Where The Written Word Remains

‘The Art of the Book from East to West and Memories of the Ottoman World’, an exhibition recently opened at the Sabancı University Sakıp Sabancı Museum, presents a magnificent cross-section of the journey of the book through time and culture.

I t was once a work of art. The palace masters that produced it received the highest wages of their day and were regarded as artisans of the first rank. Its every detail demanded a different kind of expertise, knowledge and experience. Easily carried, it passed from hand to hand all over the world throughout history. As for its contents, they opened the doors of a completely different world for whoever possessed it. Time passed and, eventually, began to work against it. Although it has not fallen out of use, the thing called the book has fallen out of the high favor in which it was once held, adapting itself to the times by becoming commonplace.
The title of the exhibition, ‘The Art of the Book from East to West and Memories of the Ottoman World’, inevitably sets us thinking about the journey of the book through time and culture. For, at this new exhibition by the Sabancı University Sakıp Sabancı Museum, what you remember most of all is that ‘the book is a work of art’. The manuscripts and Korans in the exhibition are so impressive that, even without understanding what is written in them, you can’t help but be struck by this most aesthetically pleasing and spellbinding aspect of the culture created by man down the ages.

In the wake of its, for Istanbul, seismic Picasso exhibition, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum is now hosting the collection of Calouste Gulbenkian, one of the greatest collectors in the world. Dr. Nazan Ölçer, director of the museum, which is playing host to
111 selected works from Lisbon’s Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, emphasizes two important aspects of the Gulbenkian collection that formed the point of departure for the exhibition; namely that the works of Ottoman-Islamic art in the collection of the Istanbul-born Gulbenkian are of great importance for Eastern culture and that the collection contains only the best of the best.
Gulbenkian, who lived in Portugal and whose collection is housed at a museum named for him in Lisbon, was born in Turkey and grew up in a typical non-Muslim Ottoman family. This naturally shaped the direction of his tastes. One of the most salient characteristics of Gulbenkian, who assembled his collection during a specific period between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, is that he clearly identifies the source of each new addition, to the point of including even the correspondence that accompanied the acquisition process. The collection, which was assembled according to strict principles and brooked no second-class works, contains not a single piece that is in poor condition or has suffered the depredations of time. What’s more, this is a collection that was developed with absolutely no distinctions of East vs West, despite the fact that an Ottoman flavor is clearly detectable. According to Nazan Ölçer, exhibiting the Gulbenkian collection is eminently in line with the Sakıp Sabancı Museum’s mission: “At this museum we are trying to exhibit the most distinguished names in western art, such as Picasso, and Rodin, who will come in June. At the same time, we are also continuing to bring works of relevance to Turkish art and history. I could therefore say that we have a dual point of view, a dual exhibition policy. And the Gulbenkian collection is in this sense very important for us.”

There are books in the exhibition which are not often displayed even at the Gulbenkian Museum, works the permanent exhibition of which is not advisable on account of their extreme fragility. What we have here is a collection of extremely rare tomes from the 13th to the 20th century. Among them are manuscripts copied for European royalty and books illustrated by famous painters as well as hand-written Korans and other important Islamic manuscripts. Furthermore, as we approach the 20th century, we see, alongside Japanese books, volumes that reflect movements in art such as art nouveau and art deco. Not only that, but the books are accompanied by a goodly number of Iznik tiles, velvets, silk brocades and embroidery. The result is a 111-piece exhibition entitled ‘The Art of the Book from East to West and Memories of the Ottoman World / Masterpieces of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon’.
“Exhibiting books is difficult,” says Ölçer, “both because of the conditions of preservation and because of the necessity of appealing to a narrow circle of people. But I believe all that is going to change with this exhibition, because the beautiful, decorative bindings of the books on display are going to remind us of an aesthetic pleasure we have long forgotten in today’s technology-intensive world. Books nourish and edify us not only by their contents but also as works of art. The most valuable objects in the Ottoman palace, for example, were books. Those who were employed in the art of the  book were more richly munerated than any other artisans. With its contents, binding, illuminations and calligraphy, the book was regarded, indeed exalted, as an art in and of itself. The exhibition is going to serve to remind us of that, namely that the book is a work of art.” According to Ölçer, the exhibition is also going to compel us to reconsider the book and our changing relationship with it over time.

As one tours this exhibition, it is impossible not to sense the collector’s passion, a passion that sends mankind on a quest for the beautiful and the aesthetically pleasing. We see with our own eyes how imperative it is that no beautiful creation of any kind be lost. At the same time, visitors to the exhibition will also not fail to notice that the Gulbenkian collection exhibits all the characteristic features of the common taste and spirit embodied over the centuries by the Ottomans’ vibrant multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural society.
While we are on the subject of the collector’s passion, I should not conclude without mentioning another striking feature of the exhibition: Gulbenkian was a rich man, a well-known oil merchant who owned five percent of Iraq’s famous Mosul oil fields. Exactly like Sabancı, another famous and successful businessman. The exhibition therefore offers the added boon of bringing together these two illustrious businessmen who were also passionate collectors.
From 15 April to 28 May at the Sabancı University Sakıp Sabancı Museum.