Home > Essays > A Tale of Two Paintings: Orhan Pamuk and Turkey’s Troubled Identity
Published: Sun Jul 1 2007
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
A Tale of Two Paintings: Orhan Pamuk and Turkey’s Troubled Identity

In 1479, when the Not So Serene Republic of Venice was negotiating with the victorious Ottomans to retrieve lost trade routes, Sultan Mehmet II, fascinated by the Western fashion for portraiture, requested “a good artist.” The Doge sent his best. Gentile Bellini went, painted, and conquered. Or did he? In the Venetian’s portrait, Mehmet’s young dreamy face stares wistfully out from his fluffy fur collar. His red robe glows. His fine greyhound nose almost sniffs the air. Such realism was a landmark: the first-ever true likeness of a Muslim monarch. So too was the fascination: the beginning of a tempestuous Turkish love affair with European culture.

This winter, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris placed that portrait at the centre of its exhibition “Venise et l’Orient” (1). Beginning with the Egyptian Mamalukes and moving on to the Ottomans, the exhibition surveyed the important two-way commerce in spices, glass, ceramics, and silk between Venice and the Middle East. It stressed the Italian republic’s key position as a bridge between Muslim and Christian worlds. Trade set the Venetians apart, made wily diplomats of them, at a time when the rest of Italy was under the rigid sway of Catholic Spain and Papal fatwas banned dealings with the Infidel. Among the Caucasian carpets and the Venetian imitations of Egyptian mosque lamps, the precise portolanos and the fine metalwork, that realistic portrait by Gentile Bellini came as a striking contrast. You knew immediately that you were in a different world. That, despite the ornate archway and the brocade, it was Western.

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, in an essay on the Bellini portrait (2), says that every educated Turk knows that painting. Mehmet II, founder of the Ottoman Empire, whose armies penetrated Europe as far as Bosnia, Greece, and Albania, is in every school history book and forms part and parcel of Turkish identity. During the five-month exhibition, Mehmet II adorned every Paris Metro station, so Parisian commuters now know him equally well. For the sake of the exhibition poster, another Bellini portrait, that of the Doge Giovanni Mocenigo, was ingeniously given a horizontal flip to face the Sultan nose to nose, thus creating a pleasant impression of complicity, of equality of exchange. The Orient of the imagination has always exerted its pull. And it’s good to remind us of that, when real EastWest relations are at an ebb and we live in a world where, if ever the handsome youth with the long-flowing beard were to step out of his poster and set off to visit Paris, he would be surrounded by police and ID’ed before even leaving the Metro.

For the relationship between Turkey and the rest of Europe has unfortunately changed. The months we spent discussing Turkey’s entry into the European Union scuppered the constitutional referendum and pushed their application onto the back boiler. For some reason, we Europeans can’t—or won’t?—decide what we think about the country. Geographythe insoluble debate over where Europe ends and Asia begins, and whether Turkey has a legitimate claim to enter the E.U.seems to have little to do with our attitude. Immigration has a lot to do with it; the confusions between Turk and Arab, between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism a lot more. And now, with a democratically elected Islamic government, there hovers in the back of our minds concern for Europe’s secular future were such a government ever to send to Brussels the thin edge of its Islamist wedge. (Recent mass demonstrations throughout Turkey in favour of secularism should be putting people’s minds at rest, but apparently arent.) We would all like to re-draw the frontier between Europe and the East to suit our own political or cultural standpoints and counter our mistrust. If Istanbul were still called Constantinople, or if Turkey still had its once large Greek and Armenian populations, would we be arguing so heatedly?

The Occident of the mind holds an equal sway on educated Turks. Last December, when Orhan Pamuk collected his Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm, he spoke of the relative poverty of Turkish literature and of the constant need for educated Turks to turn to Western authors. In his soul-searching latest work—Istanbul, Memories of a City (2005)—he evokes the suffering of literary Istanbullus: “Because the country is trying to Westernize, what Western writers say is desperately important to them, but whenever a Western observer goes too far, the Istanbul reader, having gone to great lengths to acquaint himself with that writer and the culture he represents, cannot help but feel heartbroken.” And this is exactly the feeling of many present-day Turks over Europe’s cold-shouldering. André Gide’s highly critical Marche Turque had an immediate and lasting effect, explains Pamuk—progressive for some, devastating for others. Within a year of its publication, Kemal Atatürk had all non-Western clothing banned. Yet today’s Turkey, the Atatürk inheritance, is doing a double act: fast-forwarding towards democratization, rewinding to Islamic, pre-Kemalist modes of dress. This paradox is the backcloth to Pamuk’s novel, Snow (2002). The decline of Ottoman miniaturist painting under the influence of European art fills the world of his historical thriller My Name Is Red (1998). Set four hundred years apart, the two novels tell the same story: loss of identity and the suffering it brings.

Turkey ‘s official refusal to admit that the Armenian massacres ever took place is another major stumbling block to European entry. Recent French legislation, making denial of the massacres a criminal offence, has angered the Turks. Pamuk warned against it. Yet more people are actually daring to publish their memoirs or “come out” as Armenian these days, even if this remains dangerous territory. Last year, Pamuk himself faced charges—later dropped—for “un-Turkish behavior,” simply for saying that no one dared mention the massacres.

2007 began tragically with the murder of Hrant Dink, the courageous editor of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian Istanbul weekly publication Agos. At the end of My Name is Red, the Persian artist, Olive, makes a desperate attempt to flee by boat to India and to the court of the Mogul king in Agra, where miniaturists still thrive and he can practice his art. Now, Pamuk has had to do just that. Two weeks after Dink’s murder, he slipped quietly out of his beloved Istanbul on a plane for the United States, after receiving threats during the court appearance of the Dink murder suspect – yet another example of the great divide, not between West and East, but within Turkey itself.

This divide too is at the heart of Pamuk’s writing, be it modern Turkey and the fundamentalist–Kemalist debate in Snow or the gulf that separated Venetian realism from the court miniaturists. Pamuk returns over and over to the concerns that today’s Muslim artist has about Western criticism of his culture. This is a debate that won’t go away: Bellini and Western portraiture may not have had a lasting influence on Turkey, but the nineteenth century did. As Turkey increasingly became the stage of European commercial and strategic interests, especially after the Crimean War, whole areas of Istanbul were rebuilt by Western architects. Those Turks who did study architecture in Turkey in the newly opened schools were from Armenian or other non-Muslim communities. The neo-Islamic style imagined by non-Muslims sparked off a counter movement against the “Frankization” of their city. (“Franks” was the word applied to all Europeans.) This time, the unease was not limited to court miniaturists: it was a popular movement. Yet what would Istanbul be today without its Islamo-Mauresque stonework and its art nouveau?

There are other present-day counterweights to the Venice exhibition: the Danish cartoon crisis, the Pope’s tricky visit to Christian communities in Istanbul following his remarks on Islam at Regensburg University. Turks reacted angrily to both.

And Bellini in all this? In his essay, Pamuk contrasts the Venetian artist’s technique with that of a royal court miniaturist or scribe—one of whom was also painted by the artist during his year’s stay in Istanbul (3). To paint Mehmet, he explains, Bellini, like all Renaissance portraitists, faced his model and did his best to render a true and vibrant likeness. The miniaturist, on the other hand, is portrayed kneeling on the ground, staring at the blank page on his lap, as if waiting for inspiration from within. Painting had only been tolerated in Islam in the form of illustration, which is why the great works of Persian and Persian-Ottoman art were found only in volumes of literature. So, what the artist draws will come not from real life—which only God can create—but from a mixture of tradition and imagination. In My Name is Red, traditional artists are disturbed by the Western use of perspective and shadow. How was it possible, they ask, to portray important characters as smaller, just because they were further away? How was it possible to view life from ground level, and not from the top of a minaret? How could artists wish to be recognized, by developing a style of their own and by signing their work? But the Sultan secretly commissions a Frankish-style portrait of himself, and one by one the miniaturists submit to this command. One turns to murder in an attempt to save his art. Their master blinds himself rather than lose his soul. Finally, the court artists realize that by giving in to Western style, which they will never totally master, they too are lost. But they know, too, that time does not stand still. Their art will be left behind.

Whether writing on the melancholy of Istanbul, or of Kars, the once thriving cosmopolitan town on the Russian border in which Snow is set, Pamuk is always fascinated by and nostalgic for this passing of eras, the rubbing together of cultures. It is not hard to see why. Doesn’t the work of any novelist involve both the realistic technique of a Bellini and the detailed imagination of a miniaturist?


To my knowledge, Pamuk has not written about the second painting I want to mention, but it is thanks to him that I came across a reference to it. Stimulated by the Nobel Prize announcement, I took Snow—my first Pamuk—down off my bookshelf, where he had been patiently waiting for me to want him, and began to read. The novel starts in a blizzard. Ka, Pamuk’s dreamy poet-cum-journalist protagonist, walks around the eastern city of Kars, on the Turkish-Armenian border, investigating a sudden wave of suicides among teenage girls, apparently because they are obliged to remove their veils at school. The political picture is as deliberately blurred as are the contours of the city in the snow: there are no clear cut answers. The army, supposed upholders of Kemalist democracy and Western ideals, puts down with brute force young people desperately searching for a non-Western form of identity. Why, moans Blue—a fundamentalist intellectual portrayed with as much sympathy as the diehard miniaturists who won’t adopt Frankish painting styles—can one no longer even find the traditional epic Sohrab and Rü__stem in Istanbul bookstores? (This epic, by the Iranian poet Firdusi, tells how the young Turk, Sohrab, sets out to find and is tragically killed by his Iranian father Rüstem. It is best known in Turkey through an illustrated copy of Firdusi’s Book of Kings now in the Topkapi Museum, offered as part of the Iranian peace offering to the Ottoman Sultan in 1576. Both story and manuscript furnish the story line for My Name is Red.) Blue provides his own answer to his question: “…because we’ve fallen under the spell of the West, we’ve forgotten our own stories. They’ve removed all the old stories from our children’s textbooks” (4). Blue asks Ka, who is on a brief home visit from Germany, if he could place an article about their cause in a German paper. The only way to reach the Turkish public, he admits ruefully, is via the Western press. Ka seems to agree. Which one would it be, Blue asks. Ka mentions the Frankfurter Rundschau.

I don’t know why I decided to check out their website. Like when reading Borges, I felt that irresistible urge to make sure. Did the paper really exist or had he just made it up? It was the name of Ka’s supposed contact at the paper, Hans Hansen, that made me suspicious. Not only does the reader know this is an invention—it is the name Pamuk gives the handsome blond sales assistant in a Frankfurt department store who sells Ka the padded coat he wears throughout the novel—but we understand Ka is also making up Hansen’s family as he goes along, just to get out of an awkward situation and make himself credible to Blue. Was Pamuk playing intertextual games? More checking, and more suspicions confirmed. The paper exists all right, but Hans Hansen is the blond-haired blue-eyed Germanic boy that Tonio Kröger, a boy of mixed parentage with a dark-haired Mediterranean mother, idolizes in Thomas Mann’s eponymous novella. And Ingeborg, the wife Ka invents for Hansen when Blue inquires about his family, is none other than the “real” Hansen’s girlfriend in Tonio Krö__ger—the next object of the young man’s adoration. In Snow, Ka too is moved to say that he could almost love the handsome sales assistant he now reinvents as Hansen. But Pamuk is not just having fun for fun’s sake. Having Tonio Kröger idolize the blond German was Thomas Mann’s way of confronting two worlds which failed to blend. Pamuk imports that confrontation into Ka’s world: the confrontation between fascination and rejection, between “envy and hate,” as one of the miniaturists says. This feeling is echoed in Pamuk’s own speech in Stockholm last December.

This is a roundabout, but necessary, way to talk about the second painting. Thanks to Pamuk’s untrustworthiness, or perhaps Ka’s untrustworthiness, on October 26, 2006, I checked out the large-as-life Deutsche Rundschau online. And what heading first caught my eye? “Keine Freiheit für türkische Schüler” (No Liberty for Turkish Schoolchildren). Right in the middle of my reading Snow, this was too good to be true. Had Ka been sending in articles after all? I read on: the Turkish Ministry of Education had suddenly ordered the removal of an illustration from a high school civics text book. This was not a case of pre-publication censorship. The book had long been in use: only the government had changed. The painting in question is as familiar to any educated French citizen as the painting of Mehmet II is in Turkey. Until the era of the euro, it was on French hundred-franc banknotes; it has graced French postage stamps; it is in every French school history book. ” Liberty guiding the People” by Eugène Delacroix commemorates the 1830 Paris revolution. It shows a barefooted, bare-breasted young woman grasping a bayonet in her left hand and, with the tattered tricolor in her right, beckoning the people forward over the bodies of the slain. She is the very symbol of France.

Poor girl. Those magnificent breasts were her downfall. Turkish teacher unions rushed to her aid, remarking that if their pupils needed protecting from nudity there should be no more outside visits to museums, cinemas or the seaside. The debate that Bellini’s realistic portrayal of the Sultan sparked off in Ottoman artistic circles continues today in the corridors of Turkey’s educational programmers.

At the end of My Name is Red, Pamuk provides a helpful political and historical chronology: starting with the Persian Empire, it covers the Ottoman Empire in detail, from Bellini’s visit with Mehmet II to the reign of art-loving Mehmet III in the 1590s, in which the novel is set. There is one later event: Queen Elizabeth I had given the Ottoman court the gift of a splendid mechanical clock, in which porcelain figures danced to the chimes. In 1603, Sultan Ahmet I succeeded to the throne at age thirteen. He died at age twenty-seven, but not before building the Blue Mosque. After a century in which the art of the West had influenced Ottoman painters, Ahmet I’s short and youthful reign ushered in a period of Islamic revival. Fearful that the clock, with its human representations, was contrary to the precepts of Allah, he rose from his bed one night, strode through his palace and smashed the figures to pieces with a mallet.

Such a chronology is missing in Snow. The events are contemporary and we are left to make our own connections with the similar battle that still wages between Kemalists and religious leaders, between ultranationalists and modernizers, between God and secularism, between Europe and the East, with its paradoxical stances on liberty of expression and lost identity. We shall never know if Blue plotted to return Sohrab and Rüstem to their rightful place in those textbooks, or if someone at the Ministry of Education slept as badly as Ahmet I and rose from his bed armed with scissors to excise Delacroix’s Liberty from all the school civics books in the land.

Yet, were Pamuk to change his mind and write a chronology for Snow, that is one snippet of news he could usefully place at the end. Ka, could you help out again and ask your friend Hans Hansen to email it on to Orhan?



1. At the Institut du Monde Arabe from 3 October 2006 to 18 February 2007. At the Metropolitan from March 27 to July 8 2007. The Bellini portrait is on loan from The National Gallery, London.
2. “Le Peintre et le sultan,” Connaissance des Arts, H.S. 300, pp.20-29, previously published in The Guardian.
3. Gentile Bellini, The Seated Scribe, At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

4. Orhan Pamuk, Snow, Faber and Faber, 2005, page 81. (For curious readers with the Knopf edition, it’s at the very end of Chapter 8.)

Jacqueline Karp is a poet and freelance journalist. (updated 6/2010)

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