Travelers from French scientific missions to Anatolia brought back a sober and non-exoticized vision of the Orient during the 19th century. Now, the Arkas Art Center in İzmir is providing a glimpse at how sojourners saw the later Ottoman Empire.
The sketch, daring in its mixed use of pencil, ink, watercolor and gouache on paper, is the work of Louis François Cassas, a French landscape painter and archaeologist. Cassas arrived in Turkey in 1784, first to Istanbul and then to the southern provinces of the Ottoman Empire. This was no easy task: La Poulette, the royal corvette that carried the team, was forced to stop at İzmir, the ancient Smyrna, where Cassas toured the city and its environs, including Ephesus. The result was an extensive portfolio of drawings that enabled the artist to publish a new edition of “Picturesque Journeys” dedicated to Smyrna, some of which are now part of the new exhibition in İzmir’s Arkas Art Center.
Cassas’ drawings were part of the many works that came out of the French “scientific missions” of the 19th century, subsidized by the French state or by the travelers themselves. They were carried out by archaeologists, sociologists, historians, painters and scientists.
“Anatolian Travels were executed for a better understanding of the East, as well as drawing a complete portrait of the Orient,” said Lucien Arkas, the chairman of Arkas Holding, at the opening of the exhibition. “These travels have left behind many documents that are both detailed and interesting. Ultimately, they played an important role in the perception of the East in the Western world.”
For Jean-Luc Measo, the curator of “Anatolian Travels,” the exhibition that brings together drawings, photos, sketches, paintings and writings, could be described, in one word, as anti-Orientalist.
“By focusing upon the results of scientific missions, this exhibition sets itself apart from an artificial Orientalism. We propose a glimpse of the sincere alterity that certain Western artists who were dreamers of the Orient eschewed in favor of esthetic or broader cultural issues… or simply demands of the buyer’s market,” he told the Hürriyet Daily News.
Indeed, the harem scenes and bathing beauties, the often-used-and-abused symbols of Orientalist paintings, have no place in this exhibition. What you have instead are striking photos of real landscape and real people – two Armenian women looking at the camera with defiance, a dinner of rich Armenian merchants in Diyarbakır or a scene of an outdoor barber. Add to this the sketches of archaeological monuments, from the Ducis Gate of Nicea (İznik) to Sinop’s port – many of which no longer exist.
According to Maeso, the exhibition is a witness to the heritage of Anatolia. “Think of the sea front of İzmir, which was burnt in the 20th century. But it is there, captured by the sketches,” he said, pointing at a lithography by Christophe Edmond Kellerman of the Turkish quarter in Smyrna, dated 1838, in the permanent collection of Municipal Library of Blanc, France.
Fleas, plague and bandits
The Anatolian travels were realized within the context of diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire, with an official document given to travelers by the local authority. The exposition displays a “bouyourdu” (command) of Esseid Muhammed Arif, which was given to Antoine-Marie Chenevard to facilitate his mission.
Bad weather, the plague, fleas and the bandits awaited the travelers. So they wore Oriental clothes and carried arms. “Arms are necessary when wearing Oriental costume, they are the surest gauge of respect when travelling in the orient,” wrote Leo de Laborde wrote in his book called “Introduction to Voyage in Asia Minor.” The portrait of Leo, only 18 at the beginning of the visit, and his father, Count Alexander de Laborde, in oriental clothes is part of the exhibition, both carrying daggers tucked in their belts.
Other travelers complained of the vast geography and “the exhaustion of the body,” as expressed by Jules Laurens, who captured the beauty of the Black Sea and the Southeast with his sketches. “We had to gallop past a million marvels, without having a chance to sketch even the vaguest silhouette.”
Going through the exhibition, the visitor wonders whether the curator had a similar experience as he painstakingly travelled all around France for several years to bring together the outputs of the 19th century scientific missions. “Some of the works are displayed outside their museums for the first time,” said Maeso. “This may well be the only time they will ever be displayed. They are so fragile.”
Displaying works from the Museum of Tours to National Library of Blanc, where most of the work of Labordes are kept, and from the Musée d’Orsay to the Louvre Museum, the exposition contains extensive information. But Maeso has managed to make it easy and enjoyable to the visitors by alternating the technical drawings with the picturesque landscapes of oil and gouache. The exhibition also contains the works of 19th-century painters who were based in Istanbul, such as Amadeo Preziosi and Antoine Ignace Melling.
The present exhibition, which can be seen until the end of December, is a follow-up to one in Arkas in 2013, “Smyrna in the 18th and 19th Centuries: A Western Perspective.” The first one offered a glance at the center’s home town, which was the first port for travels to the East. The second leg now focuses on Anatolia.
In his office at the top of the Arkas Art Center, which used to be the French Consulate-General in İzmir, with a perfect view of the bay, Maeso plans the third leg – possibly another three years of travel and discovery, not unlike those of the 19th-century scientific missions.
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