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“Selim Turan. "Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis"

“Selim Turan. "Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis"

Painter and sculptor Selim Turan (1915-1994) aligned the concepts of "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" side by side with his life and art, and in so doing succeeded in establishing bridges between Eastern and Western cultures that at first sight are too subtle and fine to identify. The ‘Selim Turan. Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis’ exhibition at Sabancı University's Sakıp Sabancı Museum takes as its starting point works by the artist in the Istanbul University Collection and brings an unconventional interpretation to the period of modern Turkish art in the post-World War II period. Selim Turan divided his time between Paris and Istanbul from 1947 until his death, producing visual experiments influenced by the cultural milieux of both cities. As well as displaying these visual experiments for the first time, the exhibition aims to inspire a debate about numerous unknown works by the artist in terms of their experimental approach.

Born into a family of Azerbaijani origin, Selim Turan belonged to the first generation of artists educated at Istanbul State Academy of Fine Arts in accordance with the goal of ‘modernisation’ introduced by the reforms of the young Turkish Republic. Through his works the exhibition looks at how Turan transformed the visual experience gained from his teachers Léopold Lévy, Feyhaman Duran, Nazmi Ziya and Zeki Kocamemi into a thesis.

Abstract works by the artist, who first went to Paris on a scholarship in 1947, reflect the dialectic process prompted by his experiences in that city. In the 1950s Selim Turan held a series of one-person exhibitions in Paris's foremost galleries (Galerie Breteau, Galerie Crevan, Galerie Lucien Durand), was invited to participate in museum exhibitions (Salon des Réalites-Nouvelles, Salon Comparison) and worked as assistant to Hans Hartung. He relied on his own initiative in developing his work, keeping his distance from specific groups and movements.

This exhibition illustrates how Turan's concept of ‘antithesis’ developed as a result of these efforts and presents his black abstract paintings, which are masterpieces dating from his mature period, to Istanbul art lovers for the first time.

This section also includes paintings by Jean Bazaine, Henri Goetz, Léon Zack, Natalia Dumitresco and Alexander Istrati, major artists who were active in Paris during the period 1947-1960, and paintings and sculptures by other Turkish artists from Istanbul who went to Paris at that time. Works by Fahrelnissa Zeid, Nejad Devrim, Albert Bitran, Mübin Orhon, İlhan Koman and Hakkı Anlı, who spent the post-World War II years in Paris, have been loaned from their private collections by Öner Kocabeyoğlu and Ceyda and Ünal Göğüş.

One of the features that makes Selim Turan’s experiences unique in Turkish art are the plaza installations, sculptures and large-scale statues that he produced for openair sites in France, mainly from the 1960s onwards. These represent explorations that led to the artist to develop a visuality which could be defined as ‘synthesis’. His mobile statues, which are being exhibited in their historical context in Turkey for the first time, reveal how he was inspired by nomadic Türkmen and Bektashi sufi traditions. Selim Turan avoided using specific formulas in his ‘synthesis’ period, instead developing a style based on visual mobility and the need to view art without any preconceptions. The exhibition presents the most striking examples of this style.


Selim Turan’s Artistic Life

Selim Turan was born in 1915, in the neighbourhood of Cağaloğlu in Istanbul, the son of Prof. Dr. Hüseyinzade Ali Turan (1864-1940), of Azeri-Caucasian extraction, and Edhiye Hanım (1890-1947), daughter of Şemsettin Bey, a Circassian cavalary officer. His childhood and early youth were spent at Paşakapısı in the district of Üsküdar. Hüseyinzade Ali Bey was a prominent member of the Committee of Union and Progress, took part in the independence struggle waged by the Azerbaijani Turks, and was an active member of the Türk Ocakları Society. He also had close links with the nationalist poets and writers of the period. While growing up Selim Turan was strongly influenced by his father's ideal of embracing the essence of both Western and Eastern cultures. He also shared his father's interest in drawing and painting, and experimented with colour, form and composition. Noted masters of traditional Turkish arts such as İsmail Hakkı Altunbezer, Hattat Kamil Efendi and Necmettin Okyay, who also lived in Paşakapısı, further encouraged the young Turan's love of art. As a student at Galatasaray Lycée, Turan became increasingly interested in painting and in 1935 he entered Istanbul State Academy of Fine Arts. 

This was a time when the Academy's teaching system was beginning to change. During his first years there he attended the studios of Feyhaman Duran, Nazmi Ziya and Zeki Kocamemi, who were all artists of the so-called 1914 Generation. However, when Léopold Lévy (1882-1966) was made head of the Department of Painting as part of the university reforms then being introduced by the Ministry of Education, a more liberal approach was introduced. Under Lévy's influence Selim Turan and his other students, including Agop Arad, Nuri İyem, Tiraje Dikmen and Naile Akıncı, brought a new individuality and self-confidence into modern Turkish painting. This major turning point in the country's art history is marked notably by the ‘Liman’ exhibition held at the Beyoğlu Printing Office in 1941, featuring works by Selim Turan, Nuri İyem, Haşmet Akal, Agop Arad, Avni Arbaş, Turgut Atalay, Abidin Dino, Fethi Karakaş, Kemal Sönmezler, Mümtaz Yener, Yusuf Karaçay and İlhan Arakon. These artists later formed the nucleus of an art movement that led to the establishment of the New Artists Group (Yeniler Grubu). 

Selim Turan graduated from the Academy in 1938 and the next few years were a phase of exploration and seeking his own path as an artist. Meanwhile he worked as an art teacher at various schools, including the Sultantepe Junior School in Üsküdar, Kadıköy Art Institute and Moda Art School for Girls. Although the artist defined his work during this period as ‘realistic’, he did not interpret his subjects in a purely realistic manner. In his depictions of subjects from daily life, such as fishermen, school children and markets, Turan viewed his themes from a structural angle, interpreting them through his brush. In 1941 he took part in the Nationwide Journeys project initiated by the Republican People’s Party. Under this project he went to the southwestern province of Muğla, where he painted working people, such as tobacco farmers, sponge divers and dried fig packers. These paintings mark the beginning of Turan's search for individual expression. Rather than reflecting a ‘folkloric’ view of Anatolia, he focused on the figure, incorporating meaning into what he saw. 

In 1944 Turan married the ceramic artist Fatma Şahika Arutay, who was to become one of the greatest influences on his life and art. In 1947 he and his wife went to Paris, financed by a scholarship awarded by the French government (Boursiers du Government Français). During his early years in Paris, like others of his generation, he was influenced by abstract art and became one of the Turkish artists who embarked on a critical change of direction as a result of their experiences in that city. Unlike previous artists who during the late Ottoman and early Republican eras had been sent to Paris as cultural ambassadors and were expected only to bring back existing art trends to Turkey, the generation who went to Paris after 1945 entered into a dialogue with contemporary art movements. They held solo person exhibitions at leading galleries of the time and participated in group exhibitions which put submissions through a selection process. Their works were purchased for leading museum collections in France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria. At first Turan worked in several original print studios, printing lithographs and engravings by artists such as Asgar Jorn, Pierre Soulages, Miró and Picasso, and later worked as an assistant to Hans Hartung (1904-1989). This experience enabled him to absorb the artistic approach of the time at first hand, and he went on to become one of the foremost representatives of this generation. 

Turan's abstract paintings were first shown in Paris in 1948 at a group exhibition called ‘La Rose des Vents’ (Pinwheel) held at the Galerie des Deux-Iles, and his first solo exhibition was held at Galerie Breteau, one of the leading galleries of the time. During this time, known by critics as his ‘Black Period’, Turan frequently used an abstract form of the Crucifixion motif, which is one of the most important themes of Christian iconography. These works display Selim's deep-rooted aim to pass "beyond the visible". 

The transformation that affected art in Paris in the 1960s brought about a change in Selim Turan’s own style, and he returned to exploring the figure. From 1964 he began to work with the architect Jean Balladur, producing works of art for his buildings. He produced large scale sculptures, plaza installations and frescos for the cities of Arles, Bordeaux, Cean, Carmeau, Passac, La Teste-de-Buch, Cotepave, Dieppe, Lacepier, Teeltiére, Lille, Nîmes, Toulouse and Marseille that enabled him to make a living as an artist. A statue that he made in 1976 for La Teste-de-Buch was named Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis. He held solo exhibitions in Istanbul in 1969 and 1970 comprising both abstract paintings and portraits. In 1975 the artist began to make mobile sculptures, influenced by the pre-Columbian Peruvian statue of demons and angels that turned when touched, which he saw at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.   In

1979 Turkish President Fahri Korutürk invited Selim Turan to Istanbul and he spent the last part of his life producing a series of works that reflect his interest in folkloric themes. Turan was an artist who constantly surprised viewers and prompted them to ask questions. In particular the connection that his father had endeavoured to establish between Eastern and Western cultures enabled him on the one hand to grasp modern art as the student of Léopold Lévy, and on the other supported his work in the field of traditional arts. Although they might appear contradictory to viewers at first sight, Turan himself never made a distinction between the extraordinary intensity of emotion achieved by the masterful expression of his abstract paintings, and the playful mood of his mobile sculptures.