Turkey does not have a modern art museum...


"The principal art museum has almost nothing to offer students
of modern art."

The first artist I met after arriving in Turkey was the gifted painter Orhan Taylan. I noticed to my surprise that he often uses the female nude in his finely crafted canvases. My stereotype of Turkey had led me to assume that Muslims would oppose nudity in art, just as they once opposed even depiction of the human face. This was of course complete nonsense, a fine example of the ignorance that many outsiders bring with them to Turkey and Turkish art.

Quickly I learned that Turkish artists are quite aware of the movements and trends that shape the art world. Most leading Turkish artists have been educated abroad or have spent time outside Turkey.

These international contacts are absolutely vital for Turkish artists because Turkey still does not have a modern art museum that even remotely approaches Western standards. Artists who do not have the opportunity to visit Western European or American capitals must therefore rely on magazines and books to keep up with developments in art.

It is hard to believe that in a city as large and cosmopolitan as Istanbul, the principal art museum has almost nothing to offer students of modern art. There are only a couple of rooms devoted to Turkish painting and sculpture. Paintings are hung haphazardly and light is dim. No major figures of 20th-century art are represented.

There is support for fine arts in Turkey, but it is fragmented. Banks and big companies sponsor galleries, publish catalogues and arrange exhibitions without asking artists for commissions. This provides a basis for artists to survive, meaning that these institutions make a great contribution to maintaining an interesting art scene in Turkey. But it also means that private galleries have great difficulty surviving, since they cannot offer the same financial incentives as big companies.Talking with foreigners about Turkish artists I have often heard: "They don't have anything special to offer, their works are only copies of Western European and American styles." But nowadays art is international, and it is narrow-minded to expect that it always reflect a national character.

When Americans and Western Europeans think of Turkish art, they still think of calligraphy, miniatures and tiles. That is not unjustified.

Turkish art, like art in most of the world, has been exposed to a century of modernist influences. Outsiders, however, are sometimes unprepared to accept contemporary art from Turkey, and as a result few modern and postmodern Turkish artists have been noticed abroad. When Americans and Western Europeans think of Turkish art, they still think of calligraphy, miniatures and tiles. That is not unjustified, but as a foreigner, I want to see both what makes this art specifically Turkish and how it is tied to trends that shape the wider art world.

The Borusan Kultur ve Sanat Merkezi, a new privately sponsored cultural center located on Istiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian street in Istanbul, opened 1997 with an extraordinary exhibition called "Similarity and Dissimilarity: From Tradition to Post-Modernity." This exhibition tried to show how Turkish artists refer to traditional forms in their highly contemporary work. It was curated by Beral Madra, who has been and still is responsible for a number of modern art events in Turkey.

Erol Akyavas, who died in 1999, is among artists who have used elements from calligraphy, traditional miniatures and tiles in their modernist works. In one work, a minimalist painting has been counterposed with a blue tile from the 16th century. A big golden circle is painted on to a dark blue surface, through cracks in the last layer a lighter blue is visible underneath. Like most of the better known artists, Akyavas has had several shows at Gallery Nev. It is among the few private galleries that have promoted Turkish artists on an international level and have pushed the quality of the arts in Turkey to high standards. This year it published an impressive two-volume catalogue featuring the work of its major artists from 1950 to 2000.

The Glory of Victory, 1982


Once a year, most of Istanbul's galleries join to participate in an art fair. There patrons can see what sells, who is famous and what is new. It is also a chance for art lovers to see which galleries have serious ambitions and which are selling kitsch. Kitsch sells best in Turkey, just as it does worldwide, and as a result most galleries offer it. Art education in Turkey is still at a relatively low level and considered unimportant, so public taste is not highly developed.

Among the serious galleries represented at the art fair is Gallery Baraz, which specializes in modern abstract movements. One of its outstanding artists is Gungor Taner, whose seemingly spontaneous splashes of color, thrown onto smooth and artificial-looking backgrounds on large canvases, portray an entirely abstract contrast between speed and stillness, time and timelessness.

Walking through the art fair, I sense that Turks have a love for
dreamlike atmosphere and surrealistic spaces.

Walking through the art fair, I sense that Turks have a love for dreamlike atmosphere and surrealistic spaces. There is more figurative than abstract work on display. I can also make out a tradition of naive art, which sells very well. Nuri Iyem has become popular with his depictions of Anatolian women's faces: big blank eyes, long noses and seriously closed lips, all surrounded by a head scarf.

The innovative gallery Apel, whose owner Nuran Terzeoglu shows art in various media, is not to be found at the art fair. She designs her exhibitions to fit to her gallery space, and does not think much of the art fair.

Yes, there is a Biennale in Istanbul, though it is not widely noticed abroad or even in Turkey. Last year's was called "The Passion and the Wave" and was curated by Paolo Colombo. It was held in historical buildings such as the Haghia Eirene, a Byzantine church; the underground Roman cisterns; and a new exhibition space that is part of the Dolmabahce Complex on the shore of the Bosphorus.

The Biennale is international and does not promote Turkish artists. Among the few Turkish artists Mr. Colombo invited was Omer Uluc, who thanks to good public relations is widely exhibited in Turkey. His swirls are based on an imagined female torso, and all his gestural pictures look more or less the same. For the Biennale he provided three-dimensional swirls.

An episode that grew out of this Biennale made me recall my reaction at
first seeing nudes in Turkish art...

An episode that grew out of this Biennale made me recall my reaction at fir seeing nudes in Turkish art, and my relief at realizing that I was not entering a restrictive or puritanical artistic environment. Among the pictures at the Biennale was a large work by Lisa Yuskavage showing a blonde with enormous breasts, evidently a commentary on the nature of male fantasy as well as the broader impulses of consumer society. The display of this work provoked no problem or special notice, and it was reproduced in several Turkish magazines. A few months later, however, I saw it reproduced in the New York Times Magazine, a supposedly serious journal published in a city that plays a central role in world culture. There the oversized objects of desire were censored by a big black bar, suggesting that Americans are not prepared for art that can be shown without comment in Turkey.





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@The Light Millennium magazine was created and designed
by Bircan ÜNVER. March-April 2000, New York.