Neş’e Erdok

Winner of the ‘Artist 2006’ Lifetime Achievement Award, Neş’e Erdok in her paintings confronts us with familiar figures from Turkish life.

At the Evin Art Gallery in a mansion in the Bosphorus quarter of Bebek, painter Neş’e Erdok is making the final preparations for her exhibition, due to open on 7 November. Huge canvases are being carried back and forth. Erdok is going over the exhibition catalog one last time. I take advantage of this pause to make a quick tour of the exhibition. What I see are those familiar figures I can’t pass by without stopping to look more closely. Emotion-packed moments from a long life fill the gallery like a running film strip. Shortly I’m going to meet the protagonist and director of this film, which is still being shot today.

When did you first start painting?
We lived in Erzincan when I was in junior high school. My older brother painted and I used to look over his shoulder. I’d ‘steal’ his paints and make little still lifes. We used to buy those paperback books on artists like Picasso, Modigliani and Matisse from Erzincan’s one and only bookstore in those days and spend hours looking at them. Then we learned about the different painting styles thanks to ‘Varlık’ magazine, which was bringing out black-and-white reproductions of the Turkish artists. Our teacher, who had been appointed from the Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul, gave me the idea of taking the Academy entrance examination, and so I did. As a student of course you become a ‘candidate’ for becoming a real painter. After graduation you have to work long and hard and hold a few exhibitions in order to gain recognition. So, in short, the story of my painting began in 1962.

You were the first woman assistant in the Academy painting department. Can you tell us about those years?
Students were sent abroad for training on state scholarships in those days. I took the exam and won a scholarship to study in France. Even earlier I had had a chance to study in Spain for a year on a scholarship. It was when I returned from there that I was offered an assistantship. There was quite a good atmosphere at that time, the working conditions were good. I worked in the atelier of Neşet Günal, who was a highly regarded teacher. It was difficult but at the same time a great opportunity to work with a teacher like him, so meticulous and with such a strong sense of responsibility. I learned a lot from him.

You are one of the leading representatives of representational painting in Turkey. To my mind, color in your paintings makes as powerful and pronounced an impression as the figures, because you create the atmosphere of that moment and convey either your own or the figure’s psychological state.
Yes. As a painter, I am not a colorist. For me the figure comes first, and color is an adjunct to form. But you’ve put your finger on something: I use color more to convey the psychological states of the figures. The colors can be toned down, even silenced, depending on the thing you are portraying. Just like black-and-white films, which could also be shot in color. But there are still black-and-white photographs today, and they are extremely moving.

Why do your figures have such big hands and feet?
It has to do with distorting form for the sake of expression. Hands and feet are as important as faces. They are among the bodily parts from which you can get the best idea of the anatomy; they are expressive and unique to the individual.

As an educator who nurtures and trains young artists, how do you see the future of painting in Turkey?
I am very hopeful. We have scores of painters now. What’s more, we have them despite their having to work under less than ideal conditions and with no support whatsoever. Only nowadays are conditions beginning to improve ever so slightly, and the number of painters who have their own ateliers and actually make a living from their painting is on the rise. Not only that but there are a lot more opportunities today. Students can paint on much bigger canvases, for example. We had only sugar sacks to paint on. There are no problems finding paper either; plus there are libraries, books, the internet. There is a welter of resources out there to nurture them, if they are curious of course, and if they put their minds to it.

Anybody who looked at your paintings for even ten minutes would be able to recognize a Neş’e Erdok painting the next time he saw one. What is it that makes your paintings so distinctive?
Roughly speaking, it’s the figures, the human beings. I’m not a landscape artist. There was a period when elements like the sea or the open air came into my paintings, but they were never more than a backdrop for my figures, which I like to encapsulate in small spaces with little depth. Form takes precedence, color is an element that supports form, and the whole point is to convey the psychological states of the figures. And relations between them are created by means of hands, feet, bodies and glances. They are arranged according to the subject matter, in a sort of ‘mise-en-scène’, like in the theater. A scene inside a bus, for example, was the subject of my painting, ‘Night Journey’. I don’t convey the bus interior exactly as it is, but I take certain elements and then recreate the bus scene anew.

Have you ever gone on a night journey?
Yes, I go to Bodrum every year by bus and I always travel at night. I’m one of those people who don’t sleep when they travel at night, so I’m constantly observing. Arranging those figures in that small space interested me; it was like putting them on stage.
Street vendors, couriers, fortune tellers, bus passengers, scavengers... Can you say a little about them?
I’ve always been interested in street vendors. People who make a living by selling odds and ends, or work at a series of temporary jobs. For a while I painted those people who sell kleenex on the street, and kids who play the accordion, because there were so many of them around in those days. Beautiful, well-dressed women don’t interest me much. I find street people more thought-provoking and worth painting. What stimulates me is painting a face full of contradictions, because there are more contours to be emphasized.

What do you have in mind for the future?
My whole life is painting, I have no other occupation. God willing, I will remain in good health and be able to keep on painting.

We are grateful to the Evin Art Gallery for supplying the visual materials.