Art Review: Textile Museum's 'Timbuktu to Tibet'

A salt bag from 20th-century Iran is among the 90 pieces, many of them rugs, in the
A salt bag from 20th-century Iran is among the 90 pieces, many of them rugs, in the "Timbuktu to Tibet" exhibition. (Joseph P. Doherty Collection; Photo: Don Tuttle Photography -- The Textile Museum)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 9, 2009

"Timbuktu to Tibet: Rugs and Textiles of the Hajji Babas" at the Textile Museum is not about geography, and it isn't about travel. It's a show about a yearning. At its heart is a shared passion, never very common, for knowing and possessing Oriental rugs.

The exhibition's lenders, the Hajjis, as they call themselves, have felt that hunger gnaw. That's what brought them together. All are earnest members of America's premier rug-lovers' society (it's 75 years old now): the Hajji Baba Club.

There are 90 pieces on display: veils, caps, carpets, horse trappings and salt bags. Some are 500 years old. Their coloring is subtle, their handwork is meticulous, and lots of them are beautiful, especially the carpets, which surely qualify as art. But this is art collecting of a most distinctive sort. It's not like buying pictures; they come with signatures. Carpets are anonymous. Most everything by Rembrandt -- his portraits of himself, his sudden reed-pen sketches, his much-worked-over etchings -- carries a suggestion of his blunt-nosed peasant's face and his empathetic heart. The least work by Picasso, say, a poster or a pot, is similarly imbued with his giftedness, his daring, his moist black-olive eyes. Now look at an old rug. What can you say about its artist? Not much. The largest, finest carpets, those scaled to the palace, come from urban workshops and were mostly made by men. Nomadic rugs and village rugs were mostly made by women. That's about it.

Old pictures, even lousy ones, can tell exquisite stories -- of loves, or the landscape, or wild storms at sea. Carpets seldom give you a strong narrative to lean on. Which one should you choose? You're thrown back on your own taste. You have to trust your eye.

But not your eye alone. Rugs are for the hand as well, and the sole of the bare foot. The beauty of a rug is in how it feels, too.

The Hajji Baba Club was founded in New Jersey on July 9, 1932. Of its five founding members, only one, Arthur Urbane Dilley, a rug dealer and scholar, was what you'd call an expert. All of them were gentlemen. (Women, one explained, did not "have the correct attitude toward Oriental rugs.") In the midst of the Depression, bargains in fine rugs were plentiful -- for collectors in the know who had the terminology, and a bit of cash to spend. The Hajjis took their name from a picaresque novel -- "The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan" (1824) -- whose "Asiatic" hero was at ease in East and West.

"He too was a rogue," explained Dilley, "never paying for what he coveted more than ten cents on the dollar. In that respect he is our patron saint."

The club now has 185 members, not just five. And some are female.

Some connoisseurs of rugs rank them technologically (how tight is the knotting, how thick is the pile, do costly gold-wound threads of silk embellish the old wool?). Rarity, of course, also helps determine value. (The oldest piece on view, collected by Hajji George Hewitt Myers, who founded the Textile Museum in 1925, is a silk Nasrid wall hanging, circa 1400, from Islamic Spain, one of only a few known.) Fashion affects price as well. (In the 1960s heyday of hard-edge color painting, Anatolian kilims were very much in vogue; far more subtle Turkmen weavings are among what's hot today.)

But what makes a carpet beautiful? That's a far more iffy business. A certain chord of colors may please me but not you. Some people prefer opera, others love the blues; a vivid village weaving may thrill me with its gutsiness but strike you as just crude.

About the beauty of the best things shown, there won't be much dispute. Among the finest is a piece from 16th-century Iran. It isn't a whole carpet, merely a small fragment preserved from the border of a huge rug worthy of a palace. The color of its ground is the color of fresh cream; its complicated patterning is ruled by a deep red; its imagery suggests both a perfumed garden and a sky alive with Chinese dragons.

Though most rugs are strongly symmetrical, their symmetry is seldom perfect. One pleasure of this show is watching it being broken. There are two big floral blasts in that fragment from Iran. They're very much alike, except the one below is the deepest midnight blue while the color of the one above is a whole lot closer to what gearheads used to call British racing green.

Timbuktu to Tibet: Rugs and Textiles of the Hajji Babas will remain on view through March 8 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW, open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, call 202-667-0441 or visit

© 2009 The Washington Post Company