Analyzing Turkish history through modern paintings

Analyzing Turkish history through modern paintings

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Analyzing Turkish history through modern paintings

The selection of the works at the Pera Museum exhibition offers a window into the Turkish Republic through the plastic arts, covering various themes.

To celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Turkish Republic, the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation at Pera Museum is presenting a new exhibition exploring recent Turkish history through modern paintings.

The selection of the works offers a window into the Republic through the plastic arts, covering themes such as the years of the National Forces, rural life, migration, slums and urbanization, the isolated individuals of modern life, and different interpretations of the past. The exhibition includes a wide range of works by artists such as Avni Arbaş, Nuri Iyem, Abidin Dino, Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, Cihat Burak, Turan Erol, Nedim Günsür, Yüksel Arslan, Oya Zaim, and Erol Akyavaş.

According to a written statement issued by the show’s organizers, the Republic’s image was initially “born of the land,” before undergoing a number of transformations. “It may be said that changes in style often coincide with historical ruptures. All of the problems such as continental wars, economic crises, migrations, and environmental pollution have the potential individually to create the cultural material that will shape art. In the first quarter of the 20th century, such a potential emerged with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, exhibiting its creative force in such a way as to shape the modern images of the Republic,” the statement reads.

Forms of modernization

“All the values connected to this productive source gained meaning around [being born of the land]: the belief in standing on one’s own feet, a public sphere based on sharing, and morals sensitive to the warmth of the poor … Representing the human tragedy in the steppes, in barren lands, this image migrated to the cities on caravans laden with hope. It was kept waiting for a long time at the city gates, not allowed to enter. Life in the slums became the locus of new dreams. Built by the heaping of people and events on top of each other, the Tower of Babel, in other words the modern City, was the last stop of the image of the Republic. It was here that social weariness made itself felt for the first time; the image thought it necessary to look back and re-interpret the heavy legacy it carried,” it adds.
The curator of the show, Ekrem Işın, believes that the art of painting shows different qualities in terms of the two forms of modernization. “Ottoman painting offers merely a framework of nonfunctional objects, silhouettes of orientalist figures, and landscapes of postcard sensitivity, whereas Republic-era painting finds the key to unlock modernism. This great discovery is the modernism that emerged after the academism that continued until the Second World War,” he said.

Sections of the exhibition

The exhibition consists of a number of different sections. The epic founding image of the Republic finds the will of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Avni Arbaş, the spirit of the National Forces in Abidin Dino, and its historical parody in Cihat Burak. The period attests to idealistic individuals, horses running at full gallop, and buffalo pulling carts, all having cast their lot in with each other. This is a period of lost values and forgotten human landscapes, providing for modern Turkish painting its memory as well as a layer of social reality where epic images are produced.

“The Earth People section focuses on the image of the early Republic. People emerge from the depths of history, from below the ground to the surface. These are the kind of people who, as Nazım Hikmet put it, ‘learn from the soil and know without a book,’ and they represent the Republic: determined, strong, and loyal. Bedri Rahmi paints these people and their historical continuity as a folkloric reality. The riot of colors in Anatolia emerges initially in a naïve drawing, then descends under the ground, to the world of civilizations, and begins its journey to the past. The ancient world, the Seljuks, the Byzantines, the Ottomans … Neşet Günal is primarily interested in the subconscious of the earth people. He hovers over the layers the Republic cannot penetrate, and finds the image that belongs to him: the ruthlessness hardened by nature … Nuri Iyem shows these people on the threshold of urbanization, said the press bulletin,” the press release states.

The section titled, “The Purgatory: Life With Slums,” focuses on the issue of migration from rural to urban areas, which gathered pace in the 1950s. By the 1960s, major cities had become surrounded by slum areas, that are neither rural nor urban; representing the cocoon of a social life from which there is no return, but whose future is also uncertain. The life-spaces within this cocoon seem stacked up on each other, and at this point the image of the Republic severs itself from “rural humanism” to settle down in the cocoon of this new life. The slums rising on top of each other almost remind one of a Tower of Babel, and painting at the time often attempted to convert this conglomeration into a visual language by using the compositional technique of miniatures. It is, in fact, possible to see in the paintings of Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, Turan Erol, Nuri İyem, and Oya Zaim Katoğlu the style of a “nakkaş” working with the classical technique.

The section of the exhibition titled “Weariness,” focuses on the 1960s, a time when Orhan Peker persistently painted worn-out horses and buffalos, placing them at intersections between big patches of paint that line up with their anatomical frameworks. They can perhaps be read as the horses of the National Forces, the buffaloes of the carts carrying ammunition to the front.

Meanwhile, the “Modernism Rakes Up the Past” section displays Cihat Burak’s interpretation that the subconscious built upon a historical ground is an archaeological endeavor concerning the cultural layers of the past. Each layer determines the next or annihilates it. Thus, the past as interpreted by Burak is seen as being far from static and is transformed into a combustible debate between the past and the present. Yüksel Arslan’s works’ iconographic interpretations are similarly based on the symbolism of the past, while Erol Akyavaş’s calligraphic compositions and Adnan Çoker’s graphic abstractions based on the symbolism of circles and spheres also indicate a deep impulse to reexamine the past.