Mary Roberts


On her book Istanbul Exchanges: Ottomans, Orientalists, and Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture

Cover Interview of January 31, 2017

The wide angle

There has been much debate over the last decade about expanding our discipline to create a global history of art, but what precisely are the new methods and protocols for writing these more encompassing transcultural histories? It has long been my conviction that Istanbul and its cross-cultural webs of art and patronage have much to tell us about a global history.

In this book I propose a network model for understanding these interconnections. Istanbul was a context where European artists were working alongside Muslim and Non-Muslim Ottomans. Many artistic initiatives received patronage from both foreign diplomatic communities and the Ottoman court. This book attends to these patterns and processes of transcultural artistic exchange. Tracking Istanbul’s multi-sited and multi-directional art connections discloses the nodes and vectors that register the particularities of Istanbul as a place of cross-cultural contact while also situating Istanbul’s exchanges within a global history.

This is a history of art attuned to patterns of artistic exchange that accounts for the movement of art works in and out of Istanbul and its changing meaning on the move. Art produced in this context was created, apprehended and interpreted within a cross-cultural web of meanings. Sometimes this web was a battlefield of competing representations, at other times it was a negotiated matrix of divergent positions. Such cross-cultural transmission was also entangled within patterns of misinterpretation, as visual forms were created, reshaped, censored, or productively misunderstood. This served to produce divergent forms of agency of art works and artists.

In this book I characterize transcultural artworks as “networked objects.” The Young Album analysed in chapter one exemplifies this concept. This album, a history of the sultanate through portraiture, was the single most influential visual codification of the Ottoman dynastic image in the nineteenth century. Commissioned by Sultan Selim III in 1806, it was originally intended as a gift in Ottoman-European diplomatic exchange relations, but the album had a much more unstable history across the century as it shuttled back and forth between Istanbul and London.

As part of this historical mobility there were multiple shifts in the Young Album’s image economy: from diplomatic gift culture to consumer culture and from luxury album to intimate cartes de visite. In these different iterations it was variously co-opted for Ottoman and British versions of the Empire’s history. Through processes of supplementation with additional text and images rupturing the aesthetic coherence of the original Ottoman commission, the cultural boundaries of this work of art were redrawn. Divergent centers of power were imputed, as different forms of authorship were claimed, conflicting versions of Ottoman history were inscribed, and alternate audiences were engaged. Through this durational case study, cultural encounter emerges as a procedure entailing multiple transformations and multiple local effects.

Istanbul Exchanges builds on ideas developed in my book, Intimate Outsiders: The Harem in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature (Duke University Press, 2007). I engaged debates on gender and Orientalism through a study of representations of the harem by Orientalist artists, women travel writers, and it was the first study of elite Ottoman women who commissioned their own portraits. I characterized artist’s embedded in foreign cultures as Intimate Outsiders, coining this term to characterize the forms of privileged access of European women to Ottoman culture, as well as the familiarity of elite Ottoman women with European art in this period of Ottoman modernization. I emphasized the sustained tension between intimacy and outsideness in this term as a model for understanding artistic production in a cross-cultural context.