Bakshaish weaving.
Having sold so many rugs of this genre over the past 41 years, as well as reviewing countless others that I “passed on,” I have come to see that not all Bakshaish are great rugs. In every style, there are highly inspired, adroit weaving teams and those who were not. The finest carpets reveal their weavers’ extraordinary confidence and dexterity, innovating in design and color and never crossing the line into disharmony.
Although source information about Bakshaish rugs is scant at best, rug scholars do recognize both the superior wool and dyes that distinguish this inspired weaving tradition. Heinrich Jacoby, a German rug expert in 1949, wrote that Bakshaish rugs could be distinguished from rugs elsewhere in Persia by their “soft coloring,” which he attributed to the local water. Interestingly, the Aji Chai or Talkeh Rud (“Bitter River”) flowing through the Bakshaish area that provides water for the sheep herds and dyebaths is alkaline, containing high mineralization. The commanding mountain in this region, Mount Sabalan, is said to “sit on a major deposit of copper.”
Universally admired for their “soft coloration” partially bequeathed by the water, exemplary Bakshaish rugs have a “transparent” quality to their tonalities, achieved in the dyeing process. Dyeing was done by the red, blue, and green specialists in the village, with subsequent colors produced by the weavers themselves. The antique rugs from this tradition reveal a masterful chromatic irregularity known as “abrash” that added to the depth of their compositions.
Referred to by Jon Thompson in “Oriental Carpets: From the Tents, Cottages and Workshops of Asia” (1988), as “a vibrato of color [from] innumerable variations of the same shade,” the Bakshaish virtuoso handling of the abrash technique is exciting to see. The strata of “Bakshaish blues,” often used in borders, is a signature element seen in their carpets, almost always appearing in the best pieces. Their breathtaking center medallion on an open field rugs often showcase a thrilling diversity of softly shimmering crimsons tones. The 19th-century Bakshaish color palette that captures the emotive hues of mountain sunrises and sunsets, crystalline skies, and volcanic lakes plays a major role in this artistic tradition. They palpably create stirring depths of field, tropical warmth Gaugin would relate to, rippling azure pools, the glowing of embers, and from the natural camel hair tonalities, the immediacy of earth.
Today the availability of top-tier Bakshaish carpets, rugs, and occasional runners from the 1800s is greatly diminished. Aficionados, both domestic and foreign, started to purchase them throughout the 19th-century. Well-known Western admirers included Sigmund Freud and David Rockefeller.
At this point, late 19th-century Northwest Persian Herizs and Shahsavans are now sometimes mistaken for Bakshaish, as sellers attempt to represent this eccentric style in their inventories. Thankfully, through a buying network based on longtime collectors who we have created relationships with since the beginning of Claremont, we continue to be able to periodically procure 19th-century pieces that possess an inimitable folkloric ambiance and soaring originality, while always maintaining the Bakshaish standard of artistic balance and harmony.
In Part 3, we will look more closely at various of Bakshaish’s incredibly inventive field and border designs and discuss their incredible visual memory and also show a couple of the “off-the-charts” early Bakshaishs that have come through Claremont over the years.
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In Part 2, I enumerated some of the inestimable reinvented and enchantingly novel designs that make up the antique Bakshaish style’s oeuvre. In this segment, I will discuss how the weavers’ psychological and emotional makeup informed the tremendous creative dexterity seen in their rugs. The lion’s share of the ancestral weavers had little or no formal education, yet they possessed amazing memories. This faculty was coupled with an extraordinary attunement to the rhythms of the natural world that they depended on for their survival and deeply inspired them.
The stories from the tribal and village elders I have had the great privilege to know abound with descriptions of women who briefly saw a rug, a handkerchief, a sketch in a book or on the ground, and proceeded to weave a carpet with an uncanny resemblance to its origin.
One dear friend who grew up in a remote weaving village would recite countless word-for-word poems from Rumi and other Sufi poets, as well as numerous teaching stories he had heard around the campfire. His visual memory was equally astounding. Once, when he was describing a rug that I’d seen but couldn’t quite remember, he began drawing out its design on paper in more and more detail until I finally could recall which rug it was.
The culturally independent Bakshaish weavers recognized that no two things are ever the same, yet they belong to groups by genus and species. The weavers instinctively knew that everything in nature and the universe plays an integral role. They continually found new inspiration by accessing their extraordinary visual acumen to transform whatever moved them in their natural environment into partially abstracted patterns and ever-changing, yet always harmonious hues in their rugs.
So many weaving traditions intermingled in the mountain villages of Northwest Persian Azerbaijan: the Armenians of Karabagh to the north; the Karadagh, Afshar, Turkoman, Kurdish, and Shahsavan tribal nomads, displaced Syrians, and the predominantly Azeris weavers of Bakshaish themselves. The rugmakers from the cluster of villages of which Bakshaish was the center also drew inspiration from formal carpets from Tabriz, Khorasan, and Kirman.
Before the eclipse of the 19th-century when agents of urban mercantile and export enterprises began dictating the patterns Persian weavers should use in order to sell their rugs to the Western market, most Bakshaish weavers did not merely replicate the motifs and color combinations of their source material; they reimagined them into something entirely unique, artistically fresh and profoundly evocative of their life experiences.
The Bakshaish weavers were particularly entranced with the effect of undyed camelhair on rug design, using this fiber centrally in a notable amount of their carpets, most frequently as the background of fields, patterned or not, or strikingly as the fully unadorned outermost border of a piece. Experiencing Azerbaijani descendants speak passionately of blonde to mocha-hued camelhair in rugs that we viewed together heightened my receptivity to its significant impact on the emotions and, as an artistic tool as central as is crimson, sapphire blue, or sea green.
Modern-day psychologists who study the effect of color agree light brown elicits associations of nurturance, dependability, comfort, and the security of the earth. However, it is our clients’ gravitation to camelhair that convinces me that there is a virtually universal attraction to the fur of these even-toed ungulates. Undyed camel hair’s mesmerizing strata of sand tones connect us subliminally with the security of our earthly home, and by extension, the sanctuaries we create for ourselves.
Another striking attribute of Bakshaish rugs is the scale and diversity of their borders, in which a panoply of at least 15 distinctive patterns can be found. Bakshaish weavers clearly had a unique sense of the border design as less of a framing and more an extension of a carpet’s overall artistic impact. For example, their most beloved Oakleaf and Rosette Meander is always interpreted afresh, its simple elements sized, spaced, and colored to echo the field’s ambiance and design. Drawing from a tremendous panoply of reinvented or, in some cases, entirely original borders and field motifs, Bakshaish weavers created the astonishing array of never-seen-before compositions.
A crowning example of this visionary aptitude is in the various ways they captured the millennia-old Dragon and Phoenix motif. Through trade relations along the Silk Route, carpet designers of the early Persian Safavid Court were exposed to Chinese art and began depicting their representations of Yin and Yang. The weavers of the Caucasus Mountains integrated the Dragon into pile and later Soumak (supplemental weft) weavings. Through a turn-of-the-19th-century Dragon and Phoenix Bakshaish carpet we placed 22 years ago, we can surmise approximately when the powerful symbology arrived into the Bakshaish weaving enclave.
The Chinese paired the phoenix and dragon as ferocious supernatural swirling yin and yang creatures. The Dragon (Yang) represented the explosive creative and controlling universal power. The Phoenix (Yin) derives her complementary stature from her embodiment of what the Chinese called Virtue — that which cannot harm either a single insect or a blade of grass. By visualizing these diametrically opposed energies in their extremes, they express the primordial forces of existence.
Bakshaish weavers transformed the Dragon and Phoenix symbolism to convey a different aspect of the cosmos. Deconstructing these mythical figures, over time, they merged them into a single motif. The dragon’s body became so stylized only an undulating form with obvious scales remained. The phoenix became a small, usually ivory, figure that virtually blended into the body of the dragon. In Bakshaish rugs, these two universal forces are always depicted in perfect harmony.
Seen from our study of a great many carpets, this new rendition of the Bakshaish Dragon and Phoenix motif was more in keeping with their cosmology. The landscape of Dragon carpets became divided into celestial and earthly zones. The celestial region, a large one-layered center medallion, is populated with at least four dragon and phoenix forms, signifying their omnipresent energy. While placing the yin and yang symbols at the cosmological core of their carpets, Bakshaish weavers introduced flowers, shrubs, animals, and sometimes a human figure to represent earthly existence outside the medallion and spandrels, evoking the totality of the seen and unseen world. These carpets are a vivid depiction of the central adage of the Eastern world — “As above, so below.”
Viewing a top-tier Bakshaish, whether it is a 12×20 piece created by a weaving team over a year or more or a rarely found 4×6 knotted by a single weaver, the best pieces are utterly mesmerizing, unfettered expressions. With no early traveler notes or sketches to rely on and little scholarly study to date, these rugs leave many questions in the academic mind. But all that is needed is for one to witness the undiluted, emotional fluency of the carpets themselves to recognize their artistic contribution.
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