New blood, old masters

State of the Arts 51

The doors of the new Museum of Painting and Sculpture opened briefly in May, offering a tantalising glimpse of the great collection to be housed there. The ground floor has displays of the new building’s architecture, a striking blocky design inspired by shipping containers appearing to stick out like Lego bricks. An alarming future panorama showed four toy-like cruise liners tied up at Karaköy and Fındıklı. Upstairs, alongside a formidable array of Turkish greats – Osman Hamdi Bey, Şeker Ahmet Ali, Ibrahim Çallı – were wonderfully expert copies by students of European Old Masters. Chardin, Lorrain, a Frans Hals Gypsy Girl… The gallery will show a changing selection; surprisingly, this first was rolled out with no dates or descriptions beyond artist and title.

With entrepreneurial Syrians already setting up shop in Turkey, one can anticipate new Syrian talents making their mark on Istanbul’s visual arts scene. Salt has already staged a discussion on Syrian film-makers featuring at Sundance and Cannes. Turkish art has long been shaped by war and its migrations, says the veteran painter Mehmet Güleryüz. Likened (at least by his promoters) to a Picasso, Güleryüz is set for a retrospective at Istanbul Modern early next year. From Ottoman times new arrivals from “countries we used to govern gave us new energy, different ways of looking”, he says. The tolerance shown by the Conqueror paved the way for a society that at its best created “a structure you could join as you cared to; you didn’t necessarily have to be assimilated”.

Even the Crimean War, says Güleryüz, was a catalyst for Turkish art. Perhaps one could include the German art historians so influential in Istanbul’s art colleges after the Second World War, bringing Bauhaus to bear on the city’s design giant Autoban, for example.

In a chat with Güleryüz at his son Kerimcan’s Empire Project, we tried to categorise contemporary galleries for a visiting buyer. For photography, say, Empire or Elipsis; for conceptual, Rodeo or Galeri Non. Art here, like the city, is shaped by cross-currents: the pull of Western contemporary, Islamic abstraction and calligraphy, the influence of Sufism. Older painters and sculptors grumble over the cash and attention lavished on contemporary fads; to be a figurative artist was once a protest in itself.

But Turkish art is once again being shaped by raw political experience. In the back streets of upmarket Bebek you find the work of artists such as Nur Gürel (pictured), whose recent show, Kuşatma (The Siege), at Artgalerim featured giant young women perched on office blocks like park benches, giant towels draped on the arms of cranes – a Gulliver-like essay on urban growth. In almost every Istanbul artist’s studio, it seems you’ll find a canvas reflecting a fear of doors closing, landscapes being remade. Güleryüz says, dryly, that today’s wary state of mind is captured by the enigmatic title of his 2008 painting Ümitliyim – I’m Hopeful.

Tim Cornwell is a freelance journalist and arts writer; tim. cornwell@hotmail.com. Online reports: cornucopia.net blog

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 51
  • The Sultan’s New City

    As the old European quarters flourished in their seclusion, Sultan Abdülmecid had a dream – and expanded to the east

  • Steppe Brothers

    The Sakip Sabanci Museum has just celebrated 600 years of diplomatic relations between Poland and Turkey. Jason Goodwin finds deep-rooted affinities between the two countries


  • ...and the prize goes to…

    John Carswell introduces the mesmerising entries in this year’s Ancient and Modern Prize for original research


  • Nights at the Opera

    With 19th-century Istanbul in thrall to the music of Italy, an extraordinary theatre was born, the creation of one rather ‘odd character’. Emre Aracı tells a tale of comedy and tragedy


  • Beyoğlu in the Jazz Age: Dancing Until Daybreak

    Black musicians, White Russian princesses, Turkish flappers… During the Jazz Age, Beyoğlu was a ferment of modernity and decadence. By Thomas Roueché

  • Setting the Scene: The Tower and the Glory

    For 700 years, the European quarter was home to Genoese, Jews, Greeks and many others. Norman Stone charts the district’s changing fortunes



  • Setting the Scene: Spirits of Beyoğlu

    Maureen Freely recalls the artists and writers who enlivened her childhood with their flamboyant bravado and unspoken sadness

  • The Sultan’s New City: A Fragrant Contradiction

    In the very thick of the city, with its fret and fuss, belching traffic and urban sprawl, lies a glade scented with linden blossoms. Here the young Sultan Abdülmecid built a jewel of a palace, grand but tiny, which is still a green oasis and place of escape. By Berrin Torolsan


  • Setting the Scene: Strangers in a Strange Land

    Until the 20th century, visitors would sail serenely into Istanbul to disembark opposite the Topkapi. After this spectacular start, reality would set in. By David Barchard


  • Blooming Marvels

    For more than two centuries the Ottomans were obsessed by the elegance of the tulip and grew over 3,000 varieties, each characterised by almond-shaped petals drawn out into an exaggerated taper.


  • Modern Nomads

    With its hundreds of different shapes, pasta is today one of the most widely consumed and enjoyed of all the staples

  • The European City

    Across the Golden Horn from the Topkapı and the bazaars is the European City, where fortunes have for centuries been made and lost.



  • Centre of excellencies

    Patricia Daunt extols the palatial embassiess that adorn the heights of old Pera. Photographs by Brian McKee

Buy the issue
Issue 51, Summer 2014 Istanbul Unwrapped: The European City and the Sultan’s New City
£20.00 / $25.68 / 136.94 TL
More Reading
Related Issues
Related Destinations