Nuri Abaç: A preference for comedy

 

by Sibel DORSAN

 

 

Many different inflences and experiments lie concealed in the peculiar imagery of Nuri Abaç so original and yet so familiar, so traditional and yet so modern, so universal  and yet so Turkish, so modest and yet so uplifting. It all began in a theatre in the South....

 

 

Bosphorus boats with names on the bows, ferries headed for the islands, car-ferries, mermaids, sea horses…

 

Wacky cars, winged zeppelins, aeroplanes, locomotives…

 

Extraordinarily beautiful fish restaurants, nightclubs, kebab shops, marketplaces, gardens,

parks - and the people who obviously enjoy living within these spaces…

 

Such are the fantastic romans illustrés which confront you as artist Nuri Abaç’s most characteristic images fall into sequence. It is a bold and cheerful universe, full of life and gusto. Abaç spins his tales in a language of visual motifs pieced together in the 1970s with the aid of traditional inspirations – the miniature painting, the decorative arts and the shadow theatre characters Karagöz and Hacivat. Indeed, many of the artist’s dramatis personae bear a striking yet fictional resemblance to this last duo. But if the stage arrangements are traditional in colour and form, the plot involves all sections of a rapidly urbanising society, observed from a personal viewpoint, and sketched with the irony of the caricaturist.

 

Act One: Mersin

 

Theatrical idiom is apposite for describing Abaç’s works. His father. Celal Bey, was an actor of Istanbul’s Darülbedayi or City Theatre, where he rubbed shoulders with Muhsin Ertuğrul, perhaps the most famous name in the history of the Turkish stage. When Celal Bey moved to Mersin with his family, with a view to setting up a new theatre, the nine year-old Nuri rolled up his sleeves to brighten the sets. And so began a 70-year affinity with paint.

 

 “Painting is to be found in a person’s genes; it does not develop later,” Abaç believes. “We bring it with us when we are born, and improve it in the course of time.”  If he is right, this may explain why he turned an early hand to decoration and drawing rather than to acting. An early lesson came when the governor of Mersin, Tevfik Sırrı Gür, invited artist Nurettin Güven to paint pictures for some of the city’s buildings. While assisting Güven, Abaç realised that “Painting cannot exist – will go nowhere - without technique.”

 

Cartoon-time

 

“If I were a theatre actor, I would prefer comedy”, declares Abaç. Nevertheless, it was a long time before he achieved the light-hearted style which has been his trade mark for the past thirty years.

 

The cartoonist in Abaç came to the fore during his high school years, when he drew many cartoons for the magazine Akbaba (Vulture). He had returned to Istanbul, and was now able to make money from cartoons. But all of a sudden he realised how similar his drawings are to those of the best-known cartoonist of the day, Ramiz Gökçe. In response, he decided to give up drawing cartoons and began to paint again.

 

Drifting between styles

 

Abaç’s enthusiasm for painting was fuelled by a gift from Kemal Zeren, a relative and a teacher at the Fine Arts Academy, who left him all his paints, brushes and easels. For a year he attended the Leopold Levy Workshop of the Painting Department of the Academy as an occasional student. Then, at the insistence of his family, he switched to the Architecture Department, from which he graduated in 1950.

 

Of his initial, impressionist paintings, he can today locate only two: one which he entrusted to his aunt, and another which he still keeps at home. Another 30 or 40 paintings he simply gave away to his friends. Then came the abstract phase. He still loves abstract work, but adds that the field of abstract compositions is so vast, it would take more than a life-time to appreciate them all. As a result, one has to be selective. From the mid-1950s onwards, Abaç drifted in the direction of surrealism. In 1960, he moved to Ankara. And at a time when non-figurative painting was dominant, he became a rare protagonist of figurative expression.

 

Arriving in Ankara

 

During those early years in Ankara, Abaç developed a new of his own, informed by the belief that the path to the universal passes through the national and the local. His works of this period reflect the influence of Anatolian mythology, Hittite reliefs and Seljuk and Ottoman miniatures. In these canvases, which the artist now describes as “dark compositions”, one is struck by the emphasis placed on the instinct to voice feelings and, especially, fears – on the drive to convert terrors into screams.

 

Those paintings are coveted items today but were little in demand at the time. This Abaç opts to attribute to the relative scarcity of artistic activity even in Turkey’s larger cities at the time. All that was to change from the 1970s onwards. “The number of galleries has increased and interest in painting has increased enormously,” Abaç notes, “Just think, during the 1960s, there was no gallery in Ankara, and I had to open my exhibition at the lobby of a hotel in Sıhhiye.”

 

Before long the “dark” years would be over, and the artist would merge all his influences and experiences into the bright compositions for which he is justifiably popular today

 

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Mersin to Monaco

 

Since opening his first exhibition at the Halkevi (People’s House) in Mersin in 1949, Nuri Abaç has held more than 50 personal exhibitions in Turkey. His works were included in the exhibitions of the State Painting and Sculpture Museum from 1958 to 1991, and in all of the exhibitions of the United Painters and Sculptors Association, which was established in 1969, with Abaç as a founder member. In addition to exhibitions organised in other countries by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, he has been represented in over 120 exhibitions organized by various institutions and private galleries. His paintings have been displayed twice at both the Venice and Monaco Biennials. In 1988 he received his “Fifty-Year Art Award”. Today, he continues his efforts to bring his extraordinary fairy tales to life.

 

 

 

(DIPLOMAT  -  June 2005  -  Ankara)