“Where there is true art and genuine virtuosity, the artist can paint an incomparable masterpiece without leaving even a trace of his identity.” This famous quote by the master illuminator in Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’ is a great introduction to the Ottoman art of miniature painting. Unlike the modern and contemporary concept of the artist as a creative genius with extraordinary skills or intellect, the miniaturist masters of the past opted not to sign their work due to their respect for the Creator.
In an Islamic culture that forbids the realistic depiction of people, objects and nature, miniature paintings took on the role of a visual archive. Daily life at the Sultan’s court, military barracks or the market place were the subjects of these brightly-coloured and incredibly detailed paintings without perspective. Influenced by works of Persian miniatures such as the famous Shahname (The Book of Kings), the lives of Sultans and the stories of major battles were also depicted on the pages of books, which were the main medium for miniature painting. The elaborate genre developed in the 15th century, reached its golden age in the 18th century and later ebbed away as Western styles of painting gained prominence all around the world, including the Ottoman Empire.
Today there are still miniature painters as well as contemporary artists who use this traditional art form in different media. Elif Uras is a Istanbul-born, New York-based painter whose works focus on gender and class issues in contemporary Turkish society. In her relatively large-format works, Uras incorporates the characteristics of classical miniature painting, with bright colours, bold lines, illumination and a conscious disregard of perspective. She also makes sculptures using the methods with which traditional Iznik tiles have been made for centuries, and adorns them with imagery associated with the female body.
Inci Eviner includes elements from miniature painting in her politically-charged multimedia installations. In her seminal ‘Harem’ video (2009), Eviner casts a darker, a more critical look on Orientalist harem paintings by putting troublemakers in them instead of the typically tame, curvaceous beauties glorified by the typical Western male's gaze.
Another miniature-influenced artist in the contemporary art scene, Gazi Sansoy uses oil painting to create a panorama of Turkey, with imagery ranging from topless sunbathers, victorious Ottoman soldiers, protesters and whirling dervishes.