There is an old Roman saying that one should not argue about matters of taste. And so it is in the world of antique carpets. Some of us like refined elegance and precision wrought with premeditated control; others prefer spontaneity and bold expressiveness responding to the inspiration of the moment. For some collectors and enthusiasts, the court carpet and its urban descendants are the epitome of rug production. They represent the result of countless trials and errors refined and perfected over time. Their designs are well laid out; they begin and end in the appropriate places; the borders turn the corner without interruption or confusion. Finely woven their drawing is often high-resolution with subtle curves and undulations.

For a carpet lover of another sort though, these qualities are boring, even distasteful. They like the homier products of village weaving or nomadic tribal groups. They take pleasure in the weaver who has no plans or cartoons save for those that reside in the memory. They appreciate angular jagged drawing that often goes hand in hand with a coarser weave. They enjoy the rug that has evident traces of the changing decisions and moods of the weaver - radical alterations of color or motif, or changes in proportion of the design. Improvisation of pattern where a border turns a corner is also a major source of such enjoyment to collectors of this second orientation. For the most part this divide of city versus village or tribe also involves a division of scale.

True village and nomadic weavers seldom made rugs that we would describe as "room-size," for within their native tradition they had no use for larger pieces of this sort. Consequently when we encounter larger carpets, they tend to be urban productions because urban weavers had long made carpets for larger architectural interiors. And, as a further result, room-size rugs seldom display the quirky expressiveness and spontaneity of village rugs. They are well-planned workshop pieces. Those who want expressive spontaneity are more or less by default enthusiasts or smaller rugs.

Enter the Bakshaish carpets produced in Northern Iran. Not all Bakshaishes are big; there are smaller pieces. But those that are larger appear to be one of the few big carpet productions that managed to straddle the usual aesthetic divide between village or tribal and room-size carpet weaving. There is no Bakshaish pattern. Bakshaishes come in allover designs as well as medallion compositions. They may have floral or geometric designs, or something defiantly in between. But what distinguishes a Bakshaish is the bold, expressive drawing; one might almost call it expressionist. It has the same graphic quality one looks for in a great Kazak or a really good Turkish village rug. And like these, Bakshaishes may exhibit abrupt or radical abrash effects.

In allover designs, the repeating motifs or medallions may change their form, scale, or proportion. The spacing of motifs, even central medallions, may be erratic or improvised. The drawing is large scale and graphic, and often highly geometricized, even when it is applied to a demonstrably urban prototype or model. The corner solutions are often improvised. Put simply, the Bakshaish is like a giant village rug, and for enthusiasts of village production, the Bakshaish represents one of the few options for a larger carpet.

Given the attention that village production has received in the more recent literature on the history of carpets, especially as exemplified by the work of scholars like Dr. Jon Thompson, it is surprising that the origins of the Bakshaish production are still not entirely clear. It would be wonderful if we could isolate or pinpoint the earlier traditions of the Bakshaish weavers in order to understand how they transferred a a village aesthetic appropriate to scatter size rugs into the production of larger pieces. One can advance a tentative hypothesis. These were weavers who had traditionally produced smaller tribal or village products of Northwest Persian type such as we see in Kurdish weaving, which shares many of the same qualities as Bakshaishes.

At some point, however, Bakshaish weavers were induced to get in on the production of room-size pieces for foreign markets. This involved a reorganization of production methods, for it takes more people and a greater investment to produce larger rugs. Perhaps whole villages or extended families collaborated to produce larger Bakshaish carpets. But what is striking is that such changes did not affect the creative or technical processes, which still favored improvisation and spontaneity, even though multiple weavers were involved in an organized, disciplined effort. This is where the magic of the large-scale Bakshaishes resides. They never lost their distinctive and idiosyncratic creative spark even in the midst of catering to the demands of the marketplace. The are the only room-sized carpets that convey the emotive power of the weaver as the best smaller village rugs do. It is this rare achievement that still makes them so prized among carpet lovers, and rightly so.

About the Author:

David Castriota is an expert in art history and oriental rugs .