Ercan Gülen: Master of cut-and-paint
by Sibel DORSAN
Ankara artist Ercan Gülen is pioneer and practitioner of a striking yet perilous linocut technique. It is this which makes his works so complete and so unique. A true representative of the harmony of line and colour, he chooses many of his themes from Anatolian life.
I met Ercan Gülen for the first time at the “Artists of the Republic Exhibition” held within the framework of the 122nd anniversary celebrations of the Association of Fine Arts Academy Graduates. He gave me the catalogue of his exhibition to be opened soon. It was entitled “Linocut Printings” and the pictures it contained were extraordinaruly different and beautiful. I had previously encountered many samples of gravure, lithography and serigraphy, but I had no idea about the linocut printing technique. After a brief telephone conversation and a warm invitation, I suddenly found myself sitting among the finely-detailed linocut prints in the living room of his at his “Workshop-Home” on Hoþdere Caddesi in Ankara.
A special technique
I listened to the artist as he explained the single-block, multi-coloured relief printing technique which he pioneered. According to Gülen, the linocut printing method parallels the woodblock printing technique. The first woodblock prints may date back as far as 300BC, but the earliest actually recorded comes from ninth-century China. The technique arrived in Europe at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Linoleum, which was used as floor covering in the 1860s, became an artistic material for the first time when the Viennese artist Franz Cisek had his students produce works with it.
Although famous artists in the West, such as Albrecht Dürer, Pablo Picasso, Vassily Kandinsky, Edward Wunch, Franz Mark Feininger were fascinated by relief printing and produced many works in the genre, Turkish artists have not shown much interest in this method. Only a few have attempted linocut relief paintings, and these have generally been of an experimental nature, and remained few in number. Ercan Gülen explains the method as follows:
“Relief prints are made by applying paint to the upper parts of the block and then printing it on the relief. It is the direct opposite of the gravure method, which consists of cavity printing. In the gravure technique, the deeper parts of the block are filled with paint and passed onto the paper by pressing. Linocut printing is a technique in which more surface area is printed. Separate blocks can be prepared for each colour, or many colours can be printed in one block. The artist initially plans the composition in his mind. Later, using the linocut, the surface of the block is divided into linear forms and the object becomes clear. At each phase, different parts of the block are carved away - in other words, it is a reduction method. It is a manner of working during which there is no going back: every detail such as colour, design, printing number has to be considered in advance, and right from the start it is necessary to know exactly how the picture will look when completed.”
After painting the surface of the block with a roller, Ercan Gülen spoons up the paper onto the block using wooden spoons - a traditional method dating back to the workshop artisans. He makes his original “single-block, multicoloured” prints without using any sort of press.
A leaf from Picasso’s book
During the 1960s and 1970s, Gülen concentrated on single-colour (black and white) relief prints. All his relief prints from that period – like his paintings – were “non-figurative”. It was in 1987 that he discovered the “single block-multicoloured” method from Picasso’s linocut printing book. He began to make figurative coloured prints instead of non-figurative black and white ones. He could not stop making linocut printings. At first he used many colours, then he reduced the number of colours and discovered the strong narrative power of designs in 3-4 colours.
The “single block-multicoloured” printing method requires intelligence and creativity. It is rather like playing chess, with a strategic concept based on planning the following moves in advance. Also a keen chess player, Gülen perhaps experiences similar excitement when making his relief prints.
All Gülen’s multicoloured printings are figurative. His recent canvases, the themes of which are in line with the relief printings, are “figurative abstract”. In the prints, he generally uses earthen colours and black, beginning with the lighter shades and progressing towards the darker ones. His “The Sad Nude” (1989) is surely one of the most beautiful examples of Turkish relief printing.
“I would like those, who look at my paintings, to place me in one location in the geography of the world,” the artist explains. In line with this philosophy, his themes since 1990 have been taken primarily from Anatolia. Some of his works feature Kýrkpýnar wrestlers, mosques, caravanserais, cockfights and so on.
The unity between Gülen’s prints and his paintings is striking. The artist can apply the themes of his paintings just as easily with the linocut knife as he can with the brush. His use of single, undistinguished lines points to a strong design infrastructure. One cannot help noticing the deformations and cubic approaches in the figures, whether in painting or in print. Subject matter is highly varied: The use of staining offsets the consecutive movements of the horizontal, vertical and circular lines. Subject matter is extremely diverse: nudes, chess players, birds and above all ships – among them the nostalgic Bosphorus steamships of Istanbul, where he spent his childhood and teenage years.
Success, Gülen says, depends on the amount of effort he puts into his work. Unsurprisingly, he sees himself as an innovative artist. He enjoys a sense of freedom, since he does not imitate anybody, but is only himself. He never repeats the same design.
Artist in action
Gülen has had an active life in Turkey and the United States, not only producing art but also teaching it, writing about it and organising artistic events. He was born in Istanbul in 1932, and graduated from the higher painting department of the State Fine Arts Academy in the same city in 1960. He was trained in the workshops of Halil Dikmen, Sabri Berkel and Nurullah Berk. Between 1961 and 1968, he worked for an American company in Ankara. While dreaming of Paris, he found himself in New York. From 1968 to 1976 he worked in the United States. Thanks to his graphic work, the building of the Fort Meade High School in Baltimore was presented with the “Craftsmanship Award” for 1974.
Gülen taught art at many colleges in the US. “While in America, I worked at a college for black students. Since white teachers would not work there, I accepted the job. One day, I was sitting at my desk at break-time writing something. The students were all around me and I felt one of the girls trying to touch my hand while I wasn’t looking. My initial reaction was to withdraw my hand, but I decided not to. The girl caressed my hand. I realised that this must have been the first time that she had touched the hand of a white person. I felt deeply sad and ashamed...”
In 1976, Gülen returned to Turkey. From 1978 to 1991, he gave design and “Art Analysis” lessons at the Fine Arts Faculty of Bilkent University. From 1992 to 1996 he served as president of the United Painters and Sculptors Association and published the periodical Sanat Gazetesi. He wrote articles about the plastic arts and undertook translation work on the subject. Two of the seven stories which he had written in the 1960s were published. Gülen took group exhibitions of Turkish painters to Armenia in 1997 and Kazakhstan in 1998. He himself participated in a group exhibition in Kishinev, Moldova, in 1999. In February 2000, he organised a joint exhibition by 20 Turkish and 20 Greek painters in Ankara and Athens. Gülen has staged 26 personal exhibitions to date and participated in a large number of joint exhibitions. More information can be found on his website: www.ercangulen.com .
(DIPLOMAT - August 2005 - Ankara)