The missing pieces of a public art history

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Pictured above: Public works by Bedri Rahmi and Eren Eyüboğlu, at Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu Street in Kadıköy

By Matt Hanson

Matt Hanson explores the history and cultural value of Istanbul’s apartment mosaics.

In the affluent neighborhoods of Kadıköy, one of Istanbul’s municipalities on the Marmara Sea, there are remnants of an endangered, public free expression of Anatolian multiculturalism, visible in the mosaics that decorate the exterior walls and lobby foyers of certain apartments. The local artists who made these mosaics promulgated a midcentury cultural movement that sought to convey the aesthetics of regional pluralism, from the roots of ancient civilizations in Asia Minor to the extremities of its postmodern adaptations within the clash, or integration of the secular and religious, open and closed, dominant and minority societies in Turkey. 

Public works by Bedri Rahmi and Eren Eyüboğlu, at Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu Street in Kadıköy

Their makers included Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, also a poet who earned international prestige before making a massive mosaic mural for the 1958 Brussels World Fair, the first expo of its kind after the Second World War. Together with his wife, Eren, the Eyüboğlus beautified the architectural geneses of their creative contemporaries, towards an urban style inflected with the visual vocabularies of their multilingual, panoramically diverse country that encompassed untold cultural communities across the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia. Their ancient and neolithic ruins are part of humanity’s shared, universal heritage. 

The legacy of Eyüboğlu enjoys singular renown in the district of Kadıköy, where a street is named after him. Between newfangled condominiums, there remains a relic of the past, a stone edifice emblazoned with the sculptural, panel mosaic art of Eren and Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, their names inscribed in metal plaques fixed above semi-abstract, marine, mosaic stone reliefs. With swirls of watery wisps, arboreal cubism and archaic vegetal and avian patterns, the work of Eyüboğlu speaks to the immediate ecology, the constancy of its muse down the ages. And although general interest in their art history, and the ideas that inspired them have all but dulled from the popular imagination, there remain intrepid conservators, experts and amateurs alike.

Public works by Bedri Rahmi and Eren Eyüboğlu, at Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu Street in Kadıköy

In her scholarship on the subject, independent curator Duygu Demir has written about the idea of the mosaic mural as Turkey’s fraught contribution to the postwar art world and its influence in redefining modern national identities. As a PhD candidate in MIT’s Architecture Department, Demir is sought after in Istanbul’s culture sector for her unique approach to Turkish art history. Finding new ways to appreciate the hidden, and vanishing world of apartment mosaics in the concrete jungle of Istanbul’s construction boom is one of her many projects. In an essay for Thresholds, the annual peer-reviewed journal produced by the MIT Department of Architecture, Demir wrote about Turkish mosaics: “Are these other monuments — which are lost forever or have been left to degrade — and their histories only to serve as monuments to fragmentation?” 

The memory and concepts of these public mosaics are forwarded by freethinking enthusiasts. One is the Turkish architectural designer Serkan Ennaç, who runs the Instagram account “Turkiye Mimarisi” (Turkish for “Turkish architecture”). With over one hundred thousand followers, his posts spotlight the unsung artworks that hang – often on a thread or a shoestring – from the largely neglected walls of many historic apartments in Istanbul. “Usually the architects of those buildings commissioned these works, and rarely the building owners too. Their commissioning was linked to Istanbul’s economic development of residential and public architecture. That was a trend, or a design wave in those days,” Ennaç told Mosaic & Glass

“The benefit of preserving these mosaics is just giving more value to the ‘cultural mosaic’ of Istanbul.”

“Unfortunately, just for a small group of people these mosaics are still precious. So I wouldn’t say that these mosaics increased the real estate values,” Ennaç continued. “A big amount of mosaics are damaged or destroyed instead of preserved. The preserved ones are usually on buildings with owners that are highly educated or wealthy. The public building mosaics are usually preserved by the municipality. The benefit of preserving these mosaics is just giving more value to the ‘cultural mosaic’ of Istanbul.” 

Public works by Bedri Rahmi and Eren Eyüboğlu, at Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu Street in Kadıköy

One of the more immaculately preserved of these modernist mosaics is in the entranceway of the “Marmara” building — all Istanbul apartments are named — overlooking the propertied, seaside district of Moda. Visible behind the polished glass of its elegant, well-secured doors, the work by the late artist Ercüment Kalmık spreads out to edge of the exterior facade, where the faded purples and cerulean blues of its little square tiles are reflected in the curious eyes of many a passerby. The art historian Ahu Antmen resides there. As a respected author, and public intellectual, Antmen has been known to invite colleagues and urban explorers to gaze at Kalmık’s fine work up close, beyond the private, transparent wall. 

Kalmık, like the Eyüboğlus, was best known as a painter whose portraits and landscapes conjured the post-impressionist school of 20th century Turkish modernism. But in his mosaics, Kalmık explored Hittite motifs, and other visual themes that would ally him to the movement that Demir identified as “Blue Anatolianism”. His piece, greeting guests and residents of the Marmara apartment, is one of his more famous works, along with a related mosaic panel amid high-rises in Beşiktaş, another waterfront municipality on the other side of the Bosphorus. And not coincidentally, both feature a multicolored, cubist deer under a lofty wheel hovering above an antler-like helm. As a close friend of Nâzım Hikmet, Kalmık remains in good company, as Hikmet’s poems are engraved in the nearby seafront promenade, hinting at the evergreen, egalitarian ideology they shared, despite the ravages of 21st century cultural amnesia. 

“Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu was the first [modern] artist [in Turkey] to create mosaics for buildings. His first piece was actually demolished,” Demir told Mosaic & Glass. “In the 1930s, they were restoring the mosaics at Hagia Sophia. Eyüboğlu was very interested in this process. He made these mosaics in the 50s and 60s. He was very well informed about Blue Anatolianism by then. We take them for granted now, but the mosaics at Hagia Sophia were covered in plaster for a very long time. I think that’s where he gets his idea to work with mosaics. His wife was Jewish, and he was trying to find a vocabulary that appeals to all three religions. Today, a lot of these mosaics are covered under commercial or political advertisements.” 

All photos by Matt Hanson