Smyrna Revisited

Philip Mansel on “Smyrna in the 18th and 19th Centuries: a Western Perspective” at the Fondation Arkas, Izmir (until 29 December)

Ovide Curtovich , Smyrniot woman, 1910

Pictures can be more valuable as historical records than creative expressions - especially if they depict places, or people, which have since become unrecognisable. The impressionists’ Paris has changed relatively little. Istanbul and Izmir, however, have been transformed since they were painted by Orientalists. At the Arkas Art Center, Izmir, “Smyrna in the 18th and 19th Centuries: a Western Perspective” is the first major historical exhibition held on Smyrna (until 29 December). Izmir, a port on the Aegean coast of Turkey, which Norman Douglas called “the most enjoyable place on earth”; and Gaston Deschamps “the most beautiful and the most coveted of the ports of the Levant”.

From the arrival of foreign merchants and consuls in the early seventeenth century, Izmir, while remaining part of the Ottoman empire, became an Aegean tiger, the centre of the world trade in figs, raisins and carpets. It attracted a mixed population of 200,000 Greeks, Jews and Levantines as well as Turks. The Austrian consul Charles de Scherzer wrote:”Smyrna illuminates like a beacon all the other provinces of the Ottoman Empire”. It was also a centre of the trade in antiquities– as the collections of the British Museum and the Louvre testify.

Izmir is, however, a reminder that even the richest cities are vulnerable to states and armies. After the re-entry of the victorious Turkish army at the end of the Turko-Greek war in September 1922, a fire destroyed most of the Greek and Armenian quarters. Their inhabitants were killed, deported or fled. Only a few of the magnificent Neo-Classical buildings which once lined the waterfront survived. They included the French consulate, now the headquarters of the Fondation Arkas, where this exhibition was held.

The exhibition was skilfully curated by Jean Luc Maeso and Mujde Unustasi. Many of the paintings, prints, photographs, maps, share certificates and other documents come from the dazzling collections of books and pictures of Lucien Arkas, the local shipping magnate whose foundation sponsored and organised the exhibition; others came from the British Museum and the Louvre. The excellent catalogue includes authoritative essays on travellers, the economy, social life and earthquakes. Artists who visited Izmir, whose works were shown in this exhibition, included David Wilkie, Charles Gleyre, and Carl Haag. The outstanding local artist was Ovide Curtovich (1855-1930), a Smyrniot of Dalmatian origin educated in Vienna. Two of his portraits of Turkish women, smiling at the painter in extravagant local dress, were exhibited. His picture of the burning city, more memorable than any photograph, is now in the Benaki Museum in Athens. Many photographs by a Frenchman, Alphonse Rubellin, showed daily life in the 1880s: not only bashi-buzuks (local soldiers) in elaborate costumes, but also warehouses, workers resting on the waterfront, Turkish women sorting figs under the gaze of European managers.

Izmir slowly revived into the prosperous port of today, where Islam and Turkishness combine with a Mediterranean climate and Balkan immigrants to produce – so far – a freer, less pious atmosphere than in other cities in Turkey. The Turkish prime minister calls it, with dislike, “infidel Izmir”. The few thousand remaining Levantines are intermarried with Turks, but many still speak French at home.

The Fondation Arkas is helping to transform Izmir’s memory of itself, by reminding the city of its global past. This is the fourth exhibition it has put on, after “Soldier Painters” (2013), “This Side of the Aegean, from a Westerner’s Brush” (2012) and “Post-Impressionism in the Arkas Collection” (2011). The last showed works by Derain, van Dongen and Henri Martin among others. The first two highlighted forceful, realistic works by famous Turkish painters of the 19th and 20th centuries such as Huseyin Zekai;, Sami Yetik, and the last Ottoman Caliph, Abdulmecid, (reigned 1922-4), an accomplished painter, whose works command high prices today.

Next year Izmir will be focus of another exhibition, of drawings in the British Museum by William Pars, the artist sent out by the Society of Dilettanti in 1764 to record the antiquities of Ionia: it will travel to Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. There are also plans for another exhibition of pictures and documents on another vulnerable Levantine port. “Regards sur Beyrouth 1800-1960” will open at the restored Musée Nicolas Sursock in Beirut in 2014 – if the political situation permits.

See also for pictures, photographs and memories of Smyrna

Published Wed, 06 Nov 2013 16:07:00 GMT

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