March 15, 2011

Retracing the Arc of Turkish Modernism, By Way of Montparnasse

For once, Istanbul's legendary rush-hour traffic was not the reason for the holdup at the entrance to Santralistanbul, the museum adjacent to the campus of Istanbul Bilgi University. Rather, the long line of cars snaking up the steep Eyüp hillside were waiting to deposit some 400 well-heeled art aficionados at the opening of "20 Modern Turkish Artists of the 20th Century," a new exhibition of some 430 works, primarily on canvas, by the country's modernist masters, all from the heretofore near unknown collection of textile magnate Öner Koçabeyoglu.

The 20 artists represented in the show, curated by Ferit Edgü and running through June 19, were born or raised in Turkey but departed for the heady atmosphere of postwar Paris, where they pursued non-figurative and abstract works aligned with various strains of international modernism such as tachism, lyrical abstraction, or art informel. While their names are nearly as familiar as those of Picasso and Pollock to art-minded Istanbulites, the exhibition nevertheless caused a stir for its scope and its secrecy. According to Ayse Utku, who with her husband, Ahmet, advises the collection, "Koçabeyoglu is quite a recluse — nobody, apart from a few in the art world, really knew who he was until this exhibition." Moreover, it is the first time that a private collection of this breadth and depth has been exhibited in a museum in Turkey.

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