by Jan David Winitz
President and Founder, Claremont Rug Company
To know art deeply is a great adventure that yields extraordinary rewards. It allows us to value life more fully. Art reminds us that we each have an inner life that wishes to be expressed. Haunting, finely detailed drawings created 30,000 years ago on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in southern France suggest that there have always been artists among us who have been moved to communicate their sense of wonder at the world.
Wall painting in Chauvet Cave created 30,000 years ago
Building a relationship with art, either as its creator or as a viewer, taps into a human birthright and offers one of the most satisfying experiences we can have. Great art communicates substantially without the need for words. I relate to Abstract painter Mark Rothko’s claim that “people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures.”
I have always been deeply attracted to art, studying early statues of Grecian and Roman deities, Old Master and Impressionist paintings, reading Goethe, Dostoyevsky and Joyce, listening to Beethoven and Chopin. But it was my exposure, at an early age, to the art of great Oriental carpets that taught and enriched me the most. Through the end of the 19th-century, the best Persian carpet weavers were the recipients of an unbroken artistic tradition that spans more than 2,500 years, one that harmoniously married form and color into a profound expression of universal significance.
Although collecting art brings many dividends, the most precious is when an artwork touches this essential aspect. I have long held two experiences as my standard, and expect art to affect me nonverbally and non-conceptually. One was when, while still in college, I visited Florence and saw Michelangelo’s David for the first time. I recall the experience vividly. Time became secondary and my mind grew quiet. For the next two hours, there was nothing I desired but to converse with this towering form. Looking back, I understand now that the harmonious impression communicated by this massive piece of carved marble nourished a deeper aspect of myself that I had seldom been in touch with.
To know art deeply is a great adventure that yields extraordinary rewards. It allows us to value life more fully.
My Bakshaish Dragon and Phoenix Rug, early 19th-century
The second experience came well before I started my gallery close to 4 decades ago; I bought my first truly great Oriental carpet, an elemental Dragon and Phoenix Persian Bakshaish that hangs in my office at my gallery to this day. It was a rare find then. In today’s market, it would be monumental. Though I’ve written and lectured about rug symbolism for decades, I’m more entranced by the power of this carpet today than when I first viewed it. Within a grand uncluttered medallion, four dragons face the minimalist depiction of phoenix heads, representing the masculine and feminine forces blending on the cosmic level.
Around them and in the borders prance and meander numerous stylized animals, flowers and plants that serve as a microcosmic reflection of the cosmic forces depicted in its medallion. In his book, The Shock of The New, the formidable New York Times art critic Robert Hughes wrote, “The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.”
Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888
As the president of an antique Oriental rug company I always talk to clients, in addition to discussing provenance and caliber, about how a carpet affects me personally. I strive to guide them to see what lies below the surface. After a while, even a complete novice begins to discover, or “receive,” the atmosphere of the piece. Their prejudgments fall away. “How beautiful,” some clients will say, while others will just grow quiet. But whatever the exclamation, it’s clear that something timeless has been communicated. Many of my clients consider themselves connoisseurs or collectors, while others simply enjoy being surrounded by beauty. For both groups, this aspect of interacting with great art is the same.
I cannot know my art intimately without becoming sensitive to color.
It’s not unusual to become so intrigued by a certain artwork that it propels us to embark on a fascinating journey into learning about the artist, his or her regional aesthetics, period and influences, even the specific techniques employed to create the work. Art inspires us to gather knowledge willingly and to relish the study.
I cannot know my art intimately without becoming sensitive to color. By studying rugs and other artworks, my clients’ eyes open and they learn to distinguish many more hues. They become sensitive to nuances and the interplay between various tones. They discover that when color interacts with form in a completely balanced way, the overall impact is greatly heightened.
Persian Tehran Vase Rug, Circa 1875
And more. When color and design come into perfect harmony, they can create a sense of awe. When I stood in the same room with Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, at one moment I saw through the myriad hues of blue in the sky and the river how vast and integrated the universe is. And yet, like the two tiny lovers in the foreground of the canvas, I am an integral part of it.
The experience of watching the sunrise over the Grand Canyon was similar. In the twilight before dawn, I stood with a group of strangers, all of us involved in various conversations. Then, just as the sun began to rise and the canyon wall lit up in an exquisite spectrum of hues, we collectively became quiet. Faced with Nature’s monumental interplay of color, form and light, together we were enraptured by this display of an art principle of the highest magnitude.
Toroweap Overlook on the north rim of the Grand Canyon
On a smaller scale, the deeply patinaed colors of the antique rugs on the floors and walls of my home are profoundly affected by the change of light throughout the day and the seasons. Their continual color abrash reveals seemingly myriad hues. The lanolin-rich wool, which long ago absorbed natural dye pigments deep into its fiber, produces a tremendous luminance and a mesmerizing depth that I rarely experience in other art forms. My rugs have taught me to appreciate firsthand the tremendous emotional effect harmonious colors bestow, a sensitivity that amplifies greatly the enjoyment of my surroundings as a whole.
Wall carving at Preah Ko Temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia, circa 829 A.D.
I can only know an artwork deeply when I’m willing to enter into a “conversation” with it, without preconceptions. We all have had the experience of speaking with a person we’ve already formed an opinion about, and thus we can no longer hear what they’re saying. The same is true when looking at art.
Experiencing what a work of genuine art has to offer is analogous to the opening of a door, not only into the artist’s inner experience, but to our own.
To begin to look receptively, we must suspend concepts of “value” and “importance,” even so far as to separate ourselves from what knowledgeable people, even experts, may have said. Analysis can come later, but in this moment, what matters is to simply experience the impact of looking, the effect the artwork has on us. To be moved by it without trying to figure out why. Aesthetic balance and harmony are not merely theory. They are something that can be experienced by anyone willing to look receptively, to tap into what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “what lies within us.”
Detail of Hadji Jallili Tabriz, circa 1825, from my collection
I gravitate to art that simultaneously impacts me emotionally, intellectually and physically, which suspends my inclination to evaluate and ignites new insights, not only into the work at hand, but also into life in all its aspects and my place within it. This is art that energizes and nurtures me, always enhancing, never diminishing.
“Purple Hills” by George Chann, watercolor on rice paper, circa 1965, Janet Chann collection
Experiencing what a work of genuine art has to offer is analogous to the opening of a door, not only into the artist’s inner experience, but to our own. Regardless of the medium — music, literature, sculpture, theatre, the intrinsic artistry of great weavings or the natural majesty of the Grand Canyon at dawn—interacting with great art gives us a glimpse of our innermost aspect, a place of meaning beyond logical thinking and analysis.
What a longtime client said, speaking about the many antique carpets he and his wife have assembled over three decades, can apply to any great piece of art: “My rugs provide a particular emotional reward that makes our lives more fulfilling.” And, as one extremely seasoned connoisseur told me near the start of my career, “Art stems from love. The response to it that we experience in our hearts is art.”