Archive for Albert von Le Coq

Venetian Red in Berlin: Ethnological Arts from Azerbaijan

Posted in Central Asia, Embroidery, Liz Hager, Textiles, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on October 22, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Azerbaijan embroidered coverlet, 19th century, silk, metallic thread

Azerbaijan embroidered coverlet (detail)

Ethnology is the branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the origins, distribution, technology, and social structure of the ethnic, racial and national divisions of humanity. Simply put, ethnologists interpret the output—whether language, artifacts, social customs—of various families of man.  By the mid-19th century, Europeans were captivated by the Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures, both ancient and contemporary. So much so, that the term “Orientalist” was coined to describe the people who studied these cultures.

Though perhaps not as well-known as their English counterparts, German “Orientalists,” such as  Albert van Le Coq and his contemporaries were actively digging in the Sahara, the Levant and Chinese Turkistan. Like the British, they ultimately “liberated”  huge caches of artifacts from their resting places with the result that an exceptionally good collection of ethnologic art resides in Berlin.

For anyone with an interest in the tribal arts, a visit to the Ethnologisches Museum is a compulsory stop. Founded in 1873, the composite Museum (several separate collections have been merged under one roof) boasts over 500,000 artifacts, representing peoples from every continent, including North America, although only a fraction of the collection is on display at any given time. Still, the serious student could spend hours, if not days, properly absorbing it all.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that (for now) the Museum is located in Dahlem, an idyllic spot southwest of the city center, which has retained its leafy village origins, despite being within city limits. Or that Die Brücke, the Museum of the German Expressionist movement, is a short walk up the road.

Although on a pilgrimage specifically to see the Kizil Cave frescos, I nonetheless wound up spending much additional time (though not nearly enough) in the comprehensive Oceanic collection and a temporary exhibit—”Azerbaijan—Land of Fires.” Apparently the first of its kind in Europe, this exhibition features 5,000 years of Azeri ethnographic arts; it encompasses not only household and decorative items, but fine arts.

The nation state of Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran on the Caspian Sea. Beginning in the 6th century the Turkic tribes, migrating in vast numbers from the Mongolian steppe, overpowered local populations throughout Central Asia. Azerbaijan was no exception. The term “Azerbaijan” refers to the dominant Turkic tribe in the region, but derives from a root word—Azer—”fire keeper,” because the local population were fire worshippers.  By the early 20th century observers in the capital, Baku, noted the effects of the ever present smoke from fires pluming out of the city’s numerous oil derricks.

The tribal arts of Azerbaijan generally reflect either Iranian or Turkic traditions, although some Russian traditions were absorbed when the country came under Soviet control in the early 20th century. In the case of textiles, like other Turkic peoples, Azeris use embroidery to decorate many household objects—cushions, covers, wall panels, details of clothing, purses, comb cases, etc. Typically artisans embroidered intricate geometric or fanciful floral and fauna motifs on cotton or velvet using “chain” or “satin” stich techniques in silk or metallic threads. In the above detail, the chain stitching is particularly evident.  The wide use of spangles tends to differentiate Azeri embroideries from others, although this aspect is not well demonstrated by the example above.

Embroidery Craftsmen, Azerbaijan—Yelizavetpol Province, late 19th century
(Photo courtesy Russian Museum of Ethnography)

Wider Connections

Berlin Ethnographisches Museum
Azerbaijan State Museum
Azerbaijan History
More embroideries
Tom Reiss—The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, the absolutely fascinating story of Essad Bey, a Jew from the Caucasus, born in the first throes of the Russian Revolution, he styled himself a Muslim prince.

Swimmers in the Desert: Von Le Coq and the Kizil Caves

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , on September 28, 2008 by Liz Hager

“Swimmers,” wall fresco, Kizil, Cave of the Seafarers, ca. 500 (photo courtesy Museum of Asian Art, Berlin)

Aurel Stein belonged to a special breed of 19th-century European archeologists; classically overachieving Victorian-era men, who possessed a multi-disciplinarian body of knowledge, a curiosity about ancient civilizations, and a heightened sense of adventure.  Fueled by tales of the “lost” cities along the Silk Route, these men endured the brutal conditions of the Takla Makan desert in pursuit ancient cultural artifacts, which were often literally buried in the sands.  At its peak, the modern exploration of Central Asia became a race between scholars of different lands, each desperate to outdo the others in a discovery that might change contemporary understanding of these unknown cultures. In the process, as was the 19th century custom, Stein and others pillaged thousands of artifacts from their resting places, ferrying them away on camels and horses to various European museums.

By the mid-19th century with the British firmly ensconced in India a lively scholarly interest had developed in the cultures, religions,  and languages of India, the Middle East and China. Between 1889 and 1899 this world was set aflutter by a fragmentary manuscript brought to India from Kucha, an oasis town along the northern Silk Route in the province then known as Chinese Turkestan. This birch-bark page with Sanskrit and ancient Indian text prompted wide speculation on whether the culture and language of ancient Central Asia derived from India.

Albert Grünwald, director of the Indian Department in Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde (now The Museum of Asian Art) and a highly-regarded scholar in the field of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, took a particular interest in the manuscript. As a result of examining it, he paved the way for the German archeological involvement in Chinese Turkestan, mounting a first expedition in 1902.  For health reasons, Grünwald could not accompany the second expedition in 1904, and the Royal Prussian Turfan Expedition was headed by Albert von Le Coq, who had been working for two years as an unpaid volunteer in Grünwald’s department.

Present day Kizil caves (courtesy World Bank Traveller).

Von Le Coq came from a wealthy Berlin Huguenot family and studied commercial subjects in London and America, before entering his father’s wine trading business. He switched careers at the age of 40; by the time he was chosen to lead the expedition, von Le Coq had only been studying Oriental languages for five years. Despite the handicap of junior level experience in the field of Oriental studies, von Le Coq led four highly-successful expeditions along the northern fork of the Silk Route.  As a result, he became Aurel Stein’s most ardent rival in Central Asia.

It was not until 1905 and the third German expedition that von Le Coq and Grünwedel (having rejoined the team) discovered the Kizil Caves. Like the Dunhuang caves, Kizil is a warren of monk’s cells.  Regrettably,  von le Coq hacked off huge portions of the frescoes, leaving the remainder utterly defaced. Further damage was inflicted by Russian and Chinese soldiers hiding out in the caves during

View from a monk’s cave, overlooking the Muzart River at Kizil, photographer unknown (photo courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Stylistically, the art at Kizil is more closely allied to India and the West than to China. You can see that in the faces of the Bodhisattvas, whether statues or figures painted on the wall. The Swimmers fragment was found in a long-narrow rectangular room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The paintings on either wall illustrate two Buddhist seafaring legends—the Shronakotikarna and the Maitrakanyaka Avadana, which remind viewers of the consequences of good and bad deeds.  The fragment pictured above was part of the ceiling scene, which still has not been fully identified.  The scene is enchanting both for the facial expressions of the swimmers and unusual aqua green color of the water (perhaps made from verdigris). It’s a color that doesn’t appear in the Dunhuang art.

Wider Connections

Peter Hopkirk—The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

Frances Wood—The Silk Route: 2000 Years in the Heart of Asia

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