Chapter 1: Historical Roots & Influences

Art is an evolutionary act. The shape of art and its role in society is constantly changing. At no point is art static. There are no rules.

— Raymond Salvatore Harmon.

To truly grasp the depth and dynamism of Turkish contemporary art, one must journey into its past, unraveling the rich tapestry of influences that have given it its distinct voice. The art of Turkey is not an isolated entity; it's a reflection of its history, a product of its interactions with diverse civilizations, and a testament to its unique geographic and cultural positioning.

The Ottoman Aesthetics

The grandeur of the Ottoman Empire, which spanned six centuries, left an indelible mark on the artistic sensibilities of the region. With Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) as its capital, the empire became a melting pot for various art forms, from intricate miniature paintings and calligraphy to grand architectural marvels like the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

  • Miniature Paintings and Illuminations: Miniature paintings, often accompanying manuscripts, showcased detailed depictions of courtly life, battles, and love stories. These miniatures were not just illustrations but conveyed the depth of emotions, cultural norms, and the aesthetic values of the time.
  • Calligraphy: More than just writing, calligraphy was considered the foremost art form, an embodiment of spirituality and sophistication. Artists would spend years mastering the strokes, and the results — Qur'anic verses, poetic expressions, and imperial decrees — were often ethereal in their beauty.
  • Architecture and Tile Work: The Ottomans inherited Byzantine architectural wonders and fused them with Islamic aesthetics, leading to the creation of iconic structures. The tiles of Iznik, with their distinctive blue and red patterns, became symbolic of Ottoman design.

Western Influences and the Formation of the Turkish Republic

With the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1923 under Atatürk, there was a significant push towards modernization and Westernization. This transformative period ushered in new artistic influences, as artists began exploring European styles and techniques.

  • European Art Movements: Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism began to influence Turkish painters. Artists traveled to Europe, engaged with global art movements, and returned with a fusion of styles, which they melded with Turkish themes.
  • The Fine Arts Academy: Established in 1883, but gaining prominence in the early Republic era, the academy became a crucible for artistic experimentation and education. It played a pivotal role in shaping the early years of modern Turkish art.
  • Artistic Societies and Groups: Societies like "D Group" and "Yeniler Group" emerged, emphasizing the importance of individual expression and breaking away from traditional norms. They played a vital role in fostering a new artistic spirit in the nation.

The Clash and Blend of the East and West

Turkey's unique position, straddling both Europe and Asia, meant that its art would always be at an intersection. This duality is evident in its contemporary art, which often grapples with questions of identity, modernity, and tradition.

  • Juxtaposition in Art: Many Turkish artists, especially in the mid-20th century, used their works to comment on the dual influences they experienced. Their art became a canvas where the traditional and the modern, the Eastern and the Western, clashed, questioned, and sometimes harmoniously coexisted.
  • Narratives of the In-Between: Neither wholly Eastern nor Western, Turkish artists began to explore the 'in-between' space, reflecting the nation's own journey and quest for identity.

In the labyrinth of Turkish art, the past and the present are intertwined, each influencing and shaping the other. The historical roots run deep, and these influences — whether Ottoman grandeur or European modernity — are instrumental in understanding the multifaceted contemporary art scene of Turkey today.