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Looking beyond Cool Anatolia 8 février 2012

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, Istanbul, Turkey / Turquie.
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Financial Times (UK) Wednesday, February 8, 2012, p. 11

By Julius Purcell

« Mingling our own established traditions with that of the infidels will strip us of our purity and reduce us to being slaves. » So says a 16th-century character in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red , a novel that is temptingly quotable when it comes to Turkish art. Looking at this thought-provoking display at Barcelona’s CaixaForum (until March 4), echoes of Pamuk’s tale are impossible to erase. Turkey’s history supplies many of the themes any contemporary art scene could wish for, and anxiety around modernity and globalisation flows through this show.

Turkish art is booming. Istanbul now boasts around 200 contemporary art galleries, video artists such as Kutlug Ataman and Köken Ergun enjoying international recognition. Yet this small selection of large paintings from the collection of the Central Bank of Turkey doesn’t fit snugly into the image of Cool Anatolia. Entitled The Shadow and Truth , these works are mainly from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, representing the output of an older generation. This lesser fame may shed light on the « Shadow » of the title, although painters such as Erol Akyavas and Canan Tolon are emerging from that shadow and into international auction houses and galleries.

These paintings are also distanced from the noisier conceptual artworks of the Turkish art scene, which often centre on the pet topic of identity. Identity might also be a theme here, but it’s a pleasure to contemplate it through the explanation-free language of paint. A gorgeous 1982 picture by Erol Akyavas is the first of a total of 18 works. The show’s one-piece-per-artist format is sometimes frustrating – it would have been nice to compare paintings within a painter’s oeuvre – but even so the grouping is intense and rewarding. Akyavas’s piece, Locus of Extremity , has an epic look about it and is dominated by turquoise. We could be making a low pass over the sea of Marmara: architectural details (stairs, crenelations) suggest some kind of fragmented history. Look closer, and the central blue square is embossed with tree and other vegetable forms, revealing the old miniaturist influences on this far-from-miniature canvas. Akyavas, born in 1932, didn’t, of course, just pull this synthesis of post-modernity and tradition out of a hat. In the 1940s and ’50s several Turkish artists went to Paris, where they built up a colloquy between lyrical abstraction and their own artistic roots.

Opening with Akyavas is a useful key to understanding this fusion, but looking for the Ottoman-in-everything is also a pitfall: Turkish artists have long felt patronised by such expectations. Selim Turan’s untitled piece from 1970 happily blends abstraction and an Islamic fascination with script. Here, the word is not so much being made flesh as enveloping us in a kind of calligraphic firework display.

Then there’s Ömer Uluç, who plies the brush like a pencil. The colours of his Icon (1970), a pairing of muscular clouds of bright lilacs, blues and yellows, certainly seem to recall Byzantine art. The colours and strength of line do seem to bear out a general truth: that abstraction for Europeans has always been linked with the avant garde, but for Islamic cultures was part of tradition itself.

Other pieces here, though, reflect no discernible national or historical roots. In paint that has been trowelled on and sculpted, Mehmet Güleryüz’s neo-expressionist Untitled (1989) depicts sailors bending to the oars of a lifeboat, their faces contorted in terror, behind them the flames of what may be a sinking ship. In Mithat Sen’s Body (1991), green cellular blobs swarm on the canvas, « backlit » by strong reds. .

Istanbul established its first Biennial in 1987. It helped put Turkish art on the map, although some would say it also made it like everywhere else. The later pictures here certainly show an anxiety about cultural standardisation. While an untitled 1988 collage by Kemal Önsoy explores the flaking surfaces of the modern city, making links between urban graffiti and cave paintings, Canan Tolon presents the city as a homogenised nightmare in a 1991 collage, a rusty stain disappearing into a smoggy sky.

The last picture in the exhibition is Halil Akdeniz’s Anatolian Civilizations (1989). The canvas is divided vertically down the middle, the (western?) side emblazoned with the Greek letter Phi. Yet both sides of this monumental divide are different shades of the same muddy brown, as if modernity is an increasingly amorphous experience for Turk or Greek alike.


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