Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 21, 2023
Sarah-Neel Smith Metrics of Modernity: Art and Development in Postwar Turkey Berkeley, CA: University of Califoria Press, 2022. 232 pp.; 42 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780520383418)

Formal analysis and interpretation of artworks often consider art funding trivial compared to historical and social background, especially in societies where art funding is sparse. Sarah-Neel Smith’s Metrics of Modernity: Art and Development in Postwar Turkey focuses on this subordinate, if not often-overlooked aspect of art creation and cultural production. Proposing economy as a crucial metric to production, Smith analyzes the art scene in 1950s Turkey by focusing on two galleries and several influential artists of the time, while giving an overview of social, political, and economic exchange between the United States and Turkey. In doing so, Smith exemplifies recent scholarship that unfolds the ways in which global modernisms are manifested outside Euro-American contexts, without focusing on the local definitions of aesthetics or on the asymmetric, imposed, and top-down narrative of modernism. Through analyzing meticulously gathered archival material, ephemeral documents, and oral interviews, Smith depicts the art scene in Cold War Turkey and illustrates how private galleries and personal initiatives shaped it.

The beginning of the Turkish Republic marked the political elite’s effort to create a secular nation-state and move towards becoming a modern, positivist, progress-oriented society with the help of sweeping reforms. From the foundation of the republic (1923) until the victory of the Democrat Party in 1946, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi), founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, led political, social, and cultural reforms and controlled not only agriculture and industry, but also the arts. Beginning in the 1950s, Turkey shifted from its Soviet socialist methodology of governance and finance to a free market economy, siding with the Western world until the coup d’état of 1960. Focused on this period, the introduction to Metrics of Modernity gives an overview of the socio-political setting while arguing that modern art production in Turkey relied heavily on economic conditions determined by integration into the global economic market. With thorough research, including anecdotes from art critics and newspaper columns, Smith maps out the period in which Turkish artists struggled to find their ground without state funding, while at the same time pointing out that Turkey’s “exceptional status as neither fully European, nor postcolonial, nor nonaligned” (33) requires scholars to implement new methods of analysis.

The book’s first chapter focuses on Gallery Maya, a private art gallery in Istanbul founded by Adalet Cimcöz that operated between 1950 and 1955. Centering on the missions of Cimcöz and her off-the-record business partner Sabahattin Eyüboglu, a prominent literature scholar, Smith unfolds the narrative of privatization in art, with the acquired étatist ideals to train and educate the masses with the ideals of the Turkish Republic. As Smith argues, they aspired to cultivate a taste for modern, abstract art, while creating a platform for artistic patronage by attempting to accustom their audience to buying affordable objects such as reproductions of famous European paintings and sculptures, block printed textiles, and stylized abstract motif painted vases. They also offered taksit (payments in installments) to be able to source high-priced artworks. Moreover, Eyüboglu, with his pen name Cim-Dal, published anonymous reviews “to model the process of learning a taste for abstract art” (56), while Cimcöz composed her own specific tactics of “how to buy modern art” for her gossip column “Fitne – Fücur.” Drawing parallels between the consumer-oriented methods of Gallery Maya, to how modernist taste, domestic life, and consumer culture were used in postwar US, Smith argues that new metrics of modernity, privatization, and individual consumption were introduced with the help of private entrepreneurship in the art sector.

The second chapter moves to Ankara, focusing on Bülent Ecevit, the former prime minister of Turkey, a poet, writer, scholar, journalist, and one of the founders of Helikon Association Gallery (operational between 1953 and 1955). Shifting our view from the cultural center, Istanbul, to the administrative center—but a cultural periphery—Ankara, Smith argues that Ecevit, educated in Anglophone schools, spent eight months on a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship at Harvard University in 1957, not only functioning as a political ambassador but also as a highly influential promoter of abstract painting. In addition to organizing twenty-five modern art exhibitions in two years, Helikon Gallery offered programs that included experimental music concerts and painting classes, becoming a place where “Turkish individuals could develop into democratic citizens through a transformative viewing experience” (89). Ecevit’s ideal of using modern art to foster democratization, as Smith argues, was rooted in Turkey’s ongoing struggle to enter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which Ecevit believed was essential for Turkey to achieve cultural and civilizational foundations. He shared his views in Ulus, the primary mouthpiece of the Republican People’s Party, undertook the responsibility of “educating” the public about modern art, and brought artists such as Cemal Bingöl and Füreya Koral, two artists from the peripheries of the Turkish art scene into the public eye.

Moving from the geographical periphery to the academic one, the third chapter points to another significant shift from state patronage to liberalization when the International Association of Art Critics awarded the first prize to Aliye Berger, a nonacademic artist, for her painting in the competitive exhibition Developing Turkey (Kalkinan Turkiye) organized by Yapi Kredi Bank in 1954. Berger’s work was surely outside the ordinary with her nonfigurative, abstract painting, in which a “swirling vortex of brushstrokes interrupted the many images of peasants tilling the land, sowing crops, and herding flocks” (102). Focusing on the controversy over the competition’s foreign jury composed of Western European critics, and the “illegibility” of Berger’s work, this chapter sheds light on the divide between the academic and nonacademic, local and international in the Turkish art world, while revealing the tension between individual expression and societal expectations, as well as the gender biases that shaped the reception and evaluation of different artists’ work.

The fourth chapter unveils close ties between John Marshall, associate director of humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation, and Füreya Koral, a ceramic artist linked to both Gallery Maya and Helikon Gallery in the 1950s. Smith reveals how Füreya Koral, influenced by a visit to the US, framed her ceramic abstract artworks in the context of economic integration that would eventually enable her to modernize the mass production of ceramics in Turkey, thus contributing to the country’s integration into international markets. The conclusion of Metrics of Modernity makes a temporal leap to the opening of the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art in 2004. As a prominent cultural institution that showcases modern and contemporary art from Turkey and around the world, the museum’s opening signified a milestone in the development of the art scene in Turkey and reflected the close ties of politics, economics, and culture. Giving a brief background to the founding of the museum in the late 1980s, Smith once again underlines the effect of the economic changes, such as the transition to the liberal economy with then prime minister Turgut Özal, and the integration of globalization and a free market economy. 

By focusing on the development of modern art in Turkey and examining its intersections with politics, economics, and cultural changes, Metrics of Modernity fills an important gap in the scholarship on art in Turkey. It provides a comprehensive analysis of the historical context, artistic practices, and the role of institutions and individuals in shaping Turkish modern art. However, it still functions as an analysis of asymmetric influence on a “developing county” by the West. Indeed, it would be intriguing to explore the interconnections between the United States and Turkey, and the potential influence that Turkish artists, politicians, or journalists may have had on their peers in the US. Contributions that break such asymmetry include Esra Akcan’s Architecture in Translation: Germany (2012), which surveys the dynamics of interaction and exchange between these two cultures, and Banu Karaca’s The National Frame: Art and State Violence in Turkey and Germany (2021), which engages in ethnographical research on art from Istanbul and Berlin and surveys the management of art by looking into arts patronage and sponsorship, collecting and curating, and cultural policies. However, in the light of the theories of art history, curating, and postcolonial theory, Metrics of Modernity examines ephemeral archival material to produce an extensive reading of modern art in Turkey in the post-Cold War period. The book not only sheds light on the economics of artistic production, but also offers a crucial documentation for the history of two important galleries and various Turkish artists of the time.

Pinar Uner Yilmaz
Independent Researcher