Tracing the Birth of Turkish Modernism in a Global Context
July 29, 2016
Believing in art as a powerful cross-cultural tool with the potential to unify global societies, Abby Weed Grey approached contemporary art from a truly multicultural perspective, collecting art from Iran, India and Turkey over the course of her travels. Seeking art that expressed “the response of a contemporary sensibility to contemporary circumstances,” she challenged canonical studies of contemporary art that regarded Western art as the universal modern. Instead, by sponsoring non-Western artists and including them in the Grey’s diverse collection, Mrs. Grey ultimately expanded the Western-centric narrative of modern art by including the insightful and specialized conceptions of modernity surrounding Iranian, Indian, and Turkish art. In terms of Turkish art (1952–74), the Grey Art Gallery collection consists of works critical to the post-Republic (post-1923) period when artists strived to develop a new visual language in order to further construct the newborn contemporary Turkish identity. Striking works by independent artist Abidin Elderoğlu and Group D artist Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu embody the influx of ideologies that dominated the contemporary intellectual realm. Elderoğlu’s 1960 Six Lines of Abstracted Calligraphy displays a synthesis of hard-edged, two-dimensional Cubist forms and Cubism’s characteristic two-dimensional pictorial space, as well as organic pastoral shapes that derive from the thick lines of traditional Turkish calligraphy. Elderoğlu explored the synthesis of Turkish and Western forms over the next few years. Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu follows a similar path in reinterpreting pastoral Anatolian forms. Both of these pivotal Turkish artists’ works emanate a distinctly Turkish yet also globalized aesthetic. Their shared esoteric language exhibits the telltale signs of newly emerging Turkish modernism.
A brief discussion of Turkish modern art helps illuminate the art historical significance of these paintings. During the 1930s when Eastern art was classified as a retrograde practice of the Middle Eastern/ Arabic world, the “Turkish Synthesis” movement brought about a rhetorical “marriage” of the Western artistic cannon with Turkish folklore and tradition. The Western Classical was viewed as the rational and universal, in contrast with the vernacular, irrational forms of native Eastern arts. In fact, it was widely believed that Western thought could help “refine” and redefine the traditional folk art of Turkey. Diverging from the inherent nationalism of this politically based artistic agenda, Group D (named in reference to the fact that it was the fourth artistic movement to emerge after the fall of the Ottoman Empire), was established in 1933 with the intention of creating a movement that could not be appropriated by nationalist propaganda. Including such prominent names as Abidin Dino, Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, Eren Eyüboğlu, and Nurullah Berk, Group D sought to propose a new, localized definition of modernism, drawing from the vocabulary of rich Anatolian pastoralism while also embracing Eastern ornamentalism and Western expressionism (originally perceived as antithetical) as equally valuable in terms of their potency. However, the evolution of Turkish Modernist identity was not yet complete. In 1954, polarization of the political scene in Turkey brought about an abrupt break in the championing of Western formalism above Turkish art forms, or rather, of the view that Western Expressionism, Cubism, and Constructivism were the only redemption for non-figural traditional art. Instead, pioneering artists including Abidin Elderoğlu and Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu began incorporating traditional Turkish calligraphy as part of an expressive, surrealist vocabulary, a mesmerizing interpretation of modern identity that finally culminated in a truly Turkish visual language. Elderoğlu’s Six Lines of Abstracted Calligraphy of 1960, is an outright declaration of this new language which truly synthesized an authentic Turkish identity of the old and the new. Rejecting the notion of modern Western art as the only valuable model for Turkish artists, this bold change in approach signals that Turkish folk art is a valuable formal source in and of itself.
While Elderoglu’s Six Lines of Abstracted Calligraphy expands on the Turkish tradition of calligraphy, Eyüboğlu bases his abstraction on the figural in Man Carrying a Goat of 1956. In comparison, Elderoglu’s painting is a more organized abstraction as the composition is divided into six equal lines. Thus, the abstraction of calligraphy appears to go by a credible rhythm or system, perhaps hinting at the artist’s ideological ambition to purposefully transform the Turkish form of calligraphy into a systematized, new, modernist language. While Eyüboğlu also employs geometric patterns to express a pastoral form in his Man Carrying a Goat, the structure he uses serves an entirely different purpose. The background’s green spills into the boundaries of the figure, creating a sharp contrast with the white and grey goat. This particular use of color in Man Carrying a Goat results in the impression of a raised figure, simulating a three dimensional form through the juxtaposition of color alone. Through this painting, Eyüboğlu is making a statement on the modernist concept of the human figure, both systematized and autonomous in its denial of the canvas’ inherent two dimensionality.
Both paintings share an animated language with thick, intersecting lines and contrasts of color, divided into patches of irregular geometric forms. The contrasts in these juxtaposed areas create a dynamic visual element, especially as they are set against plain backgrounds. While these paintings’ lack of perspectival space derives from European Cubist practice, it also emphasizes the subject matter’s archetypal quality. Removed from its expected environment or background, the pastoral figure is carried beyond restrictions of time and space, becoming a timeless motif. In this way, these two paintings’ visual language furthers the ideological convictions of their painters, who transfer the traditionally Turkish into the modernist realm through this correlation of form and function. With this revolutionary gesture, Anatolian motifs and tradition are not only reawakened but also made accessible to a global audience.
The Turkish, Indian, and Iranian art included in the Grey’s collection offer rare insight into localized non-Western modernities, erasing the notion of non-Western art as secondary. The intercultural dialogue these paintings pose introduces ideas that are universally applicable and valuable to our collectively shifting understanding of self-expression in an increasingly global world. Overall, the paintings propose a dynamic narrative of tradition and heritage as expressed through a contemporary sensibility, carrying Mrs. Grey’s inspiring vision of “one world through art” closer to completion through the gift of multiple modernities.