Mary Roberts


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

Cover Interview of January 31, 2017


If we approach this distinct context without critically analysing the appropriateness of the art historical tools we are using we risk replicating a narrative of this modern art beyond the Western European cultural capitals as derivative and belated. Accordingly, in Istanbul Exchanges I propose a shift in emphasis from institutions to networks.

Over the last three and a half decades the social history of nineteenth-century French and British art has developed a reception theory premised upon the large and centrally organized art institutional structures of the Royal Academy and the Salon. Whether artists based in these Western European cities sought to be embraced by these academic institutions or defined their practice as part of an avant-garde that rejected such structures, the institutions of the Salon and Academy remained the most powerful defining features of that art milieu.

In Istanbul a different situation prevailed. Art circulated within linguistically and culturally diverse local, foreign, and expatriate communities. It could be seen in the Ottoman palaces, foreign embassies and Christian churches, as well as in the homes of the Ottoman elites, the expatriates, and Levantines. It was taught in private studios in Pera run by European-trained foreigners, in the Ottoman military academy, and in select government and minority community schools.

In the 1870s and 1880s, reports and reviews of art exhibitions appeared in local Ottoman, expatriate, and Armenian newspapers, and yet, like the exhibitions themselves, this art writing was sporadic and unsystematic. There was no extensive art-critical press in Istanbul, unlike in London and Paris, where a culture of regular reviews sustained a broader bourgeois public for art. The audience for art in Istanbul in this period is more divergent and disparate than in the Western European capitals, thus compounding the challenge of providing a precise definition of the public for art in this city.

My analysis of Istanbul’s art exhibitions reveals contested definitions of Ottoman and Orientalist cultural identity. These exhibitions have been absent from the lively debates within the Anglo-American academy about nineteenth-century exhibition culture. Unlike the annual exhibitions at the European art academies and the international exhibitions held around the globe, Istanbul’s art exhibitions were without institutional infrastructure or significant international profile. But the very cause of their marginality, I argue, is also the source of their revisionary potential.

The inclusion of Ottoman artists distinguishes these exhibitions from societies of Orientalist painting in Europe. These provisional and loosely structured collaborations encompassed overlapping societies and audiences with a range of agendas and national affiliations. Their diverse agendas distinguish them from official Ottoman displays at the European World’s Fairs and Istanbul’s state-sponsored museums. Reviews of the Istanbul exhibitions published in Istanbul, London, Copenhagen, and Tiflis discloses remnant gossamer threads of intersecting networks within diverse local communities and the links between them and the art world internationally. At times these networks were divided along the fault lines of national allegiance in response to contemporary political debates, but a study of these exhibitions also reveals the sense of multiple belonging of many of Istanbul’s artists (especially those who were members of Ottoman minority communities). A study of their fraught critical reception in Istanbul provides unique insights into the varied ways cross-cultural collaboration was imagined, interpreted and contested.