- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

Another display of royal Turkish Ottoman treasures — this time of stunningly designed 16th- and 17th-century robes (caftans) — arrived recently at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery with a thunderous shout.

Why a shout? Because voluminous, luxurious caftans spelled power for the horseback-riding Ottoman conquerors, who bellowed as they pursued enemies.

Art and power were synonymous, as the Sackler’s “Style and Status: Imperial Costumes From Ottoman Turkey” brilliantly shows. The exhibit confirms legendary Ottoman superpower status at the height of the empire’s strength in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when these robes were made. The conquerors dominated much of southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa for six centuries as well.

Yet, as imaginatively designed and expertly crafted as the Sackler’s caftans, shirts, trousers, hats, shoes and boxes appear, Washingtonians can ask if another show of Ottoman textiles is needed.

Most of the Sackler exhibit comes from the legendary Topkapi Palace, which was converted into a museum in 1924 and contains the world’s largest collection of Islamic textiles.

Similar Topkapi pieces traveled to the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures From the Topkapi, Istanbul” in 2000. Others arrived as part of the National Gallery of Art’s “Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art From the Victoria and Albert Collection” last year.

Even more crucial to understanding the Sackler’s exhibition is the Textile Museum’s concurrent “Silk & Leather: Splendid Attire of 19th-century Central Asia,” which shows how and why northern Eurasian nomads invented the “steppe style” of dress. (The steppes are flat, mostly arid, areas of large parts of Central Asia.)

Invented as early as 2000 B.C. by Indo-European peoples — as proved by comparably dressed and dated Xinjiang Province mummies in China — the highly versatile style developed from nomads’ need for loose, warm clothing for galloping and running horses in the steppes’ harsh winter cold.

The steppe style became the prototype for dress styles to come, ranging from the Sackler’s caftans to 19th-century British frock coats.

Considering the Textile Museum’s greater informational content, both Sackler and Textile Museum visitors would benefit from a connecting bus, as “Style and Status” runs through Jan. 22 and “Silk & Leather” through Feb. 26.

The Ottomans’ cutting-edge caftan silhouettes, which repeat their swords’ razor-sharp edges, set the starkly geometric tone of all-over Ottoman design. For example, consider the monumental scale and repeated motifs of the Sackler’s initially displayed caftans, mounted in the first room.

Both caftans, one of Italianate velvet decorated with the “tulip vine” motif, the other of richly colored satin with nestling crescents, boldly confront visitors. Repeating boldly articulated geometric and floral designs was the heart of what the museum calls “the Ottomans’ new artistic language” — what would be called “logos” today.

The Ottomans varied motifs such as the popular “cintamani” or “auspicious jewel” motif, one of the most popular and geometrized designs. They also expressed their love of flowers with stylized vines, carnations, rosebuds, tulips and the leaves of the plane tree.

Many embroidered caftans used sharply delineated forms, clearly defined compositions, carefully rendered motifs and brilliant colors.

Trousers and caftans in the second gallery emphasize Ottoman facility with gold and silver threads. Here, the threads were used to create stylized flower medallions and stars. An enormous, horizontally woven “Textile Fragment” of large, dancing black calligraphic text surrounded with bold red and black designs captures visitors’ attention as they descend to the Gallery’s lower level.

The exhibit is organized by technique, and the museum effectively explains on an exhibit label how silks, satins, brocades and velvets were made and decorated with appliques, quilting, embroidery and fur lining.

Caftan uses here range from the first, large gleaming ones called “Robes of Honor” to tiny, quilted robes of floral and cintamani motifs meant for young nobles in “A Prince’s Rite of Passage,” one of the exhibit’s last sections.

WHAT: “Style and Status: Imperial Costumes From Ottoman Turkey”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Jan. 22


PHONE: 202/633-1000

ONLINE: www.asia.si.edu/

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