Friday, March 30, 2012

Going Dutch in Istanbul

"Wager cup with hunting scenes
and allegorical tableaux," c. 1642-44,
Unknown artist, Rijksmuseum
Is it so wrong that my favorite thing about the exhibit of Dutch Masters currently on view at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum wasn't a painting by Rembrandt or Vermeer, but instead a silver windmill cup used for 17th-century drinking games?

As if the idea of trying to chug-a-lug the entire glass before the little windmill's blades stopped turning wasn't entertaining enough, the cup -- aptly known as a "drink-up" -- is displayed alongside paintings and drawings of poor Dutch souls who failed to hold their liquor. Depicting fat, slovenly, and lecherous figures, these types of pictures were the PSAs of their time, according to the exhibit text, which explained that they were meant to show the dangers of drinking too much.

The pairing of paintings with objects depicted in or related to them is one of the clever touches in the fine, but otherwise mostly unsurprising "Rembrandt and His Contemporaries" exhibit, which brings together more than 100 works from the "Golden Age" of Dutch art. Alongside the expected range of stern portraits, dramatically lit still lives, and gorgeously rendered landscapes, the decidedly modernist-looking "The Golden Bend in the Herengracht in Amsterdam" stands out, its crisp, spare composition seemingly a couple of hundred years ahead of its time.

"The Golden Bend in the Herengracht in Amsterdam,"
1671-72, Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde, Rijksmuseum
The museum's free audio guide offers some useful interpretative tips (who knew a painting of a ship at sea on a wall was an "instantly recognizable" symbol of romantic passion?) while occasionally lapsing into condescending platitudes. (I can decide whether I think the ducks on the pond add a charming detail or not, thanks.)

The Sabancı's Rembrandt exhibit is just one of the many Dutch-themed art shows that have been popping up around town like so many spring tulips, part of a commemoration of 400 years of diplomatic relations between Turkey and the Netherlands. (Or, as they were known back then, between the Ottoman Empire and the Dutch Republic of the United Provinces.)

Unknown painter,
17th century,
Pera Museum
The trade relationship embarked on in 1612 sparked, among other things, the Dutch mania for tulips, a wild flower in Central Asia that was cultivated in the sultan's gardens in Istanbul and features in one section of "Sultans, Merchants, Painters: The Early Years of Turkish - Dutch Relations," another anniversary exhibit, this one at the Pera Museum. In the text accompanying a lovely set of tulip drawings, the museum's curators note that "the famous motifs seen on 17th century tulip leaves" are now known to have been "caused by a viral infection." Talk about bursting one's bubble.

TO VISIT: The "Rembrandt and His Contemporaries" exhibit is on display until June 10 at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul's Emirgan neighborhood. The museum is open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Wednesday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. General admission is 12 Turkish Liras.

The "Sultans, Merchants, Painters" exhibit ends this Sunday, April 1, at the Pera Museum in the Beyoğlu district. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. General admission is 10 Turkish Liras.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ali Usta's place

"Ayakkabı tamırı." Those two words, printed on a small piece of plain white paper and taped inside an upstairs window, were the only advertisement for the shoe-repair shop a friend had directed me to, explaining, as people generally do here, that it was "across from the phone store and above the bad accessories shop."

Poking my head around the corner of the building, I spied a dark, narrow doorway, beyond which an even narrower set of stairs wound steeply up to the next floor. I pushed open the door on the landing and squeezed alongside the elderly shoe repairman's desk into a bathroom-sized space stacked floor-to-ceiling with dusty boxes, tools, shoes, and bags. A television blared and a heater ran full-blast, trying to ward off the chill outside.

Waving me into the one vacant seat, Ali Usta picked up my two pairs of tattered leather boots, turning them around in his wrinkled hands, and pronounced that he could have them fixed by the next day for less than 10 dollars.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Eclectic art in an unexpected location

Artistic rabble-rouser Robert Rauschenberg photographing puppies? A serene sunset cityscape by the sexually provocative Nan Goldin? A photograph by Cindy Sherman without the artist in any of her many guises?

Collectors Can and Sevda Elgiz enjoy finding and buying works by artists that depart from their best-known styles, Billur Tansel, the manager of the Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art, told me on a recent tour. Starting with the first pieces by Turkish artists that the couple acquired in the 1980s, they have let "gusto" guide their collecting decisions.

The result is an eclectic, eye-catching mix of works in various mediums -- from a mannequin-like figure made out of dead beetles (by Belgian artist Jan Fabre) to an inflatable PVC "cloud" shot through with rays of sunlight (by Turkish artist Iskender Yediler) that expands and contracts as if it is breathing above the viewer's head.

A selection from the collection is currently on display as part of the museum's 10th-anniversary celebration. If you haven't heard of the Elgiz Museum before, you're not alone; according to Tansel, the institution is much better known to people outside of Turkey than to local art-lovers. Despite the quality of work exhibited, this doesn't come as that much of a surprise; the museum's location behind an office tower in the Maslak business district is far off the typical Tophane/Nişantaşı/Galata gallery-hopping trail, but well worth a visit.

When Can and Sevda Elgiz decided to use some of the wealth from their construction business Giz İnşaat to establish the museum's predecessor, the Proje 4L art space in 4. Levent, back in 2001, platforms for contemporary art were limited in Istanbul. That is now far from the case. It will be interesting to see how the Elgizes maintain their reputation as trendsetters now that nearly every major family-managed firm or holding company in the city seems to have an art space to its name.

TO VISIT: The 10th-anniversary exhibition "Elgiz 10 Istanbul" is on view until this Saturday, March 17, at the Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art in Istanbul's Maslak district. The museum is open Wednesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Take the metro from Taksim to the İTÜ Ayazağa stop and walk toward the Beybi Giz Plaza building. The museum is around the back to the right of the main entrance.