Nuri İyem

A painter known for his portraits of women, each one of which tells a unique story, Nuri İyem was one of the extraordinary personalities of Turkish painting.

Like all painters who know that the image is an illusion framed in the mind yet intended to be taken as real, Nuri İyem dedicated his existence to honing his sharp observational skills in tandem with a powerful imagination. In pursuit of an image that attempts to project itself into the future, he recorded his own time with the precision of a seismograph, purifying his visual world of all superfluity in the belief that painting, like a holy icon, has an inherent symbolic sufficiency. Unadulterated realism, a struggle against any authority that tends toward oppression, and the desire at all costs to hoist himself up by his own bootstraps formed the backbone of his art. By virtue of the way he integrated his way of life so completely with his art, İyem is one of the extraordinary personalities of Turkish painting, and it would not be far off the mark to claim that in Turkey the type of the rugged individualist painter who determines his own fate was born with him.


Nuri İyem was born in Istanbul in 1915. In 1918, together with his mother and his older sister, he moved to Cizre to be with his father. Then, in 1922, he lost the sister who, in his own words, was closer to him than either mother or father. Years later he would rediscover in his paintings that face, which had greeted him every time he opened his eyes during the intermittent fevers he suffered while ill with tropical malaria in Cizre. These faces, which would become synonymous with the artist’s name, represent the story of a loss and rediscovery. In 1933 Nuri İyem made the acquaintance of the Academy of Fine Arts, which would loom over him like a black tower all his life. He completed his first year of study in the atelier of Nazmi Ziya, taking courses in the theory of art from his close friend Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar in subsequent years. In 1940 he returned to this school, from which he had graduated first in his class in 1937, to study in the department of advanced painting opened under the direction of Leopold Levy. But by now he had become a man in body and stature and a painter in his outlook on art. Within a year he took his place, together with a group of friends who espoused the concept of social realist art, among the founders of the ‘New Group’ (Yeniler Grubu). This group, which included figures such as Avni Arbaş, Agop Arad, Turgut Atalay, Haşmet Akal, Kemal Sönmezler, Selim Turan, Fethi Karakaş, Ferruh Başağa and Mümtaz Yener, proclaimed itself to the art-loving public in an exhibition entitled ‘Harbor’ (Liman); a fisherman presided over the opening in the salons of the Government Printing Office at Beyoğlu. Then, in 1944, İyem chalked up another success that would engrave his name in the annals of the academy forever. Taking first in a competition sponsored by the Department of Advanced Painting with a work entitled ‘The Blacksmith’ (Nalbant), he graduated from the Academy for a second time, again first in his class. In 1946, together with Fethi Karakaş and Ferruh Başağa, he set up a painting atelier in a garret of the S. Önay Apartment building in Asmalımescit Street. The students who took lessons here would eventually form a group known as ‘The Garret Painters’.


The late 1940s were for İyem years when his social realism evolved into a concept of abstract art. This transformation, which is hotly debated among art historians even today, is characterized as a left-wing artist’s departure from the political scene of the time and his orientation instead towards a world closed in upon itself. İyem himself cites two reasons for the transformation in a number of interviews: first of all, his total opposition to the concept of art espoused by the academy, which was the sole authority of the period, in other words, his taking up a position that was ahead of the retrogressive concept of representational painting propounded by the academy, which regarded abstract art as ‘progressive’; and, second, his belief that the art of painting is intrinsically not formal but content-based. According to İyem, what is important in painting is the existence of a content and an essence that give life to the work. These paintings of his, which grew out of a geometric concept of composition in which the pigment as substance is always in the forefront, were innovative and experimental by comparison with the concept of abstract art of the period. As for İyem’s monochromatic paintings, painted in the 1960s in particular and emphasizing the existence of a single color, to my mind they take him, in a natural development, to the most extreme form of abstraction. I remember, for example, a painting of İyem’s done entirely in black, in which one can discern traces of a profound darkness and the loss of the individual.


In the 1960s Nuri İyem returned once again to the representational power of painting, this time with the portraits of women that would become his trademark. These women’s faces, which Tanpınar described as ‘tight as a sculpture, elegant as moonlight, and stark as old frescoes and icons permeated with the atmosphere of times past’, were, if one looks closely, also laden with traces of the artist’s own political world. They were the product of a period when migration from the rural areas to the cities was accelerating in Turkey and the social rights of the individual militated against women. Ancient, reserved, bashful, melancholic and beautiful, these faces represent the distillation of İyem’s art in icon-like symbols that transcend both time and the phantom image of his dead sister’s face. Painted in the same period, the ‘migration’ paintings as well, in which the artist approached the reality of Anatolia from a nationalistic point of view, symbolize working women who eke out a living from the earth. To my mind, these portraits constitute Nuri İyem’s quintessential works, although scant attention has been paid to them up to now. İyem who, with his keen powers of observation, could apprehend the essential in people of very divergent social strata, from Aliye Berger and Rıfat Ilgaz to Nasip İyem and Erdoğan Saydam, evokes the spiritual states of those who sat as his models, working this content into his own concept of form and color. His subject’s inner world creates an atmosphere that pervades every square inch of the canvas. What İyem is after is not a likeness but that which lies hidden in a face.
All of which goes to show that Nuri İyem’s artistic career, which spanned almost seventy years, was built upon a number of different themes, which at the same time represent extensions of his world view. As he himself said, it was not form but the content that gives shape to that form that sparked his interest and induced him to bring out the theme of whatever specific content he chose to depict. Like all artists who believe that art is a pure form of communication, İyem too tried to disclose what was in his heart in the purest way possible and thereby to impart meaning to the external appearance of the world.

We would like to thank Evin Art Gallery for their help in securing the visual materials.