OUR ZIEGLER-TYPE CARPET

Vienna, 7 July 2017

About six months ago, my wife suggested that we should get a carpet for our living room in Vienna. She felt that it would soften the room, taking the edge off the hard wooden floor – and covering some ugly marks on that same floor. It so happened that the Dorotheum Auction House, one of my favourite places in Vienna, a place I haunt whenever I’m in town and where I have parted with several largish banknotes for various objects over the years, was holding one of its regular carpet auctions.

Having armed ourselves with the auction’s catalogue, we poured over its pages and selected several promising candidates. They all tended towards the big size, my wife having persuaded me that we should try to cover as much of the floor as possible. We then proceeded to the Auction House itself to inspect our choices – I always pity the poor fellows who have to labour through those stacks of heavy carpets to get to the one you want to look at. In any event, surrounded by would-be bidders doing the same thing, we solemnly looked our choices over. I for one was somewhat self conscious about this since I had no real idea what to look for other than to see if we liked the colour combinations and the feel. But we managed to look as if we knew what we were doing. In the event, we plumped for one of our choices, and then waited for the auction day.

On the big day, we filed into the auction room. My wife does the bidding, I’m too nervous about the whole thing, terrified that I will make a false move and find myself landed with some horror and being required to pay a stellar price for it. She had her paddle at the ready as the auctioneer moved with brisk efficiency through the lots. Our chosen lot came up on the screen, the auctioneer opened the bids, and quick as a flash my wife’s paddle went up for the minimum bid. We were confident we would get it at that price since most of the earlier lots had not gone beyond the minimum, but alas! this time someone else’s paddle went up hot on the heels of my wife’s. The bid climbed inexorably, and we regretfully threw in the towel.

Rather glum about it all, we went back to the unsold lots. There had been another carpet which had taken my wife’s fancy but which I had not been sure about. It had not been sold, so we had another look. After some to-ing and fro-ing, especially on my part – it seemed very big, and the colours were a bit on the pale side – we decided to go with it. Here is the picture of it from the auction catalogue.

A few days later, two men huffed and puffed it up the stairs and into our apartment. We laid it out and I had a moment of panic about its size. It’s 4.90 by 3.80 metres (16 by 12.5 feet, for readers still on British units), so a fair good size. Had I measured the room right?! But all was good; it fit – snugly, but it fit.

No sooner had the two men put it down than two other men came and took it away, huffing and puffing their way back down the stairs. They were Iranian; in the intervening days, we had discovered a carpet shop around the corner, run by a small Iranian who – so we discovered as we chatted with him – had escaped from Iran during the 1979 revolution. Since he also cleaned carpets, we decided to have ours cleaned before laying it down permanently.

Now in place, cleaned and ready to do its job for the next twenty years or so, I’m truly glad we bought it. It really lights up the room. Its paleness, which had led me to hesitate initially, is actually a good thing – too much colour in such a big carpet would have overwhelmed the room. The dark red border gives just enough of a splash of colour. The relative emptiness of its design is also good. Again, if it had been too busy, it would have overwhelmed the room.

My wife and I are currently spending a lot of time staring at that carpet from very close range. As part of our summer campaign to lose weight, we do an exercise routine (almost) every day, faithfully following a series of fitness videos my wife has found on the internet. As we do burpees, planks of various descriptions, bridges, and I know not what else, we get to stare close up at the carpet. In my case at least, given my predilection for all things historical, it has led me to wonder about its history. After some research I am ready to report.

The auction catalogue had informed us that the carpet had been manufactured in the 1990s in Egypt. So the carpet itself is not old, which is just as well since we wouldn’t have been able to afford anything remotely antique. But is the design perhaps an ancient Egyptian design? The answer is no. Egypt has very little history of carpet making. After a moment of glory in the 16th Century, whatever it had shriveled away and was only resurrected in the 1950s after supplies of carpets from Iran, the traditional source, dried up – no doubt the result of soured relations between the two countries after Nasser’s left-wing takeover in Egypt and the CIA-backed coup in Iran which brought the right-wing Shah Pahlavi to power. But the Egyptians just made copies of Iranian designs and as far as I can make out has continued in this tradition ever since. In fact, the auction catalogue described the carpet’s design as “Indo-Persian”.

So do we have here a traditional Iranian design? Again, the answer is no, and here it becomes interesting. It seems that the Iranian carpet industry was actually started by Europeans. The demand back in Europe was far outstripping the very artisanal production in Iran, so various European companies stepped in to bring a certain level of industrialization to the country’s carpet makers. One of these was an Anglo-Swiss company by the name of Ziegler, which set up shop in Sultanabad in the 1870s. It was one of the company’s Sultanabad managers who came up with very non-Oriental carpet designs for their Iranian carpets which later came to be known as Ziegler carpets: “large, simplified designs of a languorous nature … featur[ing] whimsical draughtsmanship [with] quite deliberate distortions introduced to break up the monotony of a repeating design”, the whole with a light palette of colours.

As the first photo attests, these are all design elements found in our carpet: the long tendrils of flowers and other vegetation languidly weaving their way across the carpet surface, a relatively simple design with plenty of open space, light colouring, no obvious axis of reflection in the design. So I pronounce our carpet to be a Ziegler-type carpet (not an original Ziegler carpet, our pockets are not deep enough for that). It seems that after a certain period of popularity Ziegler carpets went out of fashion, their non-Oriental looking designs being looked down on. Then, as usual, there was a resurgence of interest in, and use of, Ziegler designs in the 1980s. I put our carpet’s production down to that.

The carpet has an Arabic inscription woven into its border, something we discovered just recently.

I took this photo to our Iranian carpet shop owner, to see if he could read it. He informed me regretfully that he could not but that he had a man who could. He disappeared into the back of the shop and came back with one of the young fellows who had carried off our carpet to clean it. With me standing there agog, the fellow peered at the photo and pronounced that it was a name, Hamid Ali Bek Bek. Very excited by this nugget of information, I ran an internet search on the name linked to carpets. I came up with no carpet producers in Egypt but did come up with one Hamid Ali Bek, importer of fine carpets in Hamburg. Could it be that this Mr. Bek had had carpets made for him in Egypt (a little strange since he is Iranian, but you never know) to sell in Germany? I fired off an email to the company but have yet to hear back.

My wife tells me that it’s time for closure on this carpet business and for me to move on. So regretfully I have to leave my story there, with still much up in the air about the carpet’s history. Who knows, though? There might be some updates at a later time.

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pictures: ours

MY ART COLLECTION

Beijing, 3 August 2013

I was in Vienna a few weeks ago – it is always good to show your face from time to time in Headquarters to remind your colleagues that you still exist – and my wife accompanied me because we had decided to go on vacation at the same time. Since we had a free morning, we decided to visit the Leopold Museum.

The museum is part of a very nice urban recovery scheme which the Austrian government undertook some ten-fifteen years ago. There being no imperial horses to house anymore, the old imperial stables had fallen on hard times. So the city decided to turn the stables into a Museums Quarter, made a deal to purchase the art collection of a certain Rudolf Leopold, and built two art museums on the premises, one for his modern art

Leopold Museum

and one for his contemporary art

MUMOK

(is there a deeper meaning to the colour scheme of the museums’ cladding?)

For those readers who plan to visit Vienna, the Quarter is just across the road from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the country’s premier museum of fine arts, which houses the old imperial collection. This is a truly fantastic collection, which alone is worth a visit to Austria. One of my favourites there is Caravaggio’s “Madonna of the Rosary”.

caravaggio

As for the Leopold Museum, it has a great collection of early 20th Century Austrian, German and Central European art. I particularly like its collection of Egon Schieles. The very first time my wife and I went to Vienna, back in the early 80s, we stumbled on Mr. Leopold’s collection, hung at that time in a cramped house somewhere in the outskirts of Vienna. His Schieles knocked my socks off as they say. I particularly remember this one.

Egon Schiele

With the art from these fantastic collections almost spilling out onto the pavements of Vienna (and I haven’t even mentioned the Belvedere or the Albertina or the smaller collections), it’s not surprising that it is here that I started my own – very, very modest – art collection. The spark that lit the fuse was the Dorotheum.

Dorotheum

Wonderful, wonderful place, the Dorotheum. It’s an auction house, but the marvelous thing about it is that it has two whole floors where the price is fixed and you can buy the articles on the spot. Which is great, because auctions make me nervous; I only went to one auction at the Dorotheum – where Mr. Leopold was present, by the way – and the speed with which the prices levitated (on a particularly nice painting by a Hungarian artist) gave me palpitations. These two floors have more the feel of a jumble sale, full of horrible stuff, but where you feel – you know – that the piece of your dreams is just behind that dreadful cabinet in the corner. And in the spirit of a jumble sale the prices in these parts of the Dorotheum are – relatively speaking – affordable.

My first piece of art was hanging in a corner, in the dead end of a section dedicated to carpets.

general photos 002

When I first spied it behind the carpets, it was woebegone, sagging in the middle, dust covering its frame. But it cried out to me: “Take me! Take me!” That riot of flowers and fruit against that cubist-type background of mountains! That river, with the small town on its bank! The happy people! It had to be mine!! But the price made me hesitate – it was 400 euros or thereabouts. And it would need fixing and cleaning. I dithered and dathered, I went back a few times, I was like one tormented. Eventually, my wife took over and gently pushed me towards the purchase.

They say that the first murder is the most difficult; after that, it gets easier and easier. I think it’s the same with the purchase of art. In relatively short order after that, I purchased, always at the Dorotheum, this gouache, a naïf view of the Seine in early 19th century Paris:

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(the apparent sun in the background is actually my camera’s flash)

This aquarelle, an 18th Century view of Kashmir:

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(same comment about my camera’s flash)

This oil painting, of a tramp ship ploughing its way through the waves:

general photos 009

(I bought it because it reminded me powerfully of the poem “Cargoes” by John Masefield, whose last verse is:
“Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays”)

This aquarelle, by the same artist, of fishing boats off the coast of Britain:

general photos 010

This print, of a barn half buried in the snows of Upper Austria:

general photos 008

It was just as well that we left for China. My wife was becoming anxious about how the art was slowly invading the walls of our apartment; she has always preferred bare white walls and generally uncluttered internal vistas. I could not bear to have these sitting in the dark of a warehouse in Vienna waiting for us to come back. We took them all down to Milan, where they hang in our apartment. I took the photos above a few weeks ago, when we passed through.

The wonderful thing about these pieces is that they have allowed me to also unfurl my passion for history, giving me an excuse to dig around into their past. For instance, the Dorotheum claimed that the first painting was a view of Dürnstein, north of Vienna on the Danube (and in whose Castle Richard I was kept prisoner for a while). But after revisiting the place, I am convinced that this is not so; the banks of the river are not that steep on both sides. The picture framer who cleaned and fixed the painting was also not convinced of the appellation. He thought it was the upper Moselle River; a visit there is on my to-do list. As for the gouache, it was sold to me by the Dorotheum as an urban landscape in northern Belgium. Not so! For reasons which I won’t go into here but have to do with research I did on that shop on the right hand side of the painting, I am convinced that it is a view of the Seine River in Paris, looking upstream from Pont Notre-Dame, one of the bridges linking the Île de la Cité with the Right Bank. For its part, the view of Kashmir was, according to the Dorotheum, a view from western China (which is why I bought it; I already knew then that I would be going to China). Research on my part quickly showed me that actually it is a well-known view of a rope bridge near Srinagar. Really, the Dorotheum is doing some very sloppy work here – but it’s more fun for me.

With the Dorotheum no longer just a few subway stops away, the collecting passion has slowed – the apartments are smaller too. We have bought a piece or two, which when we take them back will remind us of our stay in China, rather like those old English colonels who came back from the Empire with bits and bobs of native paraphernalia, which they would proudly display in their retirement home at Bournemouth.

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Leopold Museum: http://de.academic.ru/pictures/dewiki/76/Leopold_Museum_%28Vienna%29.jpg
MUMOK: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/eb/Museum_Moderner_Kunst_Stiftung_Ludwig_Wien.jpg
Caravaggio: http://www.christusrex.org/www2/art/images/carav18.jpg
Egon Schiele: http://kellypahl.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/2.jpg
Dorotheum: http://static3.kleinezeitung.at/system/galleries_520x335/upload/3/6/3/2430195/dorotheum030810apa726.jpg
the rest are my pictures