April 9, 2014 | by Kaya Genc
Reviving the art of Turkish miniatures.
In Turkey, people used to yawn when they heard the word miniature. “He looks just like one of those guys in miniatures” was a good way to insult someone. Generations of students have learned to ignore, or dislike, the art of miniature and the broader category of traditional Turkish arts—tezhip, the art of illumination; ebru, paper marbling; cilt, bookbinding; and hat, calligraphy. After all, uncool people practiced them—better to keep one’s distance.
Miniature paintings date to the third century A.D. They’re small paintings used in illustrated manuscripts (decorated books, basically) to depict scenes from the classics: the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Bible. Illuminated bibles—like the Syriac Bible of Paris, believed to have been produced in the Anatolian city of Siirt—helped spread the message of God. In Asia, miniatures developed into an independent art form, with techniques quite distinct from those of Western painting. As Wikipedia says, in Persian miniatures,
walls and other surfaces are shown either frontally, or as at (to modern eyes) an angle of about forty-five degrees, often giving the modern viewer the unintended impression that a building is hexagonal in plan. Buildings are often shown in complex views, mixing interior views through windows or “cutaways” with exterior views of other parts of a facade … The Ottoman artists hinted at an infinite and transcendent reality (that is Allah, according to the Sufism’s pantheistic point of view) with their paintings, resulting in stylized and abstracted depictions.
Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād was one of the most prominent practitioners of Persian miniatures. His Construction of the fort of Kharnaq, as well as Reza Abbasi’s Youth Reading, are among its most beautiful examples; both can be found in the British Museum. In the Ottoman empire, the miniature flourished as an art form during the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror. Traditional miniaturists didn’t sign their work. Some of the best known of Ottoman miniatures were produced collectively in Topkapı Palace, where people worked without a sense of individual authorship.
The modern distaste for miniatures was prevalent among the educated classes, whose most common grievance had long been that Turkey never had a Renaissance—we didn’t have a Medici family to commission great art. When Mehmed the Conqueror took Istanbul, scholars and artists fled to Rome, bringing their expertise and knowledge about antiquity to Europe. As a consequence, we were taught, Turkish artists were condemned to produce examples of these boring traditional arts. Had they learned the technique of perspective from their European masters, Caravaggios and Rembrandts would’ve popped up throughout the empire like fresh daffodils.
This self-deprecating mood changed briefly in 1998, when Orhan Pamuk published a novel called My Name Is Red, which showed hundreds of thousands of bemused Turkish readers that miniature art was not only worthy of interest but also cool—even sexy—in the age of postmodernism. In Istanbul, the long history of Ottoman miniatures quickly became the talk of the town; when, in 2001, John Updike praised the novel in The New Yorker, the excitement grew. In other words, it was only when Americans showed interest in our traditional arts that middle-class Turks decided to take a closer look.
The American-founded Bosphorus University opened ebru classes where hipsters and prospective intellectuals met and made marbled papers together. A left-wing record label, Kalan, started putting out albums by traditional composers. Kids started showing interest in the ney, a kind of Middle-Eastern flute, and a heavy metal band started performing songs by Âşık Veysel, an Anatolian incarnation of the wandering minstrel. But this interest waned in the 2010s: once again, traditional arts came to be seen as unfashionable relics. There seemed to be no place for them in the digital era.
Then, in late 2012, a young graphic designer named Murat Palta created a portfolio for his college thesis. He wedded the miniature to contemporary movies, making a gallery of miniaturized films including Clockwork Orange, Goodfellas, Inception, Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Scarface, Terminator II, The Godfather, and Star Wars. The miniatures, like Palta’s other works, are funny, ironic, and beautifully drawn. It would be difficult—and wrong—to place his work somewhere on the continuum of tradition and modernity; it’s at once reverent and irreverent. He put his miniatures on his Bēhance page, where they were viewed almost a million times.
In Ottoman miniature, there’s no sense of perspective or linear narrative. Everything happens on the same flat surface before the all-encompassing gaze of infinity. So Palta’s miniatures remove the movies from their chronological context—the climactic moments are presented all at once. Just look at his miniature for The Shining, where he captures Danny’s encounter with the ghosts of the murdered twins in the same frame as Jack Torrance’s chopping at the door with a fire axe. Miniatures have a different way of editing reality: What better way of showing the frenzy of the Overlook Hotel than picturing it as an infinite madness where the Western understanding of time no longer applies?
Palta isn’t the only one helping to revive the moribund form. Derviş Zaim, a Turkish director famous for his translation of traditional Ottoman arts into the medium of film, made use of miniatures in his 2006 film, Waiting for Heaven, which is about a miniaturist and embraces the miniature aesthetic. Zaim used a special color palette and arranged the scenes in such a way that they represent the strange, achronological principles of miniatures, as he describes in an interview with Cinema Without Borders:
The space and time in the classic miniature painting is used in a different way, maybe in a cubist manner. I am not suggesting that Ottoman Classical miniature artists are an early example of cubism … [but] Ottoman miniature artists may use x time and y time side by side in order to create richer, broader explanations and narration. They may also use z location and f location side by side … by doing this, they will problematize the space and time like cubists do.
Almost two decades have passed since I first heard my history teacher complain about how “Turkey didn’t live the Renaissance.” Perhaps what Palta, Zaim, and Pamuk have accomplished in their work is our own Renaissance—a rebirth of our lost traditions for a modern audience.
Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul.