IT’S a city intertwined with the history of civilization, a melting pot between East and West, yet, for all that, Istanbul has a surprisingly short artistic tradition.
Now, it is vibrant and bursting with innovative art. Tourists, as they descend on the city in search of the Blue Mosque and its other famous attractions, are finding this artistic side of city life.
And what better way to be introduced to a place than to explore its art?
We start at one of Istanbul’s newest hotels, Raffles. Here, the landmark of Singapore hospitality has opened the latest of its expanding portfolio of luxury hotels.
This glass and stone, 27-storey tower above the Zorlu Centre, with its swanky shops, theatre, concert hall and metro station, is just one of the many new buildings that are transforming the city skyline.
Inside, art has been thoughtfully incorporated into the design to add a sense of location.
For the grand foyer, French photographer Jean-François Rauzier has created a giant “hyper-photo” – an imagining of the Dolmabahce Palace, distorted and hiding animals, inspired by a Turkish poem. Then there’s a three-ton Henry Moore-esque abstract bronze – a reclining figure reflected in water – by American artist Martin Dawe. And that’s just the foyer: there is art, commissioned from local and international artists, at every turn, from bedroom to ballroom.
To get a better sense of the Turkish artistic tradition, we head for Istanbul Modern with Banu Küçüksubası, an art historian. On its walls, we see how Turkish history – the Ottoman era, the Republic and Ataturk; democracy and military coups; Islam and European influence – has left its mark.
Banu guides us through the early pioneering artists like Halil Pasa, who in the late 1800s was one of the first modern Turks to draw the human form. We are reminded that Islam holds that depicting the human form is idolatry and so art in the long Ottoman era was dominated by ornate patterns and calligraphy.
We see Turkish artists flirt with Impressionism, embrace the abstract and play with Pop Art. It was obviously a steep learning curve as political and cultural life at the edge of Europe evolved and the artists caught up with Western techniques and styles. We are also introduced to contemporary work that stretches boundaries and has made the international art world sit up and take notice. It is an intense immersion but prepares us for exploring the galleries of Istanbul.
But before that we head for Karaköy, the waterfront area where artists rub shoulders with mechanics and shops selling every electrical component imaginable. Red Bull is sponsoring a festival of young artists using unconventional spaces, turning alleyways into canvases, adding murals and installations to this lively area. We walk along on the bustling quayside beside the Galata Bridge, so those of us who are Istanbul first-timers get a glimpse of the Bosphorus and the Asian side of the city before we retreat for lunch at Karaköy Gümrük, where Turkish cooking puts seasonal produce centre stage.
Rested and nourished, we follow Banu through Tophane, where you could be forgiven for missing some of the galleries we explored. There’s Mixer down a side street in a former garage; Nev, Pi Artworks and Galerist upstairs in what initially appear to be elegant apartment blocks. The contemporary works on show range from billowing plastic bags to shocking forensic detail, with much to enjoy between. Probably our most illuminating stop is a metro ride away in the business district of Maslak at the Elgiz Collection.
Turkey, we learn, has no culture of state support for art: galleries – including Istanbul Modern – are in private hands. Yet, even with the country’s relatively short history of capitalism, private collections have emerged and helped to nurture the art scene. The collections on the whole are rarely seen, but the Elgiz Collection is housed in a purpose-built public gallery. Ayda, the daughter of the founders, Sevda and Can Elgiz, shows us around, explaining how the family curate the collection themselves. There is an eclectic choice of Turkish and international works, with a Tracy Emin alongside the best of the talent they see emerging on their own doorstep.
Our most convivial stop has to be the studio of Seçkin Pirim. The neighbouring workshops and garages are aesthetically miles away from Istanbul Modern or the Saatchi Gallery in London, both places where Seçkin’s work has been exhibited.
Seçkin is best known for his 80-layer symmetrical paper sculptures, but over a glass of wine, he shows us the maquette of a 100-layer resin commission for a vineyard. He talks about his military service and creating his first multi-layered work in a matchbox – what he had to hand at that time. Something of a pioneer in the Turkish art world, which has a limited amount of three-dimensional work, Seçkin’s choice of studio becomes more understandable as he relates how the vineyard sculpture had to helicoptered out to a boat for shipping along the coast.
After our eyes have been opened to Turkish art on our whirlwind tour, we have the luxury of Raffles to return to. First stop the spa and, as it is my first visit to Turkey, it has to be a hammam treatment.
However stimulating and extraordinary the past 24 hours have been – the five-hour flight from Edinburgh, midnight traffic jams and then our art-packed day – the warm water and hot slab beneath me reach straight to my core as the therapist scrubs away the layers of hard-living.
Squeaky clean, a glamorous dress feels just right to find my companions for a Bosphorus Sling in the Long Bar. Nothing like I remember its namesake from a visit to Singapore in the 1990s, this Long Bar has a more modern vibe but is still an elegant place to gather before the theatre of dinner in the hotel’s Arola restaurant.
And the most artistic of performances it is. Based on Catalan Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola’s philosophy, the kitchen creates the most original plates of food. There’s a garden of miniature vegetables, lobster risotto, mini burgers and, for the finale, fruit is dramatically enveloped in dry ice. Visually the dishes are stunning but, more importantly, the flavours are intense and truly delicious.
My only regret is that I didn’t wake up early enough for a taxi ride to the Blue Mosque because then I might have done the city justice in my allotted 36 hours. n
• Raffles Istanbul (www.raffles.com/istanbul Zorlu Center, Besiktas, Istanbul, 34340 Turkey, +90 212 924 0200, firstname.lastname@example.org). Rooms from ¤575, based on two sharing.
• For art tours of Istanbul with Banu Küçüksubası contact email@example.com.
• Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) flies direct from Edinburgh to Istanbul daily. Prices start from £161 return.