Tibet, fenced in by the Himalayas, Great Wall of God, cornice between world and sky, is the crossroads on the millennium-old silk route, but only the determined traveler penetrates its fastness. Java floats in lavish seas, a Great Garden of Fertility, welcoming the world as it rolls in on warm and welcoming waves in search of paradise.
In snow-topped Tibet, people dream of snow lions, dragons and wish-fulfilling gems, all woven into rough but warming wools. In tropical Java, covered with a thousand flowers and fruits and curious creatures, cotton batik prints bloom as lustily as the land.
Two major exhibits now at the Textile Museum show that textiles express not only the rituals but the rigors of life in the country of origin. The first major exhibit entirely of Tibetan rugs, "Temple, Household, Horseback: Rugs of the Tibetan Plateau," is open through March. A rare collection of 56 pieces of batik, made from 1850 to 1960, is exhibited in "Fabled Cloth: Batik from Java's North Coast," through Jan. 6.
One of the best places to see Tibetan rugs is in Stok, Ladakh, in a 40-room castle rising from its roots of solid rock, in the lower Himalayas. Though Ladakh is now politically a part of the Kashmir, and thus India, the Gyalmo (queen) Deskit Wangmo keeps her titles, her wealth and her people's devotion. And she walks and sits on magnificent rugs full of fabled beasts, geometric charms and royal colors, traditions from the time when Ladakh was part of Tibet.
The gyalmo's castle is a long way away and she doesn't lend her rugs. But curator Diana Myers (who studied at the gyalmo's fortress) managed to assemble (from other owners) 70 rugs for this show, even more than the gyalmo owns. Little is known of their origins. Because the rugs were used, not only admired, the oldest documented rug goes back only to 1880. The Tibetan saying "one man, one rug" implies that both have the same life span.
Following the spoor of the tiger across the Tibetan rugs in the show is rare sport. Lamas like to sit on rugs portraying flayed tiger skins, to help, Myers says, "tame the wildness of ego-centered mind." Tigers lurk in bamboo forests woven into rugs. Often two tigers, male and female, meet chin to chin in the middle of the rug. Cushioning hard wooden saddles are rugs with tigers fettered on each side, so the horse seems to be protected by the striped beasts.
Other animals appear to disappear on Tibetan rugs. Four animals face a whirling lotus (the earthball of the world): a snow lion, manifest only as a head, a tail and fringed feet; a sort of mermaid with horns, a lion's mane, bird wings and human arms flying across the sky; a tiger hiding in a bamboo forest; and a dragon cavorting with a sacred ball.
Three rugs, set up in a monk's corner of the Textile Museum's gallery, Myers said, show "the most common design of cushion covers, what the Tibetans call the six symbols of long life (old man, bird, deer, tree, water and rock)." They look like Santa Claus, a reindeer and Christmas ornaments.
Who knows the meaning of the curious "footprint of the frog" motif, which looks like headless beetles? "Wish-fulfilling gems," sometimes called "pearls of happiness," are seen clutched by benevolent dragons on rugs. Tibetans believe the strange gems, black agate with white lines, can only be found by the virtuous, not those with "cloudy souls."
Now the Chinese are making some effort to tolerate the Tibetan beliefs in Bon and Buddha. But the true Tibetan tradition, Myers says, is best seen outside of Tibet, in the gyalmo's Stok Palace Museum and in communities of refugees in remote lands of India and Nepal. Here worshipers revere the Dalai Lama, the snow lion roars, dragons seek wish-fulfilling gems and the mountains meet the heavens to keep the Earth on a steady spin.
The exhibit and its informative catalogue were financed by SCM Corp.
Batik is a woman's art. The great "florescence," as curator Mattiebelle Gittinger calls it, of batik in Java came in the mid-19th century, totally the work of an amazing group of women in the town of Pekalongan. The Indo-European women, most born in Java, lived in a world that floated between the Dutch colonials and the Javanese. They didn't have the local resources of farm and family of the Javanese, and their European tastes called for money.
Going through the exhibition is like sailing the South Seas to exotic lands and forgotten times. On this far coast, sheltered by small islands, ships from all over the world stopped for water and victuals and to trade for the wondrous cloth craved by their people.
In these patterns, huge flowers are bigger than any seen by any European. Great fierce birds of such fine feather fly like a covey of angels. Triangles, diagonals, curves, squares, circles, all the geometrics the hand could draw, go a myriad of ways. Some authorities believe batik originated in India and south China, though Gittinger says batik may have begun simultaneously in several places.
The oldest Javanese pattern comes from Tuban. At the beginning of the 17th century, a war ended the Javanese north coast city's importance. Batiks continued to be made and used at home. Tuban batik artists, uninfluenced by other cultures, persisted in using handspun, handwoven cloth just right for the simpler, less intricate designs of Tuban's 16th-century heyday. The geometric designs on solid backgrounds and flat, unshaded flowers, sometimes joined by vines, were dyed with only two colors: red from the root of a plant, Morinda citrifolia, and blue from the indigo plant.
Clever and talented women, sophisticated, educated and current with European art trends, started up factories in their own courtyards. They hired the most accomplished batikers and dyers, bought the best cloth and created the designs themselves. The beginnings of Art Nouveau are plain to see, especially in the work of Lein Metzelaar, whose atelier flourished from 1880 to 1910, the high period of the Romantic style in Europe. (Art Nouveau, the naturalistic movement inspired strongly by oriental designs, traveled back from Europe to generate new patterns in the East.) Metzelaar's progression from the more traditional patterns to the whiplashed lines and bold flowers of the dramatic Art Nouveau style can be seen in five examples in the show.
From 1890 to 1946, Eliza van Zuylen was famous for the quality of her batiks. Arab merchants sold her first sarongs and tablecloths, but she was soon independent, persevering in her art through the Depression and the Japanese occupation. Sumatran and Javanese royalty bought her work. Americans commissioned curtains and fan light screens.
The artistry of batik in the last half of this century can be seen in the exhibit in a 1960 Kain panjang-pagi/sore (long cloth, morning/evening) by The Tie Siet, which is used as the exhibit's motif and the cover of a new book, "Batik: Fabled Cloth of Java," by Inger McCabe Elliot. The riotous design is a garden of such delicious oranges, purples, blues and white blossoms and birds as surely would satisfy the prophets in paradise.
A grant from Mobil Corp. supports the exhibit and its tour next year to the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, Jan. 29-April 28; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, May 30-July 28; and the Sewall Art Gallery, Rice University, Houston, Sept. 6-Oct. 19.