Review of Ottoman Painting: Reflections of Western Art from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic | AMCA | Association for Modern + Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran + Turkey

Review of Ottoman Painting: Reflections of Western Art from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic

Wendy M. K. Shaw (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011)
Ottoman Painting: Reflections of Western Art from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic


Ottoman Painting: Reflections of Western Art from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic is a thorough survey of Ottoman art and culture from the end of the eighteenth century to the first decade of the Turkish Republic, a period when local painters began to adopt European artistic practices. Previous art historical scholarship has certainly noted the phenomenon of “Westernization” in nineteenth-century Ottoman painting; in fact, this development is the underlying premise for almost any discussion of art from this period.1 What Wendy Shaw, Professor of Art History at the University of Bern, Switzerland, offers is not a first look at this cross-cultural interaction, but rather a corrective to the “assumption that modernization is purely mimetic,” wherein Ottoman artists replicated wholesale the forms and paradigms of modernity from the monolithic West with no “adaption to local circumstances” (1). Building on the critique of postcolonial studies, Ottoman Painting sets out to chart an alternate or “differential” modernity as it unfolded in Istanbul, the imperial and cultural capital. Expanding upon a similar proposition found in her first book on the emergence of the Ottoman museum, Shaw maintains that these Ottoman artists, who promoted styles and techniques that were by European standards tired and outdated, can be re-interpreted as agents of a cultural revolution whose “new art had to forge new meanings in its new home, an old world awash with change” (2).2

After laying out her thesis in the introduction, Shaw chronologically traces, over the course of six chapters, the appearance and later institutionalization of the European mode of painting (namely, oil on canvas) within the Ottoman Empire. Chapter 1 identifies Ottoman architectural interiors as a key location for transition, from the Islamic girih (abstract, potentially infinite surface patterning) to eighteenth-century landscape paintings displayed in continuous bands edging the walls of reception rooms and mosques, to movable works on canvas at the turn of the century (11-40). Chapter 2 moves briskly ahead to the 1860s when the first Ottoman artists, such as Ahmet Ali and Osman Hamdi Bey, trained in Paris (41-78), while Chapter 3 follows the next generation of artists who produced landscapes and art that engaged with problems of the figural (especially female) form in order to communicate with local audiences. Shaw could spend more time here postulating who these audiences were and where they encountered this art (79-106). In chapters 4 and 5 art becomes more accessible to the pubic after the Second Constitutional Revolution in 1908 and during the Turkish War of Independence, when organizations such as the Society of Ottoman Artists flourished and artists harnessed the possibilities of art as an expression of “an emerging national identity” (107-122, 123-156, 123). Chapter 6, concluding with art in the first decade of the Republic, is a postscript on how painting became a propaganda tool for “reconfiguring communal cultural identity for a new political reality” (157-178, 5).

Each chapter begins with a brief historical orientation and is divided loosely into thematic sections, whose topics range from particular individuals like Osman Hamdi Bey to wider trends such as the appearance of woman painters or the popularity of landscape painting. Along the way Shaw submits dozens of paintings to an in-depth formal and contextual analysis that they have not properly received in the past. Her socio-political approach also lends some new interpretations to these works. For example, she resists the standard claim that the introduction of oil on canvas to Istanbul was a seismic shift from miniature illustration, but rather argues for historical continuity by demonstrating the reliance of painters on more traditional modes of looking. The assertion that these Ottoman artists were not simply naïve copiers of European styles is well taken; thus it is curious when the book at times suggests that these artists sought to appropriate the politics behind the French art for an Ottoman context. For example, Shaw suggests that the still-lifes of Ahmet Ali, whom she characterizes as having a close relationship with the palace as opposed to the more radical Süleyman Seyyid, possibly shares an “esoteric affinity with Courbet’s ongoing critique of state corruption” (62). Shaw is at her best when she elucidates the details and context of specific institutions, publications or individuals. Her discussions of the collector Halil Şerif Pasha or the government-sponsored Şişli Studio during the first World War could easily be expanded and stand as independent chapters.

For a slim volume, Ottoman Painting is impressive in its breadth. Shaw pieces history together from both primary and secondary sources, introducing writers and critics such as Mehmed Ruhi or Nurullah Berk who might not otherwise be accessible to a non-Turkish-speaking audience. The author is well-versed in the latest offerings from Turkish art historians and cites them heavily. The bibliography and the main text also reveal Shaw’s interest in literary and art theory, with concepts drawn from Barthes and Hegel to more contemporary intellectuals like Homi K. Bhabha. The application of more mainstream theory to selected paintings by Ottoman artists is refreshing and unprecedented.

Despite the author’s own assertion that her main objective is not to create a totalizing study of the art from this period, Shaw has achieved what hardly anyone else has yet managed to do: writing a narrative of the main players and events of Ottoman art within the last seventy years of the empire.3 With the field in such a nascent state, feats of data collection and intensive research are vital. Before this book, those who wanted to gain a thorough knowledge of this topic had to sift through countless monographs and exhibition catalogues, piecing together the story for themselves. The extensive use of theory perhaps restricts this book from a general audience, but it would certainly serve students and specialists alike who seek a thoughtful look into key questions and moments in the last decades of Ottoman painting.  In addition to reframing the Euro-Ottoman cultural exchange, Shaw’s latest contribution will hopefully point her readers to new projects that will further the discourse of a budding field in art history.

Emily Neumeier is a Ph.D. candidate in the history of art at the University of Pennsylvania. Her master’s thesis explores the reception of Cézanne among Turkish artists in the first decades of the Republic.

1For this theme of “Westernization” in late Ottoman painting, consider Mustafa Cezar’s two-volume work Sanatta Batıya Açılış ve Osman Hamdi [The Opening to the West in Art and Osman Hamdi] (Istanbul: Erol Kerim Aksoy Kültür, Eğitim, Spor ve Sağlık Vakfı, 1995), as well as the recent exhibition Batı’ya Yolculuk—Türk Resminin 70 Yıllık Serüveni, 1860-1930 [Travel to the West—70 years of Turkish Painting, 1860-1930]at the Sakıp Sabanci Museum, Istanbul (16 April-2 August 2009).

2See Wendy M. K. Shaw, Possessors and Possessed: Museums, Archaeology, and the Visualization of History in the Late Ottoman Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

3 A History of Turkish Painting, edited by Günsel Renda, Turan Erol, Adnan Turani, Kaya Özsezgin, and Mustafa Aslıer, stands as a great survey and reference as well, but its scope is broader (Seattle, London: Palasar SA in association with University of Washington Press, 1988).