Turkish Miniatures

Turkish art since the conquest of Istanbul presents, within the general context of Islamic culture, of which it is an integral part, stylistic features of its own which have not as yet received their due share of attention. The Ottoman Turks created in painting, as in architecture and music, an artistic climate which it would be a mistake to confuse, as is frequently done, with that of the Arabo-Persian school. There is as great a difference between the miniature painting of the Ottomans and that of Iran, as there is between the mosques of Istanbul, with their logical clarity, their Mediterranean candour and their insistence on order and centralization, and Iranian architecture. This independence of outlook and taste is to be explained by reference as much to Turkish contact with the civilizations of Anatolia as to the prestige of the Empire created by a people which had long possessed State organization and which served as a cultural bridge between East and West. Whatever the causes, from the XVth century we witness the rise in Asia Minor of a new artistic school which, while remaining a part of Islamic culture, was to create its own plastic values, in which the share of Central Asia is not to be ignored.

If Turkish miniature has hitherto been regarded as an imperfect imitation of Iranian, the reason is that the Iranian masters enjoyed in the world of Islam the same kind of prestige as did the Italian masters of the Renaissance in Europe, where the artistic values of the North remained so long in eclipse. Not to speak of the Seljuks of Anatolia, whose official and literary language was Persian, the Turks throughout the history of the Ottoman Empire regarded Persia as the uncontested home of poetry and the fine arts, even at a time when Istanbul was the most illustrious centre of Islam. There is no reason to believe that the Anatolian Turks did not possess their own outlook, their own taste, their own humour and their own manner in every field of art. It can even be said that this admiration in some cases led them to discover themselves, in the same way as the study of Italian art revealed their own true bent to the painters of Northern Europe.

The Turkish miniaturist may be distinguished from his colleague of the Iranian school in the first place by his choice of subject-matter. Unlike the latter, he does not ignore either current political events or the reality of everyday life, which he frequently treats in a humorous manner. He appears to prefer the market-place, swarming with people who, though stylized and purified by the colouring, are nonetheless real, to the fairy garden in which some Prince Charming strays. In all his work the Ottoman artist reveals a greater respect for the unity of time, place and action. In one case, at the risk of sinking into an extreme of monotony, the artist goes so far as to depict over and over again the same place and the same background decorations in all three hundred miniatures of a book relating the forty days of a single festival. It was not by chance that the Ottomans were the first to compose and illustrate "Festival Books", which came to constitute a separate genre known as Surname. Instructional and didactic rather than epic or lyrical, the Ottoman library is full of "Books of Travel" (Seyahatname), "Itineraries" (Menazilname), "Books of Diplomatic Missions" (Sefaretname), encyclopaedias and historical works. It should be added that even the Turkish "Books of Kings" (Shahname), do not possess the epic and heroic tension of the corresponding Persian works. On the other hand they reveal more humour, picturesqueness and realistic observation. For this reason the Ottoman miniatures convey more of the feeling of a particular period and provide more information on its political and social order. The Surname of Osman brings in parade before our eyes all the trade guilds of the Empire under the reign of Murad III, without neglecting the slightest detail of their functions, their instruments or their costumes.

The Turkish miniature is often conceived and composed in the form of a stage with the actors seen in close-up and presented in their characteristic attitudes. Every figure in the picture seems to have been suddenly caught in the midst of action, half-way through a movement. The figures, like those in that characteristically Turkish entertainment, the Karagöz, or shadow theatre, are usually tense, lively and effective. It may be said that the representation of movement was always the great concern of the Turkish painters, in spite of the exigencies of miniature, an essentially decorative art and, consequently, one better suited to the expression of static beauty. It was this that led them to schematize movement which they could not have rendered in all its fullness without toning down the colour and abandoning purity of line.

In short, one is tempted to say that Turkish miniature, as presented here together with its origins and its pre-Ottoman affinities, remained suspended between East and West, idealism and realism, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, fantasy and observation. It is perhaps in this dualism that its strength and its weakness should be seen: its strength, when it succeeds in reconciling the two different worlds and modes, its weakness when it hesitates and makes only irresolute steps in one or the other direction. It is nonetheless true that there exists a Turkish domain in the art of miniature as in the other arts, a domain which is sufficiently rich to justify the particular interest which hitherto has been either withheld or but grudgingly accorded.

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