I was recently asked to write something about “beauty” for the January edition of the IWI International Women of Istanbul) magazine Lale so here it is…
Venturing into landscape painting in the climate of contemporary art making is a perverse choice: taking on notions of beauty, even more so.
The artist Whistler, finding himself on a train sharing a carriage, was asked by his fellow passenger, “Mr Whistler, what ought I to consider art?” To which he replied, “Why Sir, there is no ought about it. Either you like it or you don’t.”
Notions of beauty are often no less diverse or confusing.
Arriving in Istanbul three years ago, I was struck as so many of us are by the overwhelming beauty of the city. Its allure over the next six months as I ventured out with my sketchbooks was no less than a love affair. The first images appearing in my sketchbook ranged widely as I drank it all in. A banquet of light and shadow, changing with the seasons, time of day, moods of the city. There are the views from the ferries, no two views or moments ever alike. Istanbul even provides the sunsets, as numerous as the potholes.
But as one is seduced by the beauty one is also aware of the pitfalls awaiting the painter who attempts to capture it. And yet, what is wrong with painting pretty pictures of Istanbul? David Hockney, one of the most important contemporary painters, says his greatest challenge for the upcoming Olympic year Royal Academy exhibition is to paint a giant sunset.
My first exhibition in Istanbul, held against the windows of 360istanbul, was a series of sunset moments. Beauty perhaps, but a loud, clanging, turn you upside down kind of beauty. And as a medium I chose common shiny enamel house paint. Not only does it run and spill in a way which matched the exuberance of my newly discovered city, but it echoed the peeling painted doorways, the neon lights on the endless grey grid of the freeway, or a surprise red rain coat flitting through a sea of winter black coats.
The first major painting I did when I finally moved into a studio on Istiklal, ‘Galata Improvisation’, was a celebration of my initial love of the city. Perhaps beauty or its discovery, like memory, is not something passive but is actually part of an active process of discovery and rediscovery. A friend bought a carpet recently; it reminded her of a storybook she read as a child and in it there was a carpet with stars just like the one she chose. All the carpets were beautiful but now this beauty acquired further meaning. Similarly, a wall with scraped posters becomes a thing of beauty at the end of a grey street. Or Galata emerging all lit up and glorious for just a few moments on one of those particularly cold grey days that signal the beginning of winter, and after a particularly enjoyable wander with friends in the labyrinths of Eminonou.
As one gets to know the city perhaps one is not quite blown away on a regular basis, but ones appreciation of the city takes on a more subtle form. August, early autumn, have you noticed how the city suddenly contracts? All buildings, structures, ships, indeed, all human activity, suddenly seems smaller and one is left wide expanses of glimmering water. Or have you noticed that after a visit to Haghia Sophia, out on the street again, the piles of golden baklava glitter and gleam in the windows ? And so, as Istanbul is layered in her beauty, so is one’s vision and perception of her. My favourite green, blue and white room in the Topkapi Palace finds its echo in green pistachios, and all this in time finds its way into the paintings. On my way to the studio I glimpse a ripening persimon tree laden with Klimt like golden spheres; later, on the way home, in the bus, my favourite Kirecburnu fishing boats come into view. The next morning I am reaching for lemon yellow in my oils, and golden orbs appear again, this time on the nets of the fishing boats. Even during the dreariest mid winter dolmus ride there is something in knowing that not far away lies the intimate splendour of the Rustem Pasa Camii or even the hot earthy piles of merchandise in the spice bazaar And one can carry such profound experiences of beauty with one through the city, as one can look forward to the first linden blossoms or summer figs.
But one can’t escape the ugliness of Istanbul either: endless blocks of flats, construction site piled on construction site, treeless roads and pavements, ugly buildings, the contours of the earth everywhere smoothed over by the unforgiving edges of concrete and tarmac. Not unlike many contemporary modern cities, one might say. The difference being that Istanbul often seems to move over its past with the sensitivity of a pneumatic drill. London, in contrast, is a manicured city; its skyline from the Tate Modern leaves Turner’s paintings of the Venetian skyline in the shade; London respects its past, believes in it, celebrates and preserves its manmade manifestations. Not surprising for a city that languishes so magnificently in materialism.
Istanbul, however, cannot be tamed, in spite of the best efforts of the ‘beautifiers’ of the city determined to smooth over her rough edges, tame those unruly trees, unify, regulate and modernize. There remains a wildness, a chaotic disregard for the finished work, the completed task, And in this real beauty will always out; beauty that lies in the fugitive, the unformed, the surprising, the serendipitous. It lies in acknowledging that there is beauty in the small things, the shiny glasses of tea, slivers of silver in a fishing bucket – these emerging from a dull concrete pavement, or a building with no more allure, or longevity than a garden shed.
It is in acknowledging the city for what it is rather than in lamenting what it could or should be, that its beauty lies; in the building and scarification of its landscape, freeways and ancient ruins, gaping construction sites and ancient walls alike, in its rich borek-stuffed layers, in its often jarring contrasts. Therein lies the beauty that interests me as a painter. Istanbul (often quite literally!) trips one up by her beauty. As a city constantly being dug up and plastered over, recreated and reborn, Istanbul’s beauty is never static.
What often remain in the paintings are moments that cannot be pinned down for their beauty or for their ugliness. The view from the Golden Horn becomes almost tacky in garish pinks and overblown flourishes; there is humour in seeing, majesty in the mad arrangements of light and colour. It is this that is celebrated.
While my native city of Cape Town’s beauty is so dramatically measured in the changing aspects of Table Mountain and the surrounding waters, there too, the city as a palimpsest reveals a more poignant beauty, a beauty sometimes wrought out of tragic circumstances, a beauty wrought of human event.