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Of patrons and princes of painting

Elke Buhr reports on the rivalry between the Sabanci and Eczacibasi art patron families, and how they are bringing modern art to Turkey

The Bosphorus lies to the right of the street, in a haze of blue mist. But the guards in suits at the door of the stately home on the left are already beckoning: the way leads up the hill through the elegant little park. At the top lies the villa where the richest family in Turkey lived in the 1960s. Now the classical building has a new annex cosily nestled into the hillside that affords both beautiful gallery space and a fantastic view.

The modern annex of the Sakip Sabanci Museum

For the museum's owners, however, the view should not be the main attraction. The private Sakip Sabanci Museum aims to be the first in Turkey to fulfil the highest international quality standards. "Build me a museum that's so good I can show Picasso in it," businessman Sakip Sabanci had said. And they did: The blue museum banner and posters all over the city now proudly proclaim: "Picasso in Istanbul."

The show boasts 135 paintings, ceramics and drawings from all of Picasso's creative periods. But for foreign visitors, the family photo of the Sabanci family in the foyer is almost more interesting than the pictures by the artist. A clan of small men, all with the same nose and determined, bent ears. An uncle to the right hides his belly in absurdly lumpish suit pants. This is the most successful entrepreneurial family in all of Turkey. Sakip Sabanci, the museum's benefactor, was the son of a poor cotton sharecropper from Anatolia. Within two generations, Sabanci Holding had put the family at the very pinnacle of the European business community – a rise reminiscent of American dishwasher millionaires.

And the show in the Sabanci Museum is also following the American model. Private individuals, not the state, are behind Western-oriented cultural innovation in Istanbul. Another example is the Instanbul Biennale, whose most recent edition was highly acclaimed this summer. Like the Istanbul Modern museum, which opened a year ago in a renovated warehouse, the biennale is financed by a member of the Eczacibasi family, producers of pharmaceutical goods.

The "Horse Mansion" wing of the Sakip Sabanci Museum

For years, the Eczacibasi and Sabanci families have rivalled each other for the unofficial title of Turkey's most generous patron, financing hospitals and schools, and in the case of the Sabanci family an entire university. This explains the insistence with which the family now heralds its museum as the city's best. And Picasso, as Sakip Sabanci most likely thought when planning his museum, is still the safest card in the art world.

Sakip Sabanci died in April 2004. His niece Güler Sabanci, today president of Sabanci Holding, saw it as the fulfilment of her uncle's last will when she recently opened the exhibition "Picasso in Istanbul", at the same inaugurating the new wing of the Sabanci Museum. Picasso's grandson Bernhard Ruiz-Picasso, the show's major lender, led his wife through the rooms with friendly praise for Turkey's rich cultural tradition. That evening the cream of Istanbul high society clinked prosecco glasses, the women dressed in little black numbers. And in Time Out Istanbul, whose title story incidentally presents the metrosexual urban youth, the museum's director, Nazan Ölcer, says in an interview that in choosing the works, the museum had clearly set its own focus: "We no longer feel obliged to content ourselves with what is offered."

But in fact Ölcer was quite content with what was on offer. The pool from which she and American curators Marilyn McCully and John Richardson drew for the exhibit was largely made up of that part of the Picasso legacy to which Bernhard Ruiz-Picasso has access. Other parts of the family were not involved in the project.

The former private estate of the Sabanci family, now home to the Sakip Sabanci Museum

The result is nevertheless a wonderful, and in part even original exhibition, which will certainly achieve its aim of showing all of Picasso's creative periods. A large number of drawings allow visitors to follow Picasso in his cubist phase. The exhibition also places a mini focus on the artist's portraits of women. These show how various styles and techniques coexisted throughout Picasso's career, in which both the deconstruction of form and classical painting styles have their place.

The most beautiful piece in the exhibition is undoubtedly the carpet entitled "Women at their Toilette," based on a pattern from 1938. Picasso only decided to have the subtle paper collage woven in 1970. That the admirable result, whose finesse owes much to its fine handwork, is now being displayed for the first time publicly in Istanbul, is a fitting homage to the artistic traditions of Turkey and the Osmanic Empire.

In the coming year the Sabanci Museum wants to hold a major Rodin exhibition: a further step in Istanbul's ambitious attempt to establish itself as an international art centre. There seems to be a great need to catch up in developing a sort of Western-influenced modernity, a Modern Era defined by the picture, in contrast to the Osmanic tradition dominated by ornament and script. Outstanding examples of Osmanic calligraphy – by the way – can be admired in another wing of the Sabanci Museum.

However the problems of focussing unconditionally on paintings are amply demonstrated by the permanent exhibition in the upper floor of the Istanbul Modern. Here the paintings by Turkish artists from the 60s, 70s, and 80s are nothing other than second-rate imitations. Much more interesting is the "Centre of Gravity" show on the ground floor, curated by Rosa Martinez. In addition to works by Monica Bonvicini, Santiago Sierra and Rem Kohlhaas, there are outstanding films by Istanbul artists like Gülsün Karamustafa and Haluk Akakce.

In the words of Gülsün Karamustafa, Istanbul is a fantastic city for innovative art precisely because there is no established, encrusted art scene, and no established group of male princes of painting who could make life difficult for her as an installation and video artist. Now however, the prototype of all princes of painting has arrived in Istanbul, and hordes of schoolchildren will get to know his works. Even in the art world, globalisation is the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous.


The 135 works in "Picasso in Istanbul" can be seen in the newly renovated Sabanci Museum until March 26, 2006. The exhibition catalogue is put out by the Sabanci Museum Press.


The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on December 28, 2005.

Elke Buhr is art critic and editor at the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european