Fikret Mualla: Painting(s) to live
One of the leading Turkish artists of his day, Fikret Mualla spent much of his life in Paris. His paintings depict the everyday life of the French capital, and he signed them “Moualla”. His Turkish roots can nevertheless be detected in his works for the New York exhibition, his writings and his intense, tapestry-like elaboration. Diplomat portrays the troubled career and cheerful, lively work of an artist for whom painting was not just an occupation, but a therapy, a need, a way of living.
Minarets and mosques…Istanbul, a city of mosques. The sun sets in the evening and the sky is painted indigo. The silhouettes of the minarets are dark blue.
A sky-blue sea with white ships. Waterside residences, villas with red and white roofs on both sides of the Straits. Their shutters green. Among them, old wooden houses, grey-blue from the rain.
Old wooden Turkish houses, windows barred, dim and gloomy in the darkness of the night. A door opens. A young woman comes out, dressed in accordance with the fashions of the day. Is it a Turkish girl? Yes…dressed just like a European girl of the same age. Yet she has the stance of one who has long been deprived of freedom. The next generation will be different.
Those who seek romanticism in today’s Turkey will be disappointed. Romanticism now belongs to the past. The Turkish policy is to turn its back on Romanticism and tradition. “I want my nation, of which I am proud, to turn its back on the east and to look towards Western Europe,” says Atatürk. “Many will misconstrue this wish and implement it in the wrong way. For this reason, today’s generation will have to fight for tomorrow’s generation, so that the next generation can be sound and fit. All I desire is this.”
Fikret MUALLA 1928
The author of these words is one of the first generation artists of the Republic, a leading Turkish painter who made his name abroad, most notably in the tough artistic world of Paris. His paintings, which combine elements of expressionism and fauvism, won the acclaim of the art world with their lyricism and sincerity. The artist in question is Fikret Mualla.
Mualla began his education at the French school of Saint-Joseph in Istanbul and went on to attend the famous Galatasaray Lycée. Later, he was to spend nearly 30 years of his life in Paris, where he came to sign his paintings “Moualla”. But his first move was to Germany, where his family sent him to train as an engineer. Quickly becoming conscious of his artistic talents, he was to study first poster art and clothes design at the Munich Fine Arts Academy, and then painting at the Berlin Fine Arts Academy. This gave him a solid grounding in design, and he was to produce a series of successful illustrations, designs and engravings, some of which appeared in the most popular German magazines.
Life was far from easy, however. Economic conditions in the post-war Germany of the 1920s left much to be desired. Besides poverty, Mualla suffered from childhood traumas including an incident which damaged his foot, the death of his mother and the immediate re-marriage of his father. The disturbed young man had to be treated for alcoholism –a scourge which he would never fully escape. He moved briefly to Paris but then returned to Turkey, and worked as an art teacher in Ayvalżk. He soon gravitated back to Istanbul, where he drew costumes for the musicals Lüküs Hayat, Deli-Dolu and Saz-Caz , all of which were staged at the Tepebažż Theatre. He also drew patterns for the magazine Yeni Adam.
In 1939, Mualla prepared 30 paintings for the Turkish pavilion at the International New York Fair. He undertook this commission at the request and with the financial support of his friend Abidin Dino, a fellow Turkish painter well placed to appreciate the artistic value and quality of his work. The paintings had Istanbul themes such as the Bosphorus, the Hagia Sophia, the Suleymaniye and Rumeli Hisaż.
The trials of Paris
Mualla decided to move to Paris, the capital of the art of painting. In 1939, with the money inherited after the death of his father, he settled in the Alesia district. His timing could hardly have been worse. Before long, he had spent all he had and run up substantial debts. World War II was under way and Paris was under German occupation. No one wanted to buy paintings, and all the other foreigners working or studying in France were leaving for home. Lonely and impoverished, Mualla turned to drink again.
Painting became not so much an occupation as a way of life. Only while painting could Mualla attain peace of mind. Even during his repeated courses of treatment for addiction at St. Anne’s Hospital, he never gave up painting. Drawing was therapy, and it was through painting that he expressed his feelings, anxiety, fear or pain. His powerful graphics were complemented by an incredible command of composition and colour. His blues, reds and yellows are typical.
Mualla dreamed only of a simple happiness, and the themes of fun and loneliness are readily recognised in his works. Like his contemporary Toulouse-Lautrec, he chose simple, naļve themes from the daily life of the city around him: strollers around Montparnasse and St. Germaine; bistrots, restaurants and cafes; licentious women and card-playing men, the circus and so on. It is a social and human approach, not without a hint of caricature, but always warm and sensitive.
Fame and exploitation
Moualla – as he was now known - gave colour and form to the realities of life with the greatest of sincerity. His favoured medium was gouache, which allowed him to work more quickly and freely. However, he was no less a master of oils and watercolour. He worked very intensively, and never tired of embellishing his scenes like a mosaic or a carpet, perhaps under the historic influence of Turkish miniature art.
Those who came into contact with the artist were not slow to comprehend the value of his paintings, which they competed with one another to buy. Although aware of his talent and productivity, he was exploited by everybody around him. As the war years receded, his paintings came to fetch high prices, but little of the revenue found its way into his pocket.
In one telling incident at the café La Palette, much-frequented by artists, Moualla encountered Pablo Picasso. The latter offered to work with him on condition that he renounced alcohol. Moualla refused. Picasso nevertheless purchased one of Moualla’s paintings and gave him one of his own as gift. Soon afterwards, the latter painting became the property of an opportunistic barman, who accepted it in return for a week of free food and drink.
Moualla held exhibitions under the aegis of Dina Vierny in 1954 and 1955. Later, he was to be sponsored by the industrialist Lhermine, who purchased as many as 500 of his works. In 1957 and 1958, he staged two highly successful exhibitions at noted galleries, earning him high praise from Cocteau, which enhanced his reputation further.
But years of poverty and alcoholism were taking their toll. In 1962, Moualla suffered a stroke which left his left side paralysed. He was cared for by Madame Angles and her husband, but his relations with them deteriorated after they too began to exploit him. He died in 1967.
He had never followed contemporary fashion but had always painted from the heart. He had depicted what he wanted to depict. He had kept his own problems to himself and filled his canvases with cheerful people and places. He had dreamed up a colourful world, and the images he left behind him are the images of his desires – of the things which made him happy.
A valuable overcoat
Fikret Mualla’s unusual personality was reflected in the way he dressed. He possessed a long overcoat made by Peltekis, a well-known tailor who had been described by Abidin Dino as the “Leonardo of the fashion world”. Together with the overcoat he would wear a beret perched at an angle on his head, a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and shoes resembling sandals. Thus attired, he struck an impressive if incongruous figure.
It is in this garb that Mualla enters a famous restaurant one day and orders a meal in both German and French. He selects delicacies like caviar and a bottle of vintage wine. He goes on to order vodka. It does not occur for one moment to the waiters waiting on his every beck and call that the curiously-attired stranger with his refined tastes might have any financial difficulties. However, when the time comes to pay the bill, Mualla declares that he has no money whatsoever.
The owner of the restaurant is duly informed. “If you don’t even have enough money to buy a sandwich, why did you come to this expensive restaurant and order such a fine meal?” the angry proprietor demands. “That’s simple enough.” replied Mualla, “Because I haven’t eaten anything for two days.” Unappeased, the owner of the restaurant orders the waiters to seize Mualla’s overcoat. But this they are unable to do, since the artist turns out to be wearing nothing underneath!
“Fikret Moualla” by Türkkaya ATAÖV – a DOST publication - 1992