The Pera Museum has long been known for its excellent permanent collection of art dealing with the interaction between the Ottomans and the West. In addition to a permanent exhibit entitled Intersecting Worlds, featuring portraits of Western ambassadors in the Ottoman Empire (and Ottoman ambassadors in Europe), the museum also boasts a superb collection of Orientalist painting, consisting of Western artists’ fanciful depictions of scenes from lands then belonging to the Ottomans.
One name stands out among all the others: Osman Hamdi, commonly known by the title Osman Hamdi Bey. A veritable Renaissance man, Osman Hamdi was one of the leading archaeologists of his time (and the founder of Istanbul’s Archaeology Museum), an author and politician, and a painter of considerable talent. In depicting scenes from his own homeland, the Europhile/Francophile Osman Hamdi favored the Orientalist style of painting employed by Boulanger, with whom he studied in Paris. Osman Hamdi’s emblematic painting The Tortoise Trainer has been part of the Pera Museum’s permanent collection since the museum opened in 2005.
The present show features two paintings by Osman Hamdi from the University of Pennsylvania’s archives, which have never been exhibited in Turkey before. (Many of the pieces in Osman Hamdi Bey and the Americans were displayed at last year’s exhibit Archaeologists and Travelers in Ottoman Lands at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.) The show also focuses on two of Hamdi’s archaeological colleagues, the American photographer John Henry Haynes (fallen into obscurity today but best known in his time for his photographs of the Assos excavations), and the German archaeologist Hermannn Vollrath Hilprecht, who held a position at UPenn in the late 19th century, and who played a leading role in the excavation of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nippur.
Avoiding museum-exhibit overkill, this small but extremely well-chosen show (curated by Professors Renata Holod and Robert Ousterhout of the University of Pennsylvania) fills a single floor of the Pera Museum’s modestly-sized space with Osman Hamdi’s paintings, photographs of all three figures, photos taken at the sites of their archaeological digs, original copies of their correspondence, sample findings from the Nippur excavation (including an astounding series of miniature cuneiform tablets), and a wealth of information about the three men and their work.
As soon as you enter the first room of the exhibition, you are met with the sight of Osman Hamdi’s huge 1891 painting entitled At the Mosque Door, one of the two paintings from UPenn’s archives. The painting, discovered as recently as 2006, is ostensibly a picture of the entrance to the Muradiye Mosque in Bursa, although (as the exhibit panel explains) the low-relief kufic inscription high up on the mosque’s front wall is in fact taken from the Çoban Mustafa Paşa Camii in Gebze, where Osman Hamdi’s family lived. (The dome of that mosque can be seen in the background of the painting A View of Gebze, painted by Osman Hamdi ten years earlier and also on display in this exhibit.) The other previously unseen painting, hanging in the other room of the exhibit, is Osman Hamdi Bey’s 1903 work The Excavation at the Temple Court in Nippur. As Professors Holod and Ousterhout have explained, Osman Hamdi never actually visited Nippur, the painting being based on a photograph taken by Haynes. Hamdi Bey inserts Hilprecht – who is not in the photo – into the painting, standing out among all the native diggers and porters through his white uniform and pith helmet.
One leaves this exhibit with a sense of the great fluidity of identity that characterized these men – Hilprecht and Haynes in their seeming efforts to become “Orientals,” Osman Hamdi in his to become a Frenchman and a Westerner. A photograph of Haynes, with handlebar mustache, could be that of any 19th century American gentleman. Immediately to the right of this photo is another one in which the young American, wearing the costume of an Ottoman functionary, has become almost unrecognizable. A bronze bust of Osman Hamdi Bey – dressed only in a Western-style jacket, without his normal fez – makes him look for all the world like a chic turn-of-the-century Parisian. Hilprecht, the pith-helmet wearing symbol of German authority, also dresses like an Ottoman at times, and enjoys signing his name in cuneiform in his correspondence.
Running until the 8th of January, this exhibit is a must-see for anyone with an interest in Osman Hamdi’s art or Ottoman and Western archaeology.
Where: Pera Museum; Meşrutiyet Caddesi No. 141 Tepebaşı; P: (0212) 334 99 00
When: Until January 8
How much: 10 TL; 7 TL (groups of 10 or more); 5 TL (discount)