Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How does what we see in museums affect our view of art history?

Sidki Efendi Turkish Ambassador to the Court of Saint James British 19th century oil
George Dawe, Portrait of a dignitary in Turkish Costume,ca. 1825
 (formerly titled, Sidki Efendi, Turkish Ambassador to the court of St. James)
(San Diego Museum of Art)

There are certain defining moments in all of our lives when we feel we have figured out the answer to some profound truth that we had been searching for all our lives... maybe without even knowing we were. I had my "aha!" moment in a museum... before a 19th century portrait of a Turkish dignitary. Portrait of a Dignitary in Turkish Costume is attributed to George Dawe, an English painter who was renown for his portraits of Russian nobility and generals, but the museum label mentions a prior attribution to Thomas Lawrence with the sitter identified as Sidki (Sitki) Efendi, the Turkish ambassador to the British court in 1800. I like to think of my painting as the portrait of Sitki Efendi. I call it my painting because when I came across it in the gallery devoted to French, Dutch and Italian Paintings 1600 - 1900 at the San Diego Museum of Art, I felt as if I had run into a long lost friend... someone I recognized. And I hadn't realized how much it mattered to see a 'friendly' face on a museum wall until that moment. Sitki Efendi looked like a guy you might run into on the street, at a cafe, basically anywhere in Turkey... san the fez, of course. His face was an ordinary, recognizable Turkish face. There was no doubt in my mind. So, I sat there a while and contemplated the significance of seeing something familiar, from your own culture on the wall of a museum. I had always done this consciously and unconsciously noting the 'Turkish' features in works of art but this was different... this was a real person.

I am an art historian of Turkish origin and every time I visited a museum, especially in Turkey, and encountered only miniatures, illuminations or calligraphy instead of portraits or paintings of real people I felt as if my past had been taken away from me. I kept on comparing what I had experienced to a Brit visiting the National Portrait Gallery and seeing the characters from their history in all their glory. Everyone knew what their Queens and Kings looked like, They had a concept of the general features of Englishmen and women and the landscapes they inhabited... as opposed to us who had to look at miniatures with abstract figures and landscapes that evaded exact representation.  Of course there are a handful Ottoman Sultan Portraits as well as landscapes and portraits from late 19th early 20th century but these are far and few between. I had come a long way from the days of trying to read my own culture in Western terms by the time I encountered Sitki Efendi in San Diego but this did not lessen the novelty of the experience. As I sat and looked at the other portraits hanging nearby executed by Anton Raphael Mengs, Francisco Jose de Goya and Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, I wondered if this was how Spanish, French or Italians felt when they saw portraits of people from their own culture in American museums... which then led me to ask how much does a countenance on a painted canvas influence our museum experience? I emphasize countenance because even though the artist included a reference to the Hagia Sophia behind the sitter and there is a Turkish carpet covering the table he rests his elbow on, it is his face that I recognize as my own rather than these symbols utilized in Western art.  The fact that this was a person as opposed to an object that was wholly Turkish captured my imagination.

Reflecting on this experience as well as other countless encounters in museums where I have noted people from different nationalities examining pieces specifically from their cultures with more intent than others, I have often wondered how much thought or emphasis a museum puts to its target audience when designing an exhibit or acquiring works of art. There was an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ironically called Interwoven Globe where a visitor would think that there was no textile industry to speak of in the Ottoman Empire and they had absolutely no influence on Europe except for ladies posing for portraits in Turkish costume. The influence of Ottomans on European textiles was covered by the inclusion of two paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds and only a handful of textile remnants from the Ottoman empire. There were beautiful vestments made from Turkish silks with the explanation that these were made from kaftans given to ambassadors while serving at the Ottoman court but were donated to the church or sold at public auction when they got back to Europe because they "were hopelessly unfashionable at home.
This raises the issue of how our home institutions affect how we view art or how our "worldview" of art history is formed? What kind of influence do the directors or the museum-going public exert on the collections of a museum?

These are not questions I can answer here and now but this was a conversation I started having with Hasan Niyazi of 3 Pipe Problem right before his untimely death on this day last year. He sometimes lamented the lack of sources available to him out there in Oz and the fact that he had to travel half way around the world to see works by his favorite Renaissance artists. We also talked about the influences in our upbringing - he, like most people of Turkish origin grew up surrounded with tiles or copper items decorated with traditional Turkish designs. But none of these things discouraged Hasan nor were a hindrance to his work on Renaissance art history. We have to remember this when we are moving forward and keeping the spirit Hasan embodied alive...

Monday, September 29, 2014

Turquerie, Orientalism and Coffee

Carle Van Loo, Sultane (Mme de Pompadour portrayed as a Turkish lady), 1747
(Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris)

Today is International Coffee Day, a day for the celebration and enjoyment of the sine qua non of our morning rituals. While most people might be celebrating this auspicious occasion by enjoying the complimentary cup of coffee offered by their friendly neighborhood cafe or the most convenient Dunkin Donuts, I have been thinking more along the lines of the use of coffee in exotic constructions of "the other" in European painting. The first example that came to my mind was the image of Madame de Pompadour portrayed as a Turkish Lady, Sultane, painted by Carle Van Loo for her chateau at Bellevue, along with two other paintings displaying her occupied with pursuits associated with the Turkish harem in the French imagination, Two Odalisques Embroidering and An Odalisque Playing a Stringed Instrument (lost).

Amedee Van Loo, Le Dejeuner de la Sultane (Sultana's Luncheon), 1783
(Musee Cheret, Nice)
These paintings were made for the royal mistress's personal bedroom, a chambre a la turque within the Bellevue. Considering the sensual nature of their position, images of the seraglio being associated with the royal mistress is considered to be quite natural by many scholars. It is argued that in these paintings, Madame Pompadour, linking her image with the Sultana in the Turkish harem, is supposed to be reinforcing her assertive role within the court and in the King's personal life, "presiding over the king's pursuits and pastimes, always with his confidence and trust."1 Although the relationship of the Ottoman Sultan with his consorts is a complex one that is hard to define by Western standards, there were examples of very powerful queen mothers and favorites who reached out to even foreign leaders.

Kahve Keyfi (Enjoying Coffee), First half of 18th century
(Pera Museum)
While Madame de Pompadour is portrayed as a single figure being attended by a single servant, there are a whole retinue of attendants surrounding the figure of the Sultane in Le Dejeuner de la Sultane painted as one of four tapestry cartoons by Amedee Van Loo in 1783. Although it has been assumed for many years to be Madame du Barry, Louis XV's next mistress, the patron of the commission for Le Costume Turc, series tapestry cartoons, seems to be a little ambiguous. Some scholars argue that the Sultana's face recalls the royal mistress. Comparing Amedee Van Loo's series, Le Costume Turc with the one his uncle Carle Van Loo painted for marquise de Pompadour is studied as the height and decline of turquerie. 2 Ever since the Turks left their coffee behind after the siege of Vienna in the 16th century, coffee-drinking had become a popular activity in Europe.  Having one's portrait painted being served coffee was a sign of rank and luxury. 3 The French interest in coffee and the Turkish culture in particular was related to the two embassies the Ottoman Sultan sent to France in 1721 and 1742.  The arrival of Mehmet Celebi sent by Sultan Ahmet III. in 1721 as an ambassodor to Louis XV's court caused quite a stir in Paris society, causing the start of turquerie. It is reported that the Parisian elite would rent windows looking out onto the streets to watch the Ottoman delegation pass through on their way to and from the palace.  The ritual of drinking coffee, which is a natural as breathing to Turks, was another activity they watched with fascination.

Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, Women Drinking Coffee, First half of 18th century

(Pera Museum)

Jean-Baptiste Vanmour who lived in the Ottoman capital from 1699 until his death in 1737 working with the French and later the Dutch ambassadors, created some of the most reliable depictions of Ottoman people and interiors. Since he was part of an embassy, he got to experience the rituals of the palace firsthand. Although he would still not be allowed inside a harem (the section of the house devoted to females) Vanmour's paintings show realistic interiors and women.

John Frederick Lewis, The Cofeebearer, 1857

European artists' fascination with Constantinople and the Orient was an ongoing phenomenon that culminated in Orientalism in art. Canvases of Western artists, depicted their fantasies of throngs of women, lounging about, sometimes naked, waiting for the pleasure of one man.  Those who visited came back with props, sketches and memories of exotic lands and strange people, those who did not, relied on accessories, costume books and travel memoirs. The dainty coffee cup became one of the most iconic props used by Orientalist. 

Daniel Valentine Riviere, Phanariot Greek Ladies, mid 19th century
(Pera Museum)
As artists traveled and experienced the Orient personally, they began to create remarkably beautiful works of art with intricate details and bright, illuminated colors. The scenery, architectural details, the costumes were all rendered meticulously with fairytale like, dreamy protagonists. The Orientalists' attention to detail and obsession with beauty was quite similar to the PreRaphaelites except this time brunettes were at center stage instead of redheads.

John Frederick Lewis, Harem life, Constantinople, 1857

And so, our daily cup of coffe went down in history as something rare and exotic, a thing of beauty... 

Osman Hamid Bey, Kahve Ocagi (Coffee stove), 1879
(Private Collection)


1 Stein, Perrin. “Madame de Pompadour and the Harem Imagery at Bellevue.” Gazette
 des Beaux Arts, Vol. 123, (January 1994), pp. 29-44.
Stein, Perrin. "Amedee Van Loo's Costume turc: The French Sultana." The Art Bulletin, Vol. 78, Bi, 3 (Sep., 1996), pp.417-438.
3 Ibid., p. 427

Monday, September 22, 2014

From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo's David


The possibilities for a work of art to charm and fascinate lovers of art seem to be infinite. When the said work of art is Michelangelo's world renowned David, everyone is ready to be enraptured. But what is it about this particular scuplture as opposed to thousands of others that sets it apart? How has David become so well recognized and embraced by everyone from Renaissance scholars to tattoo artists?  How can a 16th century sculpture of a Biblical figure manage to be an icon of perseverance against terrorism, health and body image issues, as well as the environment, all at the same time?

Michelangelo, David, 1504
"David von Michelangelo" by Rico Heil
 @Wikimedia Commons
Joaquim Cruz,
Tattoo of Michelangelo's David, 2011
Pintrest @Tattoo Power 

A. Victor Coonin, in his book,  From Marble to Flesh:The Biography of Michelangelo's David, provides a comprehensive context for the great masterpiece, from its inception to afterlife in many forms and spaces. After reading this book the reader will not only understand how the David came into being, but also the relevance of the time period it was created in and its significance throughout the centuries. Coonin has written a book for the masses filled with great art historical details that can appeal to a wide audience. The narrative flows easily and naturally.  The reader is taken on a journey that starts with the birth of the idea for the decoration of the Cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, through the lives and careers of the different artists who were commissioned to produce prophets for the facade of the Cathedral, quarrying of the marble that was to become David, all before the genius to carve it was even born.

We tend to associate the David with perfection but the marble it was carved from was far from it. Even the story of the marble itself and the culture surrounding quarrying of marble, from the mountains that produced it to its eventual transport from the mountainside to Florence has been conveyed with great detail.  According to Victor Coonin "the simple reason why this imperfect block from Fantiscritti became the great David is that it did something that no such other block had done since antiquity. It allowed itself to be successfully cut from its mountainside womb."1

Each stage in the life of the David seems to have been a point of contention between different officials, artists, critics, the public.  Where David should be placed, who owned it, how it should be moved, what it should stand on? Names of the individuals involved at each stage of the project, official documents, contracts included to frame the timeline, grounds this work in scholarly research while making it easily accessible not only to art historians but to everyone. By providing historical background on David's different 'homes', Coonin takes the reader on an art historical journey through the most important sites in Florence. In the final chapter of From Marble to Flesh: the last section"Cloning the David through the 21st Century and Beyond" brings the story of David to our present day.

Serkan Ozkaya, David (inspired by Michelangelo), Louisville, 2012(Photo by Jae Grady)
I read the eBook version and found one of the advantageous was the ease with which one can move back and forth between the text and the citations.  Coonin has included drawings, historical photographs and prints for the reader to be able to visualize the historical events, places as well as the many angles and forms of the David. It was fascinating to learn that one of the largest replica's of David, a golden fiberglass copy twice the size of the original was created in Turkey by the artist Serkan Ozkaya. 2

I really enjoyed From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo's David and would recommend it to anyone interested in art or history.  I want to thank Alexandra Korey and The Florentine Press for providing a review copy of this book.

1 A. Victor Coonin, From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo's David, (Florence: The Florentine Press, 2014) 56, ePub for iBooks
2 Ibid., p. 300

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