The Wagner Garden Carpet, on tour in America for the first time, is presented alongside masterworks from the Hossein Afshar Collection in Garden Paradise: The Magnificent Safavid Carpet from the Burrell Collection, Glasgow

HOUSTON—October 11, 2018—The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, explores the importance of the garden to Islamic cultures through the lens of the world-renowned and rarely exhibited Wagner Garden Carpet. On display in Garden Paradise: The Magnificent Safavid Carpet from the Burrell Collection, Glasgow from November 2, 2018, to February 10, 2019, the masterpiece, woven in southeastern Iran in the 17th century, is one of the three earliest surviving Persian garden carpets in the world. It was acquired in 1939 by Sir William Burrell, whose legendary collection, spanning 5,000 years of artistic production, was not permitted to travel outside of Scotland until 2014 and has only been displayed three times in the past two decades. A selection of 26 works from the Hossein Afshar Collection, which are on long-term loan to the MFAH, accompany the carpet, together demonstrating the profound appeal of garden imagery across all artistic media, from ceramics and metalwork to the arts of the book in Islamic lands. The carpet travels to Houston following a presentation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Garden Paradise brings together works from two civic-minded collectors with keen eyes for quality, Sir William Burrell and Kuwait-based collector Hossein Afshar,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “The exhibition presents a rare opportunity to explore a central theme of Islamic art and culture within the context of a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. We are grateful to the Burrell Collection for sharing this magnificent artwork with U.S. audiences.”

“Last November, Bestowing Beauty introduced the spectacular collection of Hossein Afshar—one of the most significant holdings of Persian art in private hands. Garden Paradise enables us to delve deeper into the themes of his collection with objects that reflect the significance of nature to Islamic lands and cultures,” added Aimée Froom, curator of arts of the Islamic worlds at the MFAH.

The Significance of the Wagner Garden Carpet 
In the monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, nature is a reminder of God as the giver of life, and the garden is an earthly representation of this notion. Flowers, trees, and flowing waters evoke the ancient idea of the garden as a symbol of paradise. The Wagner Garden Carpet, with a symmetrical layout of bordered water channels, recalls descriptions of gardens of paradise in the Qur’an.

Although the Wagner Garden Carpet contains elements and motifs found in similar surviving garden carpets, its overall layout is unique. It does not follow the traditional garden design, with one vertical water channel intersected by one large horizontal channel to form four rectangles (the chahar bagh, or “four gardens,” plan). Instead, two vertical channels run the length of the carpet, joined at the carpet’s center by one short, horizontal channel, resulting in an “H” shape filled with unusually dense and naturalistic depictions of flora and fauna. Birds, butterflies, lions, leopards, gazelles, peacocks and deer dart and frolic among flowering trees, while fish and ducks swim by in the water channels. This layout does not survive in any other early Persian garden carpets, nor does it appear to have been borrowed by any carpets that followed.

Another unique feature is the gradual change in orientation of the flora and fauna in the carpet’s top half.  In the middle of the carpet, these elements are anchored at the edges of the water channels. As the eye moves up, viewers notice that the elements transition to a parallel orientation to the channels. For a person sitting at the center of the bottom half of the carpet, this transition creates a panoramic viewing experience. Gazing from right to left, the viewer sees the elements in an upright position in relation to him or her—an unusual phenomenon in garden carpets that immerses the viewer in a natural but well-ordered world.

The Wagner Garden Carpet was first seen in the late 19th century in Istanbul, Turkey. The carpet ultimately landed in the collection of Sir William Burrell, who purchased it from the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1939. Named for a previous early-20th-century German owner, it was displayed in Burrell’s drawing room at Hutton Castle near the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland. Due to its significant size (just over 17 x 14 feet) and previous lending restrictions, the Wagner Garden Carpet has spent the majority of the 20th and 21st centuries in storage.

About the Burrell Collection
Sir William Burrell (1861–1958) was a Scottish businessman, art collector, and philanthropist. He generously gifted his collection of some 9,000 works principally of Islamic, Chinese, and medieval art, as well as works by major artists including Degas, Rodin, and Cézanne, to the people of Glasgow in 1944, fulfilling his vision to benefit his community and country. In 1983, the specially built Burrell Collection opened to the public in Pollok Country Park. The collection is currently closed for refurbishment until 2020.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Established in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums in the United States, with an encyclopedic collection of nearly 70,000 works dating from antiquity to the present. The main campus comprises the Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Rafael Moneo and opened in 2000; the Caroline Wiess Law Building, originally designed by William Ward Watkin, with extensions by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe completed in 1958 and 1974; the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi and opened in 1986; the Glassell School of Art, designed by Steven Holl Architects and opened in 2018; and The Brown Foundation, Inc. Plaza, designed by Deborah Nevins & Associates and opened in 2018. Additional spaces include a repertory cinema, two libraries, public archives, and facilities for conservation and storage. Nearby, two house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and Rienzi—present American and European decorative arts. The MFAH is also home to the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art.

Organization and Funding

Glasgow Museums      The Burrell Collection

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