Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Art and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Turkey

With the dissolution of the Ottoman sultanate and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, artists and politicians alike called for a new kind of art to represent the fledgling nation. While there was a general agreement on the rejection of the last flowering of Ottoman art, no single, all-encompassing style emerged to replace it. The early years of the Republic saw the rise of dozens of new schools of art and the energetic organization of many young artists.

Representative of this period was the simultaneous existence of the Association of Independent Painters and Sculptors, founded in 1928, and the D Group, started in 1933. Members of the former preferred folkloric scenes, as reflected in the work of Cevat Dereli or Turgut Zaim, while the latter was a more heterogeneous collection of artists. Some members such as Nurullah Berk worked in a painterly mix of European and Turkish styles; others, like Çemal Tollu, took on the more abstract influences of Cubism and Constructivism, or worked in an abstract manner with a political bent, like Abidin Dino.

Alongside this work undertaken by the artists themselves was an official exploration of the nation’s arts. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, first president of the Republic (1923–38), sought to revise a number of aspects of Turkish culture and to stress the ancient heritage and village life of the country. Thus it was thought important to remove all Arabic and Persian cultural influences, including use of the Arabic alphabet and Easternized forms of dress. To revitalize the countryside, hundreds of “People’s Houses” were opened. These were in one way community centers, where theater productions were staged and films screened. They also functioned as preservation societies, where work by local artists was exhibited, and songs by local musicians recorded. Following in this vein, Atatürk’s successor Ismet Inönü (1938–50) instituted the Provincial Tours for Painters, which, between 1938 and 1944, sent ten artists each year to live and work in different parts of the country. During this period, large numbers of lifesize portraits and statues of Atatürk were commissioned, such as the portrait by Nazmi Ziya Güran. His image functioned as a symbol of modernity and thus was displayed publicly, a practice that continues today. Images of Atatürk are seen everywhere in Turkey and contemporary artists such as Neşe Erdok continue to celebrate his legacy in a contemporary idiom.

Simultaneous to this Turkicizing movement, Europe continued to inform the education and aesthetics of Turkish artists. Government grants allowed students to study abroad, and foreign artists were hired to teach in the Turkish academies. Sculpture was introduced at this time, and Rudolf Belling of Germany came to head the department at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1937. Realizing the propagandizing potential of this medium, the government commissioned a number of public works to commemorate the War for Independence and the role Atatürk played in it.

Architecture also took a page from the European scene. The new capital of Ankara was to be a symbol of Turkey’s modern future and a strong contrast to the country’s ancient past, epitomized by Istanbul. Thus the city’s development represented a vastly different approach from later Ottoman works such the Dolmabahçe Palace. The German urban planner Hermann Jansen won the competition for the city’s master plan in 1927, and the new governmental center was deliberately located across town from the ancient citadel. This was designed by the Austrian Clemens Holzmeister as a triangular complex with the Grand National Assembly at its apex. While some feel that the Ankara architecture was not truly in the International Style it was meant to be, the difference from the Ottoman period was obvious; it sufficed that these stark concrete buildings with no ornament were clearly not of the old school.

Soon after the influx of European architects and their integration into the education system, Turkey began to produce its own modernist architects. Şevki Balmumcu designed the 1933–34 Ankara Exhibition Hall, and Aptullah Ziya constructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Residence in the same year. Atatürk’s mausoleum (completed in 1955), designed by Emin Onat and Orhan Arda, is an austere building combining the Turkish tradition of the türbe and the Anatolian tradition of the mausoleum in a new, modern manner. The involved participation of Turkish architects is reflected in the writings of the journal Mimar (founded in 1931, later called Arkitekt).

In the realm of painting, the government arranged a number of important shows, including the Exhibition of Paintings of the Revolution, held on the tenth anniversary of the declaration of the Republic, and the State Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, which was held annually for a number of years. While showcasing the work of young artists, these exhibitions also represented the first attempts at ordering, preserving, and classifying modern painting. Particularly notable in this regard was Fifty Years of Turkish Art, the show that opened the museum at the Dolmabahçe Palace in 1937.

While in general Atatürk’s achievements were lauded, literature of the early Republican period also recorded the angst of the Turkish people, who were caught between reform and tradition, and the sudden changes forced upon them. Reaction against the adoption of European modernism in architecture was allowed fuller expression after the death of Atatürk in 1938. Thus the building of the Turkish Historical Society by Turgut Cansever and Ertur Yener (Ankara, 1966), which won the Aga Khan Award for architecture, utilizes the basic form of the Turkish house with a plain facade and protected interior court together with modern building materials. The return to Turkish roots was reflected in the cinema of these years as well. Certain directors claimed that their aesthetics came from Turkish painting and their pacing from traditional storytelling styles.

Since the 1940s, Turkish art has followed Western trends while retaining a link to local idioms. Artists such as Adnan Turani and Burhan Doğançay, both members of the calligraphic movement, used the forms of Islamic calligraphy as a point of reference. Their work was a response to Atatürk’s abandonment of the Arabic in favor of the Latin script.