They are part of the celebration of 400 years of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Holland. My husband, needless to say, was much excited at the prospect of visiting three museums in two days, but managed to suppress his enthusiasm as he thought up things that, however regretfully, he really had to do, like wash his hair and have a root canal. Ultimately, I had to play the “I-could-always-go-by-myself” card, and afraid to maybe miss out on something after all, he finally gave in to his finer nature and averred he would like nothing better than to traipse all over İstanbul looking at a bunch of old paintings. He did have some questions, though -- wasn’t it Italian art that was supposed to be so great? Weren’t the French Impressionists and the Pre-Raphaelites the ones I was so charmed by? What were the Dutch famous for in the fine arts, exactly? But he ultimately trusted my judgment quite graciously, and off we went, two days before our appointment at the US Consulate.
The three museums we went to were the Pera, the Sakıp Sabancı and Antrepo No. 3, next to the İstanbul Modern in Tophane. The words to describe the exhibitions? Informative, astonishing and passionate, respectively.
Sultan Ahmet I and his mother
Unfortunately, by the time this goes to print, the Pera exhibit, “Sultans, Merchants, Painters: The Early Years of Turkish-Dutch Relations,” will have ended. While the whole exhibit was, as usual for the Pera, well-laid out and labeled in Turkish and wonderful English, a few things in particular were particularly fascinating. There were some portraits of the Dutch ambassador, a very busy and accomplished fellow named Cornelis Haga. He brought painters with him on his diplomatic mission in 1612, and good for us that he did. Not only his own portrait, but ones of his host, Sultan Ahmet I, and Ahmet’s mother, Valide Sultan Handan, were on display. The paintings, while not necessarily beautiful or of technical virtuosity, were nevertheless exciting in that they are contemporaneous portraits not painted for the royal court, making them somewhat more relaxed and less awe-inspiring. Great attention was paid to dress and ornament; it felt like we were seeing what these people really looked like. There were no Turkish portraitists around in those days; the Italians and others who painted sultans tended to paint to please their patron, but these humbler renditions make the sultan, his mother and the ambassador seem more approachable. Of course, they may not have looked anything like their portraits, but I suspect they did; the artists accompanying important people in those days were paid to make paintings look like people as they were, so the folks back home could get an idea of what a given Turkish sultan, or Spanish princess, or French king looked like.
The same artist (or group of artists) made a large set of small instructional paintings showing different people from the Ottoman Empire in their typical dress, such as an Albanian fisherman, a white eunuch, a black eunuch, the sultan’s religious advisor, a Greek couple and many others.
Another fascinating painting, part of a group showing various merchants’ venues back in Holland (including colorful turbaned Ottomans casually talking business with black-and-white-clad Dutch Protestant traders), was of a Dutch harbor. In one of the trading ships sailing into the harbor, there was a teeny little Peter the Great of Russia, who visited Holland in 1697 “incognito” -- all six-feet, eight-inches (two meters) of him -- to learn ship-building. Although I knew he had been there from his biography (Peter being one of history’s more colorful tyrants), it was a bit of a thrill to see a contemporaneous painting showing his imperial presence in Holland, almost an afterthought to a large composition. This exhibit was definitely informative!
The Sakıp Sabancı Museum is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and they know how to throw a party. Coordinating with Holland’s Rijksmuseum and private collectors, the Sabancı’s “Rembrandt ve Çağdaşları” (“Rembrandt and his Contemporaries”) is a nonpareil showcase of 110 objects in total, 73 of which are oil paintings, all from the golden age of Dutch art, which roughly encompassed the 17th century. Having entered the exhibit, it is hard to believe you’re not watching this on the BBC. Iconic pictures such as Van Ruisdael’s “The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede” -- trust me, you have seen it a million times -- and Vermeer’s “The Love Letter,” as well as Jan de Bray’s “The Painter’s Guild,” make you expect Sister Wendy to pop in at any minute. But no, the Sabancı has made these and other masterpieces of European culture available for anyone to see. Free audio devices (that actually work) are easy to operate and give information about most of the art on display. The mounting of the works is phenomenal -- so much in one place, but so beautifully presented; the thought and care that went into hanging each painting is evident throughout. For instance, the Vermeer, a relatively tiny painting, is thoughtfully hung by itself in its own small recess, so it appears to be waiting quietly for one to approach. A very large family portrait is hung on a long wall near the entrance to the main exhibit, so you must pass it to get in. It is a fine example of one of those paintings where the eyes follow you, but in this case it is the eyes of an entire big family, including the little baby, all following one’s progress as if they are most interested in your being there.
The collection is very accessible, and more varied in many ways than I would have thought. Landscape, genre and still-lives are generally associated with the golden age of Dutch art, but portraits commissioned by the burgeoning merchant class of the time definitely paid the rent. As a Protestant country, classic religious art, so prevalent in the Italian Renaissance, was not in big demand in Holland, although there was some, and there are a couple of fine examples in the exhibit. But the fun the artists had with portraits! Some are so finely detailed that as you get closer, it is like approaching a photograph, and the details only become clearer. Others, like the Franz Hals and the later Rembrandts, are almost impressionistic close up, with rough brush strokes and ridges. Yet at a distance, the famously developed chiaroscuro of the Dutch masters is just as impressive with the different techniques.
The exhibit is on show until June 10. Admission is TL 12, and there is a nice discount for those over 60. This is one of, if not THE, best all-around exhibits I have seen in my life, anywhere, and I heartily recommend it. It is truly astonishing in every respect.
Finally, moving into the 19th century, we went to “Van Gogh Alive” at Antrepo No. 3, a former warehouse and now exhibition space extraordinaire. I didn’t know what to expect; what I read about it on the Internet wasn’t very promising, as it stressed the application of modern technology in displaying the work of my boy Vincent. I couldn’t really imagine how the work of this young, troubled genius could be improved upon in any way, much less by what smacked of a sound-and-light show. I was so wrong.
Without going into spoiler detail, suffice it to say that there are over 3,000 images of paintings, drawings, sketches and what look like Van Gogh’s journals presented in a moving -- that is actually moving, as well as personally moving -- montage that is perfectly coordinated as to chronology and theme as well as to musical accompaniment. Two pieces I remember are the lovely if ubiquitous “Flower Duet” from “Lakme” and “Sakura,” the atmospheric Japanese folk song. We could have stayed there all day. There are not many places to sit, but one always opens up eventually; just to sit, relax and let the exhibit entertain you is a pleasure. Walking around the exhibit, getting different perspectives as you do, is also recommended. Being immersed in color, sound and the gorgeous creativity of a man who was a painter for only 10 years, and who died young -- I would have to describe the experience as very, very passionate. Even my Lütfü found it hard to break away.
Van Gogh Alive will be in İstanbul until May 15 and costs TL 15.
*Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.