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OTTOMAN AND TURKISH VILLAGE RUGS AND CARPETS
FROM THE COLLECTION OF PROFESSOR CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER
"A carpet is a picture of God. That is the essential fact, fundamental to the people who produced the carpets, and fundamental to the proper understanding of these carpets." Thus begins the first chapter of Professor Christopher Alexander's catalogue of the carpets in his collection: A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art, the Color and Geometry of Very Early Turkish Carpets, published by Oxford University Press in 1993.
Christopher Alexander's attitude towards his carpets has never been orthodox. He came to collect carpets "years ago, because of my desire, as a builder, to learn from them. I felt they had something to teach me, though at first I did not know what". Unusually, even at this early stage, and in contrast to most collectors, he was "not interested in the classification of carpets", not caring if they "came from a certain area, or from a certain type, or from a certain period". However he gradually found himself "searching for earlier and earlier carpets...." because they "had a deeper structure, were more beautiful, and had far more of that complex and important structure from which there was so much to learn". Over a period of about 20 years he put together one of the most intellectually challenging collections ever to have been formed. The catalogue mentioned above, and published three years after the exhibition of the collection in the M H de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, continued this pioneering bent, with the first half formed by an essay, or series of essays, in which he presents his thoughts on the collection and on carpets in general. These essays provoked considerable discussion on their publication, and were the subject of the only feature-length review of a book in the 100 issues of HALI magazine. The ideas were felt to be too complex, too novel and too controversial to be able to cover them in a normal length review.
At the root of the argument expressed in the catalogue is the concept that some carpets are empirically "better" than others. This is not a matter of personal opinion; it is something which can be measured, and the author goes on to demonstrate why this is the case. "Better" is not just an aesthetic judgement, it is a measure of the purity of inspiration within a carpet, how carpets "reverberate with a deeper force", and therefore how some carpets are "good" in the wider and more spiritual sense of the word. In the course of the argument he also states that "it must be understood, first, that it is the oldest carpets which have the most most beautiful and most brilliant colors". When a carpet achieves the criteria which makes it great, it then has "wholeness". "It is certain, in my mind, that the weavers of these carpets, especially during the great period from the 12th century to the 16th century, were explicitly aware of this quality and explicitly and consciously sought it. In fact, I am almost certain that this was the main purpose of their art: to create this profound religious wholeness in the carpet they were weaving, to the greatest degree possible".
Professor Alexander is particularly interested in this aspect of carpets since he is himself a creator. As an architect he is concerned about the theory of the various centres which together make up a design. Any building is full of them, on whichever scale you look, the various interrelated levels of scale being one of the main concerns of the essay. A carpet similarly can be considered to be made up of centres, and it is the wonderfully successful arrangement of these centres in the "best" carpets which fascinates him. As a builder he is acutely aware of the "hard-work, pain, hard wrought structure of creation", together with "the exquisite mixture of discovery, invention and creation which is required to find a profound pattern of centres". The process of weaving carpets is therefore very relevant "since working, row by row, knot by knot, and having to create the design as it goes along, without ever seeing the whole, until the carpet itself is actually finished", .... is "just that circumstance in which the spontaneous, unconscious knowledge of the maker is most easily released from the domination of thought and thus allows itself most easily to create the deepest centre of all". This is why the collection was created, and why Professor Alexander refers to the carpets as his teachers.
Not surprisingly Christopher Alexander was not always an easy person to whom to sell a carpet. "In my life as a collector, I have sometimes infuriated dealers, who have usually been very kind and patient with me, because it sometimes takes weeks, even months, of looking at a carpet again and again and again, hanging on the wall in front of you, to decide whether or not it has this quality (of greatness), or to what extent it has it". It is this aspect of a carpet which has been the most important to him as a buyer, an aspect which has led him towards the earliest carpets even when the condition is not as good as that of a slightly later example. "Although there are rare examples, where because of age, the colors are faded, most often it is the oldest carpets which have the greatest brilliance and intensity". It is thus that "the brilliant light which the colors create, shines out even when the carpet is worn or damaged in its wool".
As can be seen from the above, the collection is an intensely personal one, even though these carpets convey to Professor Alexander proof of Greater Truths which are valid for everybody and which cannot be found in other art forms. When the collection was first formed Professor Alexander hoped that a museum could be built to house the carpets, reproducing the ambience of the exhibition in San Francisco, the entire display for which he had designed himself. The book was intended to "translate the clues (in the carpets) into a practical understanding of structure; the intended museum would have "embodied this quality ..... where the details of the building (would) give people this experience once again". Unfortunately this project was not possible. It is to be hoped however that the new owners will enjoy some of the deeper meanings within the rugs and carpets. The geometric and colour interplay of the Two Panel 'Holbein' ("Two Panel Carpet with Arrowhead Stars") rug (lot 101), the brilliant palette of the Konya district ("White Field Carpet with Trident Figures") rug (lot 105), and the archaic motifs of the central Anatolian ("Green Medallion") rug (lot 107) amongst many others, are all parts of a collection the study of which enabled the collector to come to the remarkable conclusion expressed in the first paragraph of this short introduction. "A carpet is a picture of God".