In Turkey modern art, in the western sense of the term, has a past of just a century. In the Ottoman era, the Islamic prohibition of representing the human figure, the negative attitude of fanatical religious circles as well as the country’s delay in participating in the industrial revolution hampered the development of art in Western ways. This does not mean that the Ottomans did not have their own artistic culture: despite being devoid of monumental works, sculpture found expression in the decoration of fountains, bridges and architecture, and painting in wall decoration, weaving and calligraphy. The first opening towards Western forms and ways came thanks to young people (many were military) who went to study abroad, who introduced the genre of the portrait painted in oil,
According to listofusnewspapers, an important personality in the history of Turkish art is Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910) who, having completed his studies in Paris, introduced great innovations in the artistic life of Istanbul. After 1881 he became director of the Ottoman Museum and in 1883 he contributed to the foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts. Furthermore, by promoting numerous excavations in Anatolia, he favored the birth of an awareness that made possible the legislation for the protection of archaeological finds. Osman Hamdi’s most important contribution in the field of painting was the introduction of the study of the figure through the enlargement of photographs; he also became known in Europe for themes similar to those of the orientalist current; his best known works are The Arms Dealer, The Dervish with the Turtle, The exit from the mosque, etc.
Among the first painters who expressed themselves in Western ways, often working on photographs depicting Bosphorus landscapes, we can remember Şeker Ahmet Paçsa, Süleyman Seyyid Bey, Hoca Ali Riza and Halil Pa ş to. Alongside the orientalist painters and landscape painters of the Bosphorus, towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century some artists sensitive to the art of the Impressionists emerged (Ibrahim Çalli, M. Ruhi, Namik Ismail, Feyhaman Duran and Nazmi Ziya). Later, during the years of the Balkan War, the World War and the Liberation War (1912-1922), a group of nationalist-oriented artists painted themes inspired by the Liberation War, producing documentary-type paintings for propaganda purposes. (Mehmet Ruhi, Hikmet Onat, Ali Cemal, Sami Yetik, Ali Sami Boyar, Mehmet Ali Laga, Hoca Ali Riza).
After the successful affirmation of Turkish national sovereignty, the great leader M. Kemal Atatürk implemented important reforms to facilitate the cultural and artistic development of Turkey and thus make it possible to grow at the contemporary international level. Atatürk’s own words make us understand the importance he attributed to culture and art: “A people without painters, sculptors and scientists cannot participate in world progress”.
Opening up to the West involved a series of innovations, from equality between men and women to linguistic reform and the secularization of the state. In this way it was possible to overcome a traditional Islamic prohibition, namely that of representing the human figure, and the creation of monuments and sculptures in the squares was part of the Westernization process. Among the first sculptors we can remember Oskan Efendi, İhsan Özsoy, Ratip A ş ir Acudoğlu, Nijat Sirel, Sabiha Ziya Bengüta ş and, more recently, Hadi Bara, Zühtü Müridoğlu, Hüseyin Anka, Hüseyin Gezer, Ilhan Koman, Sadi Çalik, Kuzgun Acar and Gürdal Duyar. In the context of the state program for art and culture, innovative initiatives were the painting and sculpture exhibitions organized by the state.
In 1929 the Union of Autonomous Painters and Sculptors was founded, promoted, among others, by Refik Fazil Epikman, Cevat Hamit Dereli, Şeref Kamil Akdik, Mahmut Cüda, Nurullah Berk, Hale Asaf, Ali Avni Celebi, Ahmet Z. Kocamemi. The fall of the secular ban on the representation of the human figure caused an explosion of interest in Turkish artists for figurative painting which led, in the Academy of Fine Arts, to a growing commitment to the study of the nude.
In the early years of the Republic, nationalist ideology was widespread among artists: from the formal point of view they followed Western art in the ways of impressionism, expressionism and the new current of social realism; however, elements of Turkish language and tradition emerged in the places, colors and figures. The educational intent of the art shines through in the works of the painters Mahmut Cuda, Şeref Akdik, Peyami Sefa, Hale Asaf Hanim, Turgut Zaim, E ş ref Üren, Malik Aksel, Zeki Kocamemi and the sculptor Hadi Bara.
The establishment of awards (gold, silver and bronze medals) and the purchase by the state of works intended to constitute a museum of modern art, as part of exhibitions to be held in Ankara – decisions taken from the Council of Ministers on September 12, 1926 – remained, however, on a symbolic level, and until the years 1975-80 Turkish artists had to engage in other works to ensure their survival. A conscious collection of contemporary art began very late and coincided with the development of a national bourgeoisie in the 1970s.
The Thirties were years of radical innovations: Group D (from devrim, “revolution”, “radical innovation”) was founded in 1933 by Nurullah Berk (1906-1982), who also played the role of the art theorist, initiating a series of debates that caused violent controversy between progressives and conservatives. Starting from a position in favor of Cubism, Berk developed an artistic conception that places him as a master of Turkish avant-garde art. Del D Group were part, in addition to Berk, Zeki Faik Izer painters, Elif Naci, Cemal Tollu, Abidin Dino and the sculptor Zeki Mürito gana̧y and Erol Akyavaçs. Also significant is the artistic career of Fikret Mualla (1903-1967), who in exile in Paris painted his own pictures in the street and spent many years in psychiatric clinics; his paintings, pervaded with irony, were appreciated only after his death.
Looking at even only the exhibitions organized by the state, we can see how abstract expressionism was widespread among Turkish artists in the 1960s. But we must remember another important exponent of the avant-garde, Altan Gürman (1935-1976) who, with an attitude close to Dadaism, was the first in Turkey to freely use the techniques of collage, photomontage, montage, influencing young conceptual artists. His works, close to pop art and which go beyond the confines of the canvas, critically address the issues of bureaucracy and war.
A great contribution to the development of contemporary art in Turkey was made, after the 1970s, by the Maçka Art Gallery, directed by Rabiye Çapa, and the Yah ş i Baraz Gallery, both in Istanbul. Baraz began around 1975 a collection of works by the first Turkish artists, a collection which later also included works by contemporary artists, influencing the art market and compensating, together with the Maçka Gallery, for the lack of a museum dedicated to modern art and to Turkish contemporary art. Baraz began organizing group exhibitions, holding gigantic exhibits such as The Modernization Process in Turkish Painting and Our Painting in Its Contemporary Dimensions, in 1987, and Contemporary Turkish painters, in 1989. Attentive to following international developments, Baraz aimed above all at building relations with America while, in the context of Turkish art, he favored painting on canvas, in particular with works by Fahrel Nissa Zeid, Nurullah Berk, Zeki Faik Izer, Sabri Berker, Ne ş et Günal, Selim Turan, Cihat Burak, Nejat Melih Devrim, Adnan Çoker, Burhan Doğana̧y, Ömer Uluç, Erol Akyuva ş, Neçse Erdok, Burhan Uy̧gur, Görngur Tamer, Mustafa Ata, Balkan Naci Istimyeli, Bubi, Kemal Önsoy, Bedri Baykam, Mitat Şen. Baraz has also initiated a series of Turkish entrepreneurs (Can Has, Mustafa Taviloğlu, Halil Bezmen, Ali Koçman, Erol Aksoy) to collect.
The Maçka Art Gallery operates on a more selective level. Rabiye Çapa is the first gallery owner in Turkey who supported conceptual artists, and her gallery, active from 1976-77, has taken on the characteristics of a cultural center where discussions on art often take place and has focused above all on artists avant-garde: ÇSükrü Aysan, Altan Gürman, Serhat Kiraz, Nur Koa̧k, Sarkis, Özdemir Altan, Sabri Berkel, Komet, Candeğer Furtun, Canan Beykal, Ay ş e Erkmen, Füsün Onur, Seyhun Topuz, Aliye Moral, Şükran also European artists such as Daniel Buren and François Morellet.
A great contribution to the development of modern art in Turkey was made by Beral Madra, art theorist, curator of exhibitions, international critic and gallery owner. With his writings Madra occupies a prominent place among the intellectuals engaged in the establishment of a museum of modern art and in the integration of Turkish art into the European system. Madra, who also took over the direction of the second Istanbul Biennial, has been supporting young talents in her gallery for many years.
In Turkey the art system has different characteristics from those of Europe. The artists have often personally organized the exhibitions, such as the Turkish Avant-garde Art exhibitions, which have for many years been carried out regularly on the initiative of young artists who are advocates of conceptual art, gathered around the Koridor magazine (“Corridor”).
Among these artists, who finance themselves and also play a role of educators by contributing to the debate and opening up to a wider audience, we remember Bedri Baykam, Canan Beykal, Ahmet Öktem, Ergün Özkutan, Handan Börütecene, Serhat Kiraz, Ay ş and Erkmen, Füsün Onur, Şükrü Aysan, Osman Dinç, İsmail Saray, Alpaslan Baloğlu, Çengiz Çekil, Erdal Aksel, Yusuf Taktak, Yilmaz Aysan and Tomur Atagök. Bedri Baykam, who lived for many years in America, is a prominent name of the New Expressionism group, born in the 1980s and which also includes Fuat Acaroğlu, Hale Arpacioğlu, Arzu Ba ş aran, Selim Altan, Haluk Gedik, Murat Morova, Emre Zeytinoplu, Murat Sinkil. Alongside the Istanbul Biennial, established in 1977, we must remember the Asia-Europe Biennial of Ankara, aimed at facilitating the opening of Turkish art abroad.
Among the artists whose names are worthy of mention we still remember Ömer Uluç, Elif Naci, Sabri Berkel, Turan Erol, Ne ş et Günal, Ferruh Ba ş ağa, Ne ş e Erdok, Mehmet Güleryüz, Özer Kaba ş, Balkan Naci Islimyeli, Tülin Öztürk, Burhan Uygur, Ibrahim Çiftcioğlu, Hüsamettin Koa̧n, Tülin Onat, Ramiz Aydin, Özdemir Altan, Zekai Ormanci, Mehmet Gün and Jale Erzem.
The only magazine which, since 1979, continues its publication is Sanat Çevresi (“The environment of art”), directed by Hamit Kınaytürk. We must also mention the work of the critic and art historian Sezer Tansug who, with his favorable position to figurative painting on canvas, has made it his spokesman. Favorable, albeit not militant, positions towards avant-garde art are those of Vasıf Kfort, trained in the United States, Necmi Sönmez, also trained abroad, as well as the intellectual Mahmut Nüvit.
The physiognomy and official possibilities of contemporary art in Turkey find expression in the Istanbul Biennale, created thanks to the contribution of various industrial entrepreneurs and in particular of Nejat Eczacibaçsi, who also made it possible to establish the new Museum of Contemporary Art born in the early nineties, also in Istanbul, but not yet fully active. Private galleries also reached the number of 70/80 in Istanbul. Modern art has not yet managed to penetrate Anatolia and has remained confined to large cities, such as Istanbul, Ankara and Smyrna. The state’s efforts to decorate squares with monumental sculptures have often only contributed to ugly cities with kitschy sculptures . It is worth noting, although not internationally, the promising fair of contemporary art organized annually.