Flowers Underfoot: Metropolitan’s Mughal Exhibition

Flowers Underfoot: Metropolitan’s Mughal Exhibition
New England rug collectors, whose taste these days runs to rusticity, might imagine Mughal carpets as just so much crimson fussiness—hardly worthy of their attention, much less a major show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All the more reason to get ourselves to New York—repeatedly, if possible—and have our minds altered by Flowers Underfoot, one of the most important carpet exhibitions in memory.

The Mughals, a Muslim dynasty whose founder Babur was forced out of Central Asia in the early 1500s, ruled Northern India for three centuries. Lively empire-builder Akbar (reigned 1556-1605), his connoisseurly naturalist son Jahangir (r. 1605-28), and his grandson Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58), patron of the pristine Taj Mahal, all had imperial rug-making workshops, and the exhibition underscores how the force of their individual personalities and artistic tastes led Mughal rugs through a marvelous evolution.
Flowers Underfoot: Metropolitan’s Mughal Exhibition
Akbar’s earlier reign produced a pair of gigantic carpets with an overall repeat of monster heads and beasts disgorging other beasts. Relatively coarse and bursting with energy, two of the remaining fifteen fragments of these "grotesque" carpets open the exhibition. A bit more restrained, but still decidedly unconventional, are two smallish pictorial rugs, their elements borrowed from manuscript painting, blown up to carpet scale, and guarded by borders of glowering monster masks. One of these, the MFA Boston’s prized Ames carpet (left), features a winged, elephant-headed lion ensnaring a septet of elephants while pecked and clawed by a gorgeous, long-tailed bird. Around this fabulous combat, ordinary human life—hunting and feasting—goes on unheeding.
Gradually the early experiments of Akbar’s reign give way to a more controlled style. On Jahangir-period carpets, animals are tamed by their isolation within a network of oversized vines and foliage, reminiscent of their treatment on contemporary Persian carpets. A privately owned, green-ground carpet, shown on the gallery floor (and on the catalogue cover), is a lush example of energy and refinement in classical balance. From the Musée des Arts Decoratifs and the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, four fragments of a blue carpet with animal-headed vinescrolls provide a wittier version of this "Persian" style, as it is termed in the catalogue. Indeed, some scholars once considered these fragments to be 15th-century Persian, but not anymore: it turns out, thanks to the Met’s analysis, that they contain cochineal, a dyestuff not used in Old World weaving before the 16th century.

Toward the end of Jahangir’s reign and throughout Shah Jahan’s, carpets achieve ultimate, velvety luxury by being piled with pashmina, or Kashmir goat hair. Animal imagery has disappeared from these conspicuously fine and expensive rugs, and plants, either in exuberant scrolling combination or majestic isolation (the latter termed "flower style" in the catalogue), are the only theme. A fragment of about half a ruby-ground pashmina arabesque carpet from the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon manages to whip up sensual rapture in just about everybody who sees it (at least in my survey), while a prayer-sized pashmina rug from a Belgian private collection evokes hushed awe, due partly to its fineness—about 2,000 knots per inch—but more to the mysterious, astoundingly articulated, icon-like image of a giant poppy that dominates its niche.
Flowers Underfoot: Metropolitan’s Mughal Exhibition
These court masterpieces are not the only focus of Flowers Underfoot. As the show makes clear, Indian carpets traveled. A spectacularly well-preserved "Persian-style" carpet ordered in 1630 for the Worshipful Order of Girdlers, a London livery company, is emblazoned with heraldry depicting the order’s patron saint, Lawrence, holding the girdler’s iron (gridiron, for short) on which he was grilled into martyrdom.

Exported in the other direction, a serenely Persianate medallion rug of the 1620s (featured on the cover of HALI 77) resides in Kyoto, where for centuries it decorated a float in a yearly parade.

These court masterpieces are not the only focus of Flowers Underfoot. As the show makes clear, Indian carpets traveled. A spectacularly well-preserved "Persian-style" carpet ordered in 1630 for the Worshipful Order of Girdlers, a London livery company, is emblazoned with heraldry depicting the order’s patron saint, Lawrence, holding the girdler’s iron (gridiron, for short) on which he was grilled into martyrdom. Exported in the other direction, a serenely Persianate medallion rug of the 1620s (featured on the cover of HALI 77) resides in Kyoto, where for centuries it decorated a float in a yearly parade.
Flowers Underfoot: Metropolitan’s Mughal Exhibition
Later Indian carpets, too, get their due in Flowers Underfoot. A group attributed to the Deccan (south central India) carry Mughal-inspired Persian and floral styles into the eighteenth century, albeit in coarse weave. Far lovelier are the pashmina millefleur rugs from the north—Lahore or Kashmir—in particular, the eighteenth-century niche rug from Vienna, its central plant now yielding not just one sort of blossom but a glorious, cypress-flanked bouquet.
Since there’s so little literature on Indian carpets, Daniel Walker’s catalogue is written as a monograph, with rugs discussed and illustrated in chronological and stylistic sequence and their vital statistics—technical analysis, provenance, and so forth—in a checklist that follows the text. The color illustrations of the 44 rugs exhibited and many comparative examples are first-rate. Walker’s writing is clear, matter-of-fact, and admirably restrained. Various reviews of the exhibition, in contrast, have been gushingly blissful.

Reprinted with permission from "View From The Fringe" the newsletter of the New England Rug Society.