Chinese Art. Carpets and Rugs from China: Ningxia, Gansu, Baotau, Peking rugs


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Carpets and Rugs from China

Many aspects of Chinese rugs make them stand out against the vast stylistic panorama of Oriental carpets. In fact, Chinese carpets are immediately identifiable because of these singular aspects, beginning with their decorative motifs, which appear suspended on the field, unattached to one another and without strong outlines. The palette is restricted and neither lively nor contrasting; it is limited to six basic tints and all their various shadings, and these colours are used in accordance with a singular sensitivity directed at creating harmonious and delicate arrangements dominated by yellow and blue. Finally, the style employed does not show the usual and insurmountable discrimination between the geometric language and the floral but lives in a happy medley of the two. The designs are of both the geometric-abstract and the naturalistic type, but they are distinguished by their symbolic character. The most common layouts are the central medallion, the "four-and-one" r?edallion, various kinds of grids, and those with motifs arranged more or less symmetrically. The borders, conceived as frames for the carpet, bear a wide variety of motifs, prominent among them peonies and other floral decorations various symbols, frets, swastikas, and T designs.
The technical characteristics of Chinese carpets also set them apart from other Oriental carpets. They are knotted with the asymmetrical knot with a particularly low density of coarse knots. To hide the roughness of the cotton foundation, the wool pile is trimmed somewhat high. At the beginning of the 20th century the practice began of cutting the pile to make the designs stand out further. Special shears designed for the purpose are used to cut around the outlines of the figures, and this cutting sometimes goes farther and involves trimming the pile to different heights, leaving the areas of the decorations higher than the ground areas. Antique carpets tend to be squarish (75 x 100 " on average), while more recent examples are of varying forms and are sometimes quite large (115 x 150 " on average).

The carpet and official Chinese art

Carpet making was not accepted as one of the great courtly arts in China until around the second half of the 17th century, much later than in any of the other areas of Oriental carpet making. The late date can be partially explained by the limited availability of wool in China, but it is primarily a result of the specific characteristics of knotting, which do not permit the full translation of China's aesthetic canons, which tend to favour the rendering of fine detail and calligraphic perfection. This was not a matter of introducing a new product from abroad, as had happened in India, but of raising to a higher level a product known and used for centuries, by at least part of the Chinese population. In fact, the technique of knotting was probably introduced in China during ancient times by the central Asian peoples who invaded the northwestern provinces. The tradition of Chinese carpet making was developed in those northwestern provinces, and even when the official culture began to take an interest in carpets, the production of carpets continued to be circumscribed within the northeastern regions, where it was practiced in private workshops. Although not developed in specialized court workshops, the art of the Chinese carpet progressed, always following the general aesthetic canons of Chinese art and the wishes of the ruling class.

The style of Chinese carpets

The style of Chinese carpets is very different from that of carpets made in Islamic countries, and this difference begins with the general concept of the composition. In China, the space of the carpet is not conceived as an empty area that must be completely filled with decorations joined one to another, but is understood instead as a simple support for traditional designs that exist independently from one another, with no ornamental ties and no horror vacui. In Chinese thinking every art form represents only another vehicle for expressing universal concepts using codified symbolic motifs, and these motifs always maintain their individual meaning, regardless of their context or relationship to other symbols. In this way the field is conceived as a flexible space in which the various traditional designs are suspended individually.
Even so, the designs are always regulated by a compositional layout, even when there are so few of them that there almost seems to be no layout. The Chinese decorative language, which seeks calligraphic perfection, is expressed in carpets using both the geometric and floral styles. The two styles are combined with such refined skill that they create not a hybrid or confused language but one that is balanced and elegant, composed of rigidly geometric motifs and others that are softly curvilinear. The layouts used most often are the central medallion accompanied by four corner medallions and the "four-and-one" medallion. The medallion is conceived in a singular way, however, and has no definite form and is not completed by pendants; rather, it is composed of the assembly of several elements, such as mythical animals, flowers, or geometric figures, all grouped together usually in a circle, and often without any enclosing line to contain them with precision. The grid layout, a typically Chinese form, is used a great deal in antique examples. It involves a geometric grid spread across the entire field; the grid is composed of various shapes, such as swastikas, "round parentheses," or the special "grain of rice" motifs, which are composed of small oblique segments, arranged to point in all four directions. There are also full-field decorations using naturalistic floral motifs, in particular the often used classic peony and lotus flower. Another popular layout is distinguished by the presence on the field of various symbolic figures.
Column carpets, so-called because they were made to be tied around the columns in Buddhist temples in place of paintings, constitute an absolutely original genre. They were made so that when fixed in place around a column their decoration would progress in a continuous way, with dragons twisting around the column accompanied by other important religious and philosophical symbolic elements, all of them widely spaced.
Unlike the Islamic border, the Chinese border is not understood as a fundamental element to complete the field but simply as an unimportant frame to be filled with floral or geometric motifs, often in harmonic contrast with the design in the field. Among the designs most often used in main borders are various frets, often presented with three-dimensional effects; swastikas; T motifs; and floral motifs, such as peonies or lotus flowers, rendered in a naturalistic manner. One of the characteristic decorations of the minor borders is known as the "pearl" motif and is composed of small white disks that usually appear on a blue ground. Also noteworthy is the use Man outer guard, which is brown in the oldest examples and blue in later ones, datable to the beginning of the 19th century onward.
The palette of Chinese carpets is markedly different from that of Islamic carpets, for it is not based on variety, vivacity, or contrast, and knows nothing of the marked predominance of red found in Islamic works. Chinese taste is based on several basic tints, including yellow, blue, white, light red, black, and brown, making capable use of the possible shadings, so as to obtain harmonious and elegant effects, such as light yellow on gilded yellow or apricot pink on salmon red. The predominant colours are yellow and blue, symbols, respectively, of the earth and the sky. In carpets from before the second half of the 19th century, the ground of the field is almost exclusively yellow, while it is usually a deep blue in later carpets.

Old Chinese carpets & Rugs

After its period of greatest splendour, attested to by the surviving examples datable to between the 18th and early 19th century, the Chinese carpet began a slow process of decline. The carpets made after 1860-1870 show the signs of enslavement to Western taste: the motifs are less pure, less refined, and more affected; and the colours are in a wide range of pastel tones, thanks to the introduction of chemical dyes. The field is either too empty or is overfilled; the borders are enlarged and complicated; the grounds are almost all blue, and the knotting, while more refined, is less traditional. During the second half of the 19th century the imperial factories, such as that of Peking, and the many other factories directed by Western entrepreneurs began to replace the small provincial workshops. The efforts to meet increasing commercial demands gradually led to the decadence and finally the death of the traditional Chinese carpet. The final expiration of the true Chinese carpet occurred around 1920. At that time landscapes and human figures were first introduced to the decoration of carpets, but even more important was the preference shown a hybrid genre, an imitation of the 17th-century floral French carpets produced in the factories of Savonnerie and Aubusson. Several technical stratagems were involved in the creation of this hybrid genre, such as the differentiated trimming of the pile (higher for the decorative motifs) and cutting around the outlines of the designs, both systems introduced to make the decorations stand out against the ground.

Major production areas

Because of the general stylistic homogeneity of Chinese carpets, determining the provenance of a carpet based on design alone is not at all easy; however, chromatic and technical differences, along with some stylistic variations, have permitted the identification of several similar groups that can be attributed-albeit amid a thousand uncertainties-to specific production areas. Most of these few production areas are located in the northwest, the area traditionally associated with the production of carpets.
Area of Ningxia. The carpets produced in this area are considered the classic Chinese carpets, the most antique and thus the best; they are distinguished by motifs rendered in a pure style, by yellow or at the most pink grounds, and by prevalently blue designs. The term Ningxia has been much abused, to the point that all Chinese carpets are divided into those from Ningxia and those made later, datable to the early 20th century; the term is used commercially as a definition of quality. Technically, these carpets are distinguished by the density of their knots, which is very low with respect to all other Chinese carpets, and for their somewhat soft- foundations. The decorative motifs used include all the characteristic types common to Chinese carpets.
Area of Gansu. Carpets from this area have livery colours and decorations that resemble those of eastern Turkestan, as is indicated in the widespread use of the superimposed-medallions layout using three medallions shaped like roundish octagons. Typical of the area is the bulo motif, which is composed of tiny red, white, and blue disks spread across the field. In general, the designs in bright red or orange.
Area Baotau. Made only at the end of the 19th century, these carpets are distinguished by their dense workmanship, small sizes, and decoration. This decoration was initially based primarily on stylized designs and then later was based on realistic motifs, such as landscapes and human figures. The grounds are usually red.
Peking. This carpet factory was set up around 1860 and made a vast number of carpets. These carpets, somewhat large and thick, usually have blue, beige, or ivory grounds decorated with bunches of naturalistic flowers, various symbols, and central medallions, often composed of landscape elements.

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