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Hats off to the Sakıp Sabancı Museum for another blockbuster presentation of an important Turkish artist little known outside the world of connoisseurs of the Ottoman impressionists. These were the artists who were sent to France to study studio painting. They became latterday impressionists. Many returned when war broke out in 1914 and were effectively the founding generation of Turkish 20th-centurry painting. Their love of the Bosphorus and views of late Ottoman Istanbul are one of their most compelling facets. Cornucopia featured Avni Lifij’s view of Sultanahmet Mosque on the cover of Cornucopia 42.
Avni Lifaj died in Istanbul in 1927, but his birthday is hotly disputed, and no one knows today for sure whether he was in his teens or 30 something when he was discovered as a fully fledged portraitist by Osman Hamdi Bey and (retrospectively) enlisted at the imperial artist school. Hamdi Bey told him actually attending the school would be a waste of his time as there was nothing he could learn there, but it allowed him to be selected for a scholarship to Paris (following in the master’s footsteps). The name Lifij is Circassian for ‘of light complexion’ – he later tried to adopt the Turkish ‘Aktan’, which means the same thing, as a surname, by as Ömer Şerifoğlu, author of an authoritative essay in the catalogue, tells us, it didn’t have the same ring!)
Many of the works in the show, both landscapes and portraits, belong to his descendants and have therefore never been seen before. An extraordinary revelation is the discovery of glass negatives that Lifij took and often used for his paintings. Powerful images in their own right.
The SSM exhibition promises to be both a visual feast and a consummate feat of scholarship.
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