Picasso Exhibition in Istanbul

More Than a Pirouette on the Banks of the Bosporus

A large exhibition of Pablo Picasso's works entitled "Picasso Istanbul'da" has opened at the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul. It is the first ever solo exhibition of the work of a western Modernist in Turkey. By Samuel Herzog

Picasso's Siesta, © Images Modernes (photo: Eric Baudouin)
The Picasso exhibition is a test buoy in equally unchartered waters: At the very least, it is the first monographic exhibition by a western Modernist that has ever taken place in Turkey

​​The taxi driver whispers a curse and leans on the steering wheel with both hands. But the Renault flatly refuses to stay in its lane, slowly drifts out of line, and starts a massive pirouette hundreds of metres above Atatürk bridge. The Golden Horn slides past the windscreen as if in a slow motion replay.

A changed situation

Snow in Istanbul: while not a rare occurrence, snow always reduces the city traffic to a state of utter chaos. Picasso in Istanbul: that, on the other hand, has never happened before. Now, however, the Western master is visible on every street.

"Picasso Istanbul'da" is emblazoned across the posters and flags depicting a late, cubist portrait of Picasso's last wife, Jacqueline Roque Hutin. In other words, "Picasso is in Istanbul". While the snow is wreaking havoc throughout the city, everything about the Picasso exhibition is well organised and secure, as if it was all about a politician at risk rather than a collection of paintings.

The exhibition is being housed in the Sakip Sabanci Müzesi, which usually specialises in Ottoman calligraphy. An old villa above a new museum, whose storeys are built into the hillside, the Sakip Sabanci Museum is about a half an hour's drive north of the centre of the city. It is surrounded by a park full of Greek goddesses who smile beneath massive palm trees, whatever the weather.

The snowflakes that gently float down from the sky, past the Maramara Sea, and onto the city, look huge in the car's headlights. The driver squeezes his cigarette butt through the slit of the open window, but it gets stuck in the icy water that the snow has left on the windscreen; like a buoy made of cork in a sea of ice, it bobs along slowly.

The Picasso exhibition is to a certain extent also a test buoy in equally unchartered waters. At the very least, it is the first monographic exhibition by a western Modernist that has ever taken place in Turkey.

While the city's art academies, which are furnished according to the French style, were indeed open for Modernist movements in the last century, exhibitions really only began to be held about fifteen years ago, with the exception of a few rather dubious experiments like the presentation of Dalí's graphic art.

In the past few years, however, things have changed dramatically. A key role in this regard has been played by the Istanbul Biennial, which has taken place regularly since 1987. Initially, the Biennial focussed mainly on local artists. Since 1992, however, it has become more international in its outlook.

In the 1990s, independent art centres (like the "Dulcinea", which is still up and running today) and numerous galleries that chose to model their programmes on Western standards were founded. Then, about a year ago, the Istanbul Modern, which is situated in an idyllic location on the banks of the Bosporus, became the first museum for contemporary art to open its doors in the country.

In June of this year, it was followed by the Pera: a museum that is equally dedicated to Oriental, Modern, and Contemporary art. To a certain extent, one could say that in Turkey, European Modernism is gradually being recognised by contemporary art.

A reputable undertaking

Galata Tower is still slowly sliding past the windscreen at an angle. In the thick snowfall, the houses look like buildings in an old photo. The driver has pulled on the handbrake and is staring somewhat helplessly in front of him. In the car, it is almost completely silent. The only sound is some quiet laughter on the radio. Someone probably told a joke.

With over 130 exhibits dating from all of Picasso's different periods, the exhibition is certainly to be taken seriously. Over 100 of the pictures, drawings, ceramics, and sculptures have come from the family estate.

The selection was made by heavyweight Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, a grandson of the great Pablo. He was asked at the press conference why he chose Istanbul to present the family treasures. Turkey, he replied, was in his eyes a nation of culturejust like any other European country.

Cultural awakening

The exhibition includes small studies from the artist's early years like Science et charité (1897), which highlight Picasso's closeness to España Negra. From the Blue Period, for example, there is the enchanting portrait of a woman with a scarf (La mujer del mechón) from 1903.

The Pink Period is represented by the heavily schematized and yet so tender Tête de femme, de face (1906). Picasso's early Cubist period is represented by a drawing of the Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), glorious still lives, and other compositions. The little painting Femme et enfant dated 1921 constitutes the zenith of the classicism that Picasso developed after the First World War.

Picasso the Surrealist can above all be seen in the drawings Nus from 1933 or Femme dessinant from 5 February 1935. From the period after the Second World War there are works of late Cubist plastic art and a selection of ceramics.

There are also some wonderfully convincing pieces from Picasso's latter years, a period in which he produced a vast amount of work, including Conversation dated 28 October 1970, which is based on the design of an Etruscan sarcophagus.

The exhibition makes no claim to show a new or completely different Picasso and it certainly doesn't want to make any fundamental contribution to research. Nevertheless, here and there it does make some lovely references.

But whatever the visitor thinks about the exhibition in detail, an exhibition like "Picasso in Istanbul" is certainly more than a pirouette by a Western icon on the banks of the Bosporus. In every respect, the undertaking makes it clear that Turkey is slowly but surely moving closer to Western European standards in terms of culture.

With a gentle crunch, the Renault makes contact with the wing of a small truck. The contact is leisurely, almost tender. In the whirl of snowflakes, the scene is more reminiscent of a kiss between two vehicles than a car accident.

The driver lights up an Ikibin and rolls down the window a few centimetres. He will only get out when the snow has eased off a little. Picasso has already arrived in Istanbul. Someday, winter tyres will follow.

Samuel Herzog

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung/Qantara.de 2005

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily 'Neue Zürcher Zeitung'.

Translation from German by Aingeal Flanagan

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