Book Review: Arts in Turkey

Arts in Turkey: How ancient became modern. By Arnold Reisman. Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing, 2009. Pp. xvii, 165, with col. illustrations; includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN: 143920537X.

Post-Ottoman Turkey: Classical music and opera. By Arnold Reisman. Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing, 2009. Pp.147, with illustrations; includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN: 1439205388.

These two books form a complementary pair. Together they provide a total picture of how the arts fit into the cultural revolution that Ataturk undertook in Turkey. Arts in Turkey deals with the visual arts of painting, sculpture, tapestries, and others, and Post-Ottoman Turkey covers classical music, opera, and dance. They both pay tribute to Ataturk’s determination that the arts were an important facet of national life, that education should support them, and that the government should fund them. Of course, he meant here modern European arts, the Islamic arts of the Ottoman Empire being discarded as outdated, but he also never meant that the modern Turkish arts should be no more than imitations of the West. He challenged Turkish artists of all kinds to add an authentic national spirit to their work. The arts, aside from enriching Turkish society, were also an integral part of Ataturk’s program of nationalism. Remaining loyal to Ataturk’s legacy, the government still subsidizes a great number of arts and music programs.

Of the two works Arts in Turkey: How ancient became modern is the better. It is not a book of art criticism, but of the history of fine art in Turkey since Ataturk’s revolution. However, what little critical material included is insightful. The book sketches Islam’s attitudes and rules towards the visual arts, and offers a chronological overview of the development of modern visual arts in Turkey, providing brief sketches of the careers of important artists and sculptors—going from the Islamic art of the last Ottoman years to the first Turkish painters in the Western style, such as Osman Hamdi Bey and Seker Ahmed Pasa, to some of the leading lights of the current scene, like Mehmet Aksoy. It is adorned with color illustrations of most of the works mentioned in the text. It is unfortunate that some of these are too small to be of any use. Still, it gives a clear picture of the vitality and talent of even the early Republican Turkish artists and sculptors in their efforts to master and adapt Western styles. It also demonstrates how these same artists managed to follow Ataturk’s dictum to imbue their art with a special Turkishness. The arts of the Hittites, Lydians, and other pre-Islamic civilizations of Anatolia provided great inspiration for the Turkish artists, especially in sculpture. Also, Islamic arts such as tapestries, metal work, and calligraphy, have become more influential now as the secular nationalist fervor of the Revolution fades. The sculpture section of the book is dominated by works of public art, mostly commemorative statues of Republican heroes, and especially Ataturk. The works which make up Ataturk’s tomb receive special attention. Arts in Turkey: How ancient became modern is a wonderful introduction to the modern arts scene in Turkey from its roots to the present day. It is everything one could want in a text-book or a quick reference. It is highly recommended.

I am sorry to say that Post-Ottoman Turkey: Classical music and opera suffers from a number of problems. First, and perhaps greatest, is the fact that it does not follow a chronological order and organization in its text, but instead follows the lives of the crucial players in the story of bringing Western art music and opera to Turkey from its first introduction till today. So the story is told in a fragmented manner, jumping back and forth in time. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the individual biographic sketches are themselves often not organized in a chronological order. In any case, Reisman is at pains to emphasize Ataturk’s crucial role in the cultivation of music in Turkey. While he supported the collection and notating of Anatolian folk material (Bela Bartok was even brought in to aid in the task.), opera and other Western art musics were what he considered essential to creating Turkish national culture. He also challenged composers and musicians to find a special Turkishness to add to their work. One of my favorite parts of the book are the photographs which show Ataturk at a ball in 1938, first dancing a Viennese waltz, and then a traditional Zeypek dance. These show graphically Ataturk’s devotion to Western and Turkish musics.

Like Arts in Turkey: How ancient became modern, Post-Ottoman Turkey: Classical music and opera is not a work of criticism, and the few attempts in this vein are simplistic and not very helpful. The sections on Turkish musical artists are especial examples of this; they are little more than short biographical sketches, which include only where the subjects were educated and where they have performed. Composers come off a little better ,with some commentary on their major works sometimes given. This is especially true for the first great Turkish composer, Adnan Seygun, who managed to continually and successfully find inspiration in Turkish music and culture for his Western-styled music. Short biographies of great Turkish musicians are given for Leyla Gencer, Nevit Kodali, Suna Kan, Yelda Kodali, and others. The most important part of the book is its discussion of the role in creating modern Turkish music of the mostly German musicians and composers who were invited to Turkey by Ataturk when they fell afoul of the Nazi government. These musicians are really the heroes of this book, and most of its time is spent on them and their work.

The arrival in Turkey of these refugees is the most important development for the newly formed Turkish Republic’s cultural life. One of the first to come was Paul Hindemith. Like all his compatriots, he was invited by Ataturk. He was one of the most important of the musical émigrés. He came to Turkey in 1935, and developed a plan for music education in the new Turkish school system (the old Islamic Ottoman system having been abandoned). This new plan was quickly adopted. Western music was added to basic curricula, and new music schools were founded, including the Turkish State Conservatory in Ankara. Soon there were many Turkish musicians trained in the Western style. In 1938 Hindemith brought the conductor Ernst Praetorius and fifteen German musicians to Turkey. They joined with a great number of Turkish musicians to form the first Turkish Western-style orchestra, which would become under Praetorius’ leadership the President’s Philharmonic Orchestra. Unfortunately, given the importance of Hindemith, Reisman fails to provide a coherent and unified treatment of his efforts in Turkey. It is hard to tell from Reisman’s account what Hindemith did, when, and what was its significance. How long he actually stayed in Turkey is even vague. We are told he made three trips there, but it is unclear how long he actually spent in Turkey, and what he did on each trip. A detailed treatment of his important educational plan, which became the basis for all Turkish education in the arts, would also have been appreciated. For such a significant figure as Hindemith, this kind of slapdash treatment is disappointing. Also, one other thing which is never made clear is exactly who should be considered as an émigré. Some came for only a short time like Hindemith, and some came and stayed, like Carl Ebert and Leopold Levy. These are all considered émigrés by Reisman.

The second most important émigré was Carl Ebert. He had been an opera producer and director, and brought his talents to build opera in Turkey,. He created the Theater School and Opera Studio as part of the State Conservatory. From these roots he nurtured a thriving operatic life in Turkey with world-class native singers and productions. The standard Western operatic repertoire was presented sometimes in the original language, sometimes translated into Turkish. Also, there were some operas which were written by Turkish composers, such as Okzsoy by Adnan Saygun. Ebert’s life is narrated by Reisman in a more coherent fashion, but a chronological treatment of his career and achievements is still lacking, especially dates. We are told what he did, but not often when, and how this relates with his entire career. This is also the case with the shorter biographical sketches of the other émigrés such as the conductor Ernst Praetorius and the musicologist Ernst Zuckmayer. The biographical material is too short, sketchy, and lacking in chronological coherence. One of the best parts of the book is the account of Bela Bartok’s visit to Turkey to collect folk material in 1936. Saygun, with his interest in folk melodies, invited Bartok, and the latter was only too happy to come. The only problem with the narration of this incident is that it is not made clear whether this visit was somehow connected with Ankara State University’s systematic effort to collect folk materials, which is said to have begun in 1937.

The European émigrés were also very important in the art world, and Reisman narrates their story in Arts in Turkey: How ancient became modern. The most important was Leopold Levy, a French Jew, who came to Turkey in 1936, and became the director of the Istanbul Fine Arts Academy’s painting department. He was responsible for training the first generation of Republican Turkish painters in the modern Western style, and his influence on them was great. Another émigré was the sculptor Rudolf Belling. He came to Turkey in 1937, and became head of the sculpting department at the Istanbul State Art Academy. Again, he exerted an enormous influence over his students, who became the first generation of modern Turkish sculptors. Sculpture was an art form for which the Turks had no historical Islamic tradition on which to draw. These new Turkish sculptors created their art from their own genius, and the inspiration of the pre-Islamic Anatolian cultures. As I mentioned above, the biographical material in Arts in Turkey: How ancient became modern is presented in a much more cohesive and chronological manner than in Post-Ottoman Turkey: Classical music and opera. One thing that Post-Ottoman Turkey lacks which is quite prevalent in the Arts book is a detailed delineation of the influence the émigrés had over specific Turkish musicians. However, one thing that both books could have benefited from was a brief historical and organizational treatment of the Turkish arts and music educational system. It is clear from Reisman’s work that education and the development of the arts in Turkey were inextricably linked. A brief but direct discussion of this would have been appreciated. Also, there are many schools mentioned in his text, and it is hard to know their significance, their histories, and their connections with each other.

Reisman’s description in these two books of the émigrés and their importance to the cultural life of Turkey makes one want to read his other books on their effect on Turkish intellectual life in general: Turkey’s modernization: Refugees from Nazism and Ataturk’s vision (2006) and Refugees and reform: Turkey’s Republican journey (2009).

After chronicling the health and vitality of the current arts and music scene in Turkey, both books end on an ominous note. While the current government still remains true to Ataturk’s vision of a secular, nationalist arts scene, public discourse has turned ever more frequently to debates about whether and how much Islam should be brought into the workings of a secular state. With the government being controlled by the religious party, AK, how much longer will it be before the arts and government support of them become a point of political contention for the religious population who don’t value such things in their current modern form? This is another monograph waiting to be written.


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