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Mar 2005 Journal

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Art notes (review)

Turkey, with its whirling dervishes, warlords, dancing slave girls, insouciant sultans and secretive sensuality, fires the romantic Western imagination. The fantasy is fed by Turkey's peculiar position as it straddles two continents: Europe and Asia. What became the Ottoman Empire had its roots in a disparate and nomadic tribespeople who roamed Inner Asia over 1,000 years ago. Turks, the Royal Academy's celebrated exhibition, charts their artistic development from the time when the Turkic peoples, considered barbarians by the Chinese, entered the steppes of Western Eurasia and founded an empire in Mongolia and the Altai. Traces of this poly-ethnic and multi-lingual culture survive in primitive human and animal sculpture, resembling Aztec art, and runic, Turkic scripts.

This was the first of a series of Turkic empires, from the Khazars and Uighurs of Ukraine and Inner Asia right up to the 400-year-old Ottoman dominion, which dissolved during the First World War, eventually leading, among other things, to the creation of the state of Israel.

Turkey is a long story. But her modern history is not dealt with here. Instead, we are invited to admire the artistic wealth of this polyglot entity which gave rise to a great nation. After the collapse of the first Turkic empires, these tribes moved into Central Asia, Iran and Turkey, asserting their power by conquering Persian or Arab rulers. And here a new challenge met them. They became patrons of the arts. Their multi-ethnic and multi-religious traditions were a key to artistic variety, fostered at the time of the Silk Route, the commercial land roads that traversed the edge of the desert between China and the West.

Eighth-century wall paintings featured bejewelled deities, sun and moon gods playing the flute or riding in chariots. By the twelfth century, these gave way to Chinese-influenced, stylised warriors, emblematic of sacrifice. Centuries of Turkic migrations brought contacts between Iran, India and Tibet, with Buddhism, Christianity to Islam, which the Turks adopted in the 900s. Despite all the illuminated manuscripts, mosaics, ceramics, inlaid metalwork and calligraphy for which their art has become known, this exhibition offers too much - and not enough.

What happened to Byzantine Christian art after the Ottoman Emperor, Mehmet II, conquered Constantinople in 1453? During the European Renaissance this far-sighted emperor welcomed European and Eastern Islamic art and literature and invited Italian artists to paint his portrait. These were done, however, not from life but from fragments of his likeness on coins, and the static profiles that resulted were a far cry from the golden age of Byzantine art.

Yet some work, like the fifteenth-century paintings of Muhammad Siyah Qalam (Muhammad of the Black Pen), are considered among the richest and most enigmatic examples of Islamic art. Demons and dervishes reflect nomadic life and offer a glimpse into their imagination. Turkey's artistic odyssey ends in the 1600s. It would have been interesting to take it further. No doubt political considerations - concerning her controversial moves to enter the EC - are at play.
Gloria Tessler

previous article:Holocaust Memorial Day marked by the AJR
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