How Turkey Emerged as an Avant-Garde Art Power

How Turkey Emerged as an Avant-Garde Art Power

Well before China became a major contemporary-art power, the 1987 inception of the Istanbul Biennial first caused the Western art world to look farther east than Switzerland and its homegrown Art Basel for cutting-edge postwar art. In the decades since, the nation has progressed economically, and its cultural ambitions have followed suit. This evolution is reflected in Unleashed:Contemporary Art from Turkey, a new book edited by Hossein Amirsadeghi and Maryam Homayoun Eisler that weds essays with images of contemporary Turkish artworks in a package that seeks to update the global perception of the country's art while continuing to erase the preconceptions of the Near East established by Orientalist painters like Jean-Léon Gérôme.

The Turkish scholars, curators, and critics referenced in the book present the development of art in Turkey as closely linked to events in the nation's topsy-turvy political scene. The 18th century witnessed thesecond consecutive century of decline in the Ottoman Empire, spurring the crumbling state to feud openly with the West. In an attempt to bolster the nation's military, Turkish leaders initiated lessons in Western-style cartographic drawing in the nation's military schools — a discipline that helped inspire a young band of creative artists.

In 1882, artists Osman Hamdi and Ahmet Ali Pasha helped found the Academy of Fine Arts, the nation's premier art academy, which trained its students in landscapes and still-life painting. Scholar Ahu Antmen notes that “although they lived on into the 20th century,” the so-called Military Painters who emerged from the cartographic training programs “belonged to the previous century in their perception of the world, a world still bound by religious tradition and the sense of belonging to an imperial state and culture.”

In the 20th century, Turkey quickly fell in step with the development ofWestern art history, with many native artists training under the leading Orientalist painters of Paris — leading to a delayed mimicry of European art movements in Turkey. While these Turkish Impressionists' imitations of Monet, Degas, and Cézanne have not been considered particularly accomplished, they marked the first time artists in the country separated  themselves from working in close conjunction with the ruling government, and their sensitive, psychologically nuanced depictions of women in natural settings distinguished them as early proponents of gender equality. (The first Turkish artacademy for girls was created in 1914.)

Though “cultural shifts were fast and acute,” Antmen writes, “they took time to be digested by the great majority.” Through the mid-20th century, Turkish artists continued to link their work closely with movements in the West. In 1933, for example, the ‘d’ Group calculatedly shunned Eastern visual forms, and “tried to create a visual language that would reflect the deliberate transformation of mentality that pro-Western republican revolutions had promoted.” The group represented one of the first modern art movements in Turkey, and many criticized them for their determination to assume a completely Western identity instead of making art that conveyed a local — or Eastern — character. The ‘d’ Group was “instrumental in creating discussion about the identity problem that seemed to be at the core of Turkish modern art during this period.”

By the 1950s, however, change was afoot as the Turkish art world was dramatically invigorated by an artist named Fikret Mualla, a Caravaggio-esque figure who returned from education in Germany to assume the life of bohemian painter. Battling alcoholism, psychological disorders, depression, and poverty during his lifetime, Mualla became the first Turkish artist, in the words of Antmen, to abandon the “‘missionary complex’that has beset each generation of artist sent to Europe from Turkey — the concern of each artist to carry out his or her part in the task of bringing back trends that would enable the local art scene to catch up with the Western art history.”

Over the next 30 years, as Turkey became a socialized country with a liberalizing culture and rising economy spurred by widespread industrialization, these socio-political shifts were manifested in works by Turkish artists that were completely independent of western movements. By the late 1970s, the Academy of Fine Arts actively cultivated the Turkish art scene by producing a bi-annual "New Tendencies" exhibition, which continued until 1987 and widely regarded as a key catalyst in encouraging an artistic avant-garde to entrench in the country. The exhibition also stimulated the proliferation of galleries throughout Turkey in the 1980s, resulting in increased visibility for manyTurkish artists and an intensified visual dialogue.

Through the 1990s, artists in the country took cues from trends sweeping the international art scene, taking up video and working in mixed media and performance to invoke issues of identity, be it political, gender, or nationalistic. Today artists like Ramazan Bayrakoğlu, Taner Ceylan, and Ayse Erkmen continue to experiment with these hybrid-mediums and themes.

Culminating in over 100 in-depth profiles of contemporary Turkish artists, Unleashed is graphically beautiful, informative, and comprehensive. It is a compelling document charting Turkey's emergence into the exclusive contemporary art world.