Featured Preview: Visual Narration of a Nation

As part of its call for contributions on art and ethnicity, the SEN web team is delighted to present a selection of articles related to the topic from SEN’s print issues.

We are pleased to present a preview of Cemren Altan’s “Visual Narration of a Nation: Painting and National Identity in Turkey” published in volume 4 issue 2 of SEN. If you would like to read the entire article, please visit our publisher’s website here.

Article Abstract

The aim of this article is to review the relationship between Turkish nationalist discourse and early republican paintings through the examination of cultural politics and the production of certain types of works of art and the content analyses of those paintings. In other words, it aims to develop a critical reading of the history of Turkey in conjunction with the development of the history of art. The Republic of Turkey was proclaimed in 1923 and this date also symbolically defines the change in both the political system and society. A largely Muslim population was, for the first time, invited by the state into the Arts. This, on one hand, represented rupture with Islamic principles — that did not allow images that give the illusion of reality — and on the other hand, declared an alliance with the European ‘modes of representation’, the European civilization. The invention of ‘visual citizenship’ through early paintings exemplifies what Hobsbawm referred to as the ‘invention of traditions’ (Hobsbawm 1983), the process of creation of the nation. The examples of figurative paintings that converged to form a strong discourse, structured as a narrative and their messages are organized around certain significant components, convey a particular depiction of ‘Turkishness’. We discuss those arguments through the study of the metaphors and analogies applied in some examples of 1930s paintings in Turkey.


Painting within … [a specific] historical context becomes a field of communication and transmission of certain messages to the people. We may evoke an invention of ‘visual Turkishness’ within early paintings by extending the term used by Hobsbawm, ‘invention of traditions’ (Hobsbawm 1983: 1-15) in the process of creating the nation. The examples of figurative paintings produced in the first decade of the Republic carry new forms of expression which characterise a strong discourse, structured as a narrative. They had something to say and their messages were organised around certain significant components, depicting a particular kind of ‘Turkishness’ in their story.  (page 7)

This shift of visual signs towards western at the expense of Muslim signs was one of the most remarkable expressions of the aesthetic transformation favoured by political elites.

… [Plate 1]: there are Ottoman characters trampled underfoot. The enemies of the nation are not only foreign countries  – the man with a stylized moustache might be evoking the Greeks – but also the ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ represented by the old man with a beard, lying under the feet of the reformist crowd. (page 11)

… Izer’s image includes several juxtaposed spatial and temporal moments, namely the war, independence, the change of the capital, the dress reform, the change of the alphabet, the mobilised series of symbols, all unified in one aim: ‘the narration of the new nation’. … [He] intend[s] to create scenes that refer to the social context of … [his] time and society and present their fictive images as the ‘objective reflection of the nation’s reality’. Izer’s painting, although technically very weak, by using simple and clear figures, facilitates the ‘legibility’ of the painting and makes it readable even by largely illiterate people. (page 12)

[Plate 2A] We may suggest applying the formula of ‘Ut pictura poesis’ to understand Turkish painting in the period 1923-1940 as primarily concerned with becoming the visual expression of a discourse. The painters formulate a discourse by taking Atatürk as their major reference; he is the poet of the nation. (Page 13)


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