History in the painting

Modern life, or memories of times past

By Victoria Khroundina | July 13, 2013


Earlier this week, I wrote about the temporary exhibition at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum (SSM), 1001 Faces of Orientalism, that should not be missed (it ends on August 11), but the Museum has just informed me that their ‘permanent’ exhibition that has been on since December 2011 will also end in just over a week's time on July 21. 

If you haven’t already seen the While the Country is Changing: Turkish Painting from the Ottoman Reformation to the Republic (on the lower floor of the museum), it is a satisfying journey through the history of the modernisation process which brought Turkey into the 20th century, and a ‘who’s who’ of Turkish painting from the late Ottoman Empire to the early Republic. The paintings on display – many acquired while the museum's founder, Sakıp Sabancı (1933–2004), was still alive – explore the birth of easel painting in Turkey, and the transformation in the concept of art and the ‘artist’. Many of the paintings, such as Nazmi Ziya Güran's (1881–1937) view of Taksim Square above (which he painted in 1935), reveal how society completely reinvented itself.

Hüseyin Zekai Paşa (1860-1919)
Still Life with Watermelon, undated

There are nearly 100 paintings on display, including works by Osman Hamdi Bey, Halil Pasha, Abdülmecid Efendi (the last Caliph), Izzet Ziya and Fikret Muallâ. The exhibition is displayed chronologically, tracing the artists, movements and styles that gained prominence.

The paintings in the first section, ‘Ottoman Palaces and Art: 1839–1896’, are mostly concerned with portraiture and still lifes commissioned by the Ottoman court. ‘Still Life with Apples’ (above), which Süleyman Seyyid (1842-1913) painted in 1895, is a typical example.

Osman Hamdi Bey (1842–1910), one of the best-known pioneerers – and the man responsible for giving us the Istanbul Archaeology Museum – also features significantly in this section. His portrait of ‘Naile Hanım’ (above) is being exhibited in Turkey for the first time – many of his works interestingly were designed specifically for international consumpution. Using a gilded background – familiar from icons of saints – the painting emphasises the importance of Osman Hamdi Bey’s wife for him, and the role of women in society.

Also exhibited in Turkey for the first time is Halil Pasha’s (1857–1939) ‘Madam X’ (above), which was awarded the Bronze Medal at the Paris Universal Fair in 1889, the year it was painted. Halil Pasha – who was part of the ‘Asker Ressamlar’ (Soldier Artists) generation, a group of painters who received their artistic training at military schools in Ottoman Istanbul – was equally skilled at portraiture and landscapes. 

Hüseyin Avni Lifij
Landscape, undated

The next section focuses on the period just before the New Republic was formed. ‘The 1914 Generation’ features works by Hikmet Onat (1882–1977), Hüseyin Avni Lifij (1886–1927) and Izzet Ziya (1880–1934), amongst others. The selection of the nudes show Halil Paşa and Ibrahim Çallı’s sensitive and sensual takes on the art form that came into prominence in the country after Turkish artists started studying abroad.

Izzet Ziya who studied at the School of Fine Arts in Istanbul, where Osman Hamdi Bey was the director, also completed his second phase of training in Paris in the early 20th century. He painted many portraits and was greatly influenced by the female figure. He was interestingly introduced to cartoons when he studied in Paris and later composed a book of comic drawings of women. ‘The Girl on the Beach’, 1917 (above), combines his love for watercolours and the female form. 

Fikret Muallâ 
Moda, undated

The theme of Turkish artists going abroad to study and develop their painting is further reiterated in the ‘Art Education’ section which focuses on the eccentric Fikret Muallâ Saygı (1903–1967), who left Turkey in the 1930s to study in France and ‘expressed his observations on [various] cities through an intense sense of colour, reflecting a melodramatic mood’.

The last section ‘The Independents’ brings attention to the group of artists who were taught by some of the aforementioned masters such as Hikmet Onat, Ibrahim Çallı and Feyhaman Duran, and formed the Independent Painters and Sculptors Association in 1929, the first society of its kind after the formation of the New Republic. A few works by these Independents are showcased including Cevat Dereli's (1900–1989) ‘The Three Graces’ (above), which demonstrates his rather unique painting style in both form and colour. His later paintings favoured the miniture style of painting that were first made popular in Middle Ages Europe. 

In this section, the aforementioned ‘Taksim Meydanı (Taksim Square)’ painted by Nazmi Ziya Güran (main image) is also displayed, which represents the standard of life that the establishment of the Republic brought and – notably – the freedom it provided for Turkish women. The softly coloured and focused painting is a far cry from the turbulent and sometimes bloody images of Taksim Square we have seen as part of the current resistance.

Mirrored inscription with gilded lettering, Celi sülüs script, 1286/1869-70
Mehmed Şefik (d. 1880)

While you are at the SSM, don't miss the Arts of the Book and Calligraphy Collection, which opened at the renovated Atlı Köşk in May, with more than 200 examples of illuminated Korans, prayer books, calligraphic compositions, albums, panels and illuminated official documents bearing the imperial cipher, as well as calligrapher’s tools, spanning a period from the 14th century to the 20th century.

Mezopotamya Dramaturjileri / Su, no. 5, Kufi script, 2009
Kutluğ Ataman (1961-)

There are two particularly interesting things about this exhibition. First is the inclusion of contemporary artists and their takes on the art of calligraphy – Ahmet Oran’s calligraphy exercises which he completed between 2005 and 2006 and renowned video artist Kutluğ Ataman’s video version of the calligraphic mirror compositions known as müsenna or aynalı both greet you when you enter. Second is a digital component that allows traditional visual arts to meet with modern technology. iPads are provided and when held up to an exhibit with a special symbol, they either display more information on that particular work (and allow the viewer to see the über-detailed calligraphic texts up close) or show an animated scene of an Ottoman calligrapher at work. This is both a more absorbing way and fun to see the exhibition, and really paves the way for other museums to use interactivity in their exhibitions.

And one last piece of news from the SSM. Two days ago, the Museum's director, Nazan Ölçer, received the l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur – no one deserved it more. Having cut her teeth in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic art, where for decades funding was so low she had to smuggle art historians on to the payrole in the disguise of cleaning staff, she helped found the SSM, one of a new generation of privately funded museums that has completely transformed the world of visual art in Turkey.

And, while we are on the topic of not-to-be-missed exhibitions, there are a few that are ending soon (in Istanbul) that are well worth seeing. A selection of paintings and sculptures from pioneering contemporary Spanish artist Manolo Valdés can be seen at Pera Museum until July 21 (the Museum is also organising a special guided tour of the exhibition on July 17). The Trespassing Modernities exhibition at SALT Galata, which explores post-Stalinist Soviet architecture from a number of interesting perspectives, ends on August 11. The two exhibitions at ARTER showcasing some of the most powerful contemporary art in the city – Mat Collishaw’s Afterimage and Volkan Aslan’s Don't Forget to Remember – also both end on August 11. And, photographs and objects that will give glimpses into aspects of Robert College’s (the first Western school on Ottoman soil) educational, cultural, social and intellectual life will be on display at the Istanbul Research Institute until August 31.

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