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Istanbul Sabancı Museum exhibit tells story of painting in Turkey

The latest exhibition at Sakıp Sabancı Museum titled ‘From the Reformation to the Republic: Master Artists, Artist Students’ depicts the history of the art of painting in Anatolian lands

Sakıp Sabancı Museum (SSM), one of Istanbul’s most prominent museums, has debuted a new exhibition that showcases the historical journey of the art of painting in Turkey. Launched on June 1, “From the Reformation to the Republic: Master Artists, Artist Students” welcomes visitors with a total of 115 artworks from the museum’s special painting collection by many prominent artists, including Hoca Ali Rıza, Halife Abdülmecid Efendi, Hüseyin Zekai Pasha, Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, Şevket Dağ, Hikmet Onat, Hüseyin Avni Lifij, Ibrahim Çallı, Nazmi Ziya Güran and also the pioneering female artist Mihri Müşfik Hanım.

The latest exhibition at SSM spotlights the interaction and change between generations by putting the artists’ master-apprentice relationship under the microscope. It also offers a chance to observe the social and economic transformation of Turkey through the art of painting, which was discovered late but quickly adopted in Anatolian lands.

'Taksim Square,' Nazmi Ziya Güran, oil on canvas, 73.5 by 92 centimeters. (Courtesy of SSM)
“Taksim Square,” Nazmi Ziya Güran, oil on canvas, 73.5 by 92 centimeters. (Courtesy of SSM)

Displayed in chronological order, the exhibition’s selection begins with the works belonging to the generation of artists who were sent abroad for art education, mainly to France, in the 19th century and who attended the studios of eminent artists like French Orientalists Jean-Leon Gerome and Gustave Boulanger in Paris. This very first part of the exhibition features landscapes and still life paintings by these artists along with portraits in which they became interested as an extension of figurative expression.

For an Orientalism and impressionism enthusiast, works by Osman Hamdi Bey (1842- 1910) and Halil Pasha (1857-1939) are the standouts of the exhibition.

Osman Hamdi Bey was a prominent figure during the early period of Turkish Westernization with his diverse duties as a museum founder, archeologist, lecturer and public administrator. However, he was best known as a painter. The artist continued to paint in the style of his teachers Gerome and Boulanger and his works present the Ottoman lifestyle through anonymous Ottoman individuals from the perspective of a kind of self-Orientalism. His most famous work “The Tortoise Trainer” is the best example to understand the artist’s oeuvre. In “From the Reformation to the Republic: Master Artists, Artist Students,” the portrait Osman Hamdi Bey painted for his second wife Naile Hanım stands out with the gold paint used around the figure, which probably represents divinity. The piece depicts Naile Hanım from the left profile with a frozen expression on her face but the dynamic brushstrokes creating her clothes revive the painting.

'Woman Reclining on Hammock,' Ibrahim Çallı, oil on wood, 38 by 70 centimeters. (Courtesy of SSM)
“Woman Reclining on Hammock,” Ibrahim Çallı, oil on wood, 38 by 70 centimeters. (Courtesy of SSM)

Influenced by classical and realistic styles during his education in Paris, Halil Pasha also continued to produce impressionist paintings, which makes him one of the early representatives of this style in Turkey. Paintings that express the artist’s perceptions subjectively rather than creating exact representations have always had an enormous influence on me. This was why I was astonished and mesmerized when I had a chance to examine the works of French artist Claude Monet, who is one of the fathers of impressionism, in a previous exhibition by SSM. I felt the same when I examined Halil Pasha’s “Girl Painter and Her Studio” in “From the Reformation to the Republic: Master Artists, Artist Students.”

Halil Pasha was a military painter, who was a member of a group of artists trained at Ottoman military schools. These military painters can also be considered one of the pioneers of Westernization in painting in Anatolia along with artists like Osman Hamdi Bey. While military painters mostly depicted nature in their works due to the traditional reluctance of Ottomans in depicting human figures, Halil Pasha oppositely focused on figurative painting thanks to the impact of his foreign education. In “Girl Painter and Her Studio,” Halil Pasha portrays a young female artist as she paints in a workshop. The patterns on the wall and furniture of her workshop, the coal-burning stove and the pitcher all reflect the traditional Ottoman household, while the young painter’s braid and attire are representative of the period’s fashion.

"Portrait of a Young Man," Mihri Müşfik Hanım, oil on canvas, 62.5 by 50.5 centimeters. (Courtesy of SSM)
"Girl Painter and Her Studio," Halil Pasha, oil on canvas, 41 by 33 centimeters. (Courtesy of SSM)

The painting is both familiar and foreign, rendering a familiar scene but one that could be taking place in a world other than our own.

The exhibition later tells the story of Istanbul through the paintings of Ibrahim Çallı, Nazmi Ziya, Avni Lifij, Feyhaman Duran, Namık İsmail and Hikmet Onat, the so-called “1914 Generation.” This generation of artists, who were sent to Paris, returned to Turkey with the outbreak of World War I. They are the group largely accredited with introducing impressionism to Turkey. In the SSM exhibition, their paintings depict Istanbul with a focus on its streets, houses, historical sites, coastline and the Bosporus while at the same time telling the story of the profound changes that have occurred in the country. This section of the exhibition also commemorates the Galatasaray Exhibitions, the primary event organized by artists from the 1914 Generation, introducing the artistic developments of the period.

Çallı and Dağ were among the artists who attended the Galatasaray Exhibitions and whose works will surely grab your attention at first sight. What’s striking about Çallı’s “Woman Reclining in a Hammock” is the way he transfers his personal interpretations while depicting a simple scene of a girl laying in a hammock. His pure colors and sensitivity to light enliven the scene, juxtaposed by the stillness in the expression of the woman, like Osman Hamdi Bey’s “Naile Hanım Portrait.”

'Hagia Sophia,' Şevket Dağ, oil on canvas, 250 by 180 centimeters. (Courtesy of SSM)
“Hagia Sophia,” Şevket Dağ, oil on canvas, 250 by 180 centimeters. (Courtesy of SSM)

Painting in a wide variety of genres, Dağ is an artist who also took a turn toward impressionism in his later oeuvre. However, the artist is best known for his paintings featuring the interior of major historical structures. His “Hagia Sophia” brings a view from the interior of the glorious structure through a perspective of architectural integrity. The contrast that the artist creates with the use of light and shadows are the concrete features of the sense of space in the painting.

Many magnificent paintings and portraits like the ones that I have mentioned above can be seen at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum’s latest exhibition between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day except Mondays. Visitors with a reservation can visit the exhibition, while teachers and health workers can visit free of charge.