Knowing Your Art Deeply
By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder
One statement that has sustained me during my lifelong passion for antique Oriental rugs is this:
To know art deeply is a great adventure that yields extraordinary rewards.
While this sentence is straightforward, it challenges our intellectual and our emotional centers. I bring it up now because in these times when the world is faced with a global pandemic, finding meaning and the energy to overcome the challenges of everyday life can be increasingly difficult. But to be nurtured by great art and the inclusion of this appreciation in our daily lives can be the sustenance that helps us all to become refreshed and balanced in stressful circumstances. For great art allows us to value life more fully. Art reminds us that we each have an inner life that wishes to be expressed.
Remarkably, the emotional value of great art has been celebrated since the earliest of recorded history. Haunting, richly 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.
For these reasons and in conjunction with Art Daily, I want to share some of my thoughts about the topic over the next two weeks.
Building a relationship with art, either as its creator or as a viewer, taps into a basic human need 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, who said not without some justification, 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 was the most enriching. 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 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: I 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. For the next two hours, there was nothing I desired but to converse with this towering form. I understand now that my harmonious impression nourished a deeper aspect of myself that I had seldom been in touch with.
The second experience came well before I started my gallery four 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. Characteristic of great art, each time I time I look at it, I perceive something that I had not seen or contemplated previously.
Around them numerous stylized animals, flowers, and plants and in the borders prance and meander, serving as microcosmic reflections of the cosmic forces depicted in its medallion. In his book, The Shock of The New, 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.”
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 and help them see what lies below the surface. After a while, even a novice begins to discover, or “receive,” the atmosphere of the piece. Their prejudgments fall away. “How beautiful,” some clients will say, while others simply grow quiet. 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. 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 as color interacts with form in a completely balanced way, the overall impact is greatly heightened.
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. And it had reminded me of my first evening sight 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 emotional effect harmonious colors bestow, a sensitivity that amplifies greatly the enjoyment of my surroundings.
I understand that 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.
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.”
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. Having worked with clients at my gallery, Claremont Rug Company, for four decades, I am renewed and tremendously gratified that we share that emotional vision.
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, theater, 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.” What more can we ask for?