Still Going Strong After 50 Years
“If I’d known when I graduated from the Academy that all these things were going to happen, I’d have made a lot more paintings”, says Erbil, pointing out that never in his career as an artist has he been as productive as he is today.
Devrim Erbil has been popping up all over the place in recent years. First there was his exhibition of prints on Bozcaada, and the works he showed in Slovakia. And then the canvases that sold for over fifty thousand dollars at a Christie’s auction in Dubai... This 72-year-old painter who is celebrating his 50th year as an artist is experiencing a virtual boom in productivity. These days the artist is getting ready for an exhibition in Vienna to be followed by another in Diyarbakir. But the real cause of excitement is the ‘50th Year Exhibition’ to open on 28 September at the Mimar Sinan Academy of the Fine Arts. It’s as if Oscar Wilde’s saying, ‘The soul is born old but grows young’, was intended expressly for Erbil. For this artist, who has crammed over 200 solo shows into his 50-year career as an artist, is almost always at the easel in his home-cum-studio where women in nice shoes are never wanting. The ritual goes like this: he turns the radio dial to a classical music station, squeezes the pigments onto a marble tabletop, takes brush in hand, and the rest is obvious. Drawing and drawing, without surcease, indefatigably.
Where is this painting going?
I’m going to put white lights on the mosque dome now. The blues over there have not gone into the painting yet. Here they have mixed together and begun to be a painting, more precisely to become my painting, but there’s still time.
Drawing for hours on end, in a style that demands the meticulousness of a miniature painter. What is the most difficult part of it?
The most difficult part is knowing when a painting is finished. It’s a momentous decision. Sometimes the excitement, sometimes time, sometimes the pigment, sometimes even life ends, but the painting goes on...
It must not have finished yet, because you’re unable to tear yourself away from the easel even after fifty years.
Fifty years, yes, ever since I got my diploma from the Academy in 1959 in other words. I am always standing in front of a canvas. Even now, at this age, I work twelve hours a day.
But your reputation is solid. Mimar Sinan University (Academy) of the Fine Arts is opening its season with your exhibition on 28 September. This is something out of the ordinary. How did it come about?
I entered the Academy in 1954 as a student. In 2004 I emerged as a professor. Apart from my two years of military service, I’ve been at the Academy for exactly fifty years. As for the story of this exhibition, three years ago an exhibition of mine was included in the opening program of the University of the Aegean in Izmir. I was very touched. I shared this with everybody, including the university president. They welcomed my proposal and reserved the first exhibition to coincide with my fiftieth year.
What kind of exhibition is in store?
An exhibition of fifty paintings that throw light on my fifty-year career as an artist. Paintings culled from my student projects, my graduation painting, ‘Fruit Pickers’, from collections and from my own archive. Old and new together, in the manner of a retrospective. There will also be works in different techniques. The exhibition runs through 15 October.
Then there’s ‘Contemporary Istanbul’ in December. And an exhibition at the Devrim Erbil Modern Arts Museum in Balikesir. In February, I’m going to have a very big exhibition in Dubai. The negotiations are currently under way. I have no inhibitions about holding an exhibition. I never say ‘no’ to anybody, especially if the request comes from Anatolia.
What is the reason for the special importance you give to Anatolia? Is it your belief that art should reach every place, or a part of your desire to be seen everywhere?
It’s both of course, but I have undertaken a certain responsibility, namely, that art lovers should proliferate. In other words, art should not just serve an elite community. Most artists live in an ivory tower. I’m not like that. It is important to me that art reach every part of Anatolia. What’s more, I learn a lot from Anatolia. The art I take there I bring back from there in truckloads...
I went to Van. I saw the Akdamar Church and was bowled over. If the person who made the reliefs at that church had been born in Florence, he would have been a Michelangelo. This should not be thought of as the talent of one person. There is a whole culture there. A tradition, a process through which a piece of sculpture passes. There’s a huge Anatolian civilization behind it. Ani is the same. That architecture, that urban texture. It’s incredible.
You are one of the rare artists that reflects Anatolian culture to such an extent in his art. Is the influence of your coming from the Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu tradition at work here?
Of course. We discovered Anatolian culture and the miniature and the fine points of African and Far Eastern art. We were aware of arts such as the miniature, the carpet, the kilim, the tile and calligraphy. We knew miniaturist Osman Paşa’s ‘El Fetihname’ as well as the paintings of Velazquez. All that was due to Bedri Rahmi.
As a painter who was trained towards the end of the period when Turkish painters were flocking to Paris, how is it that you have remained so closely bound to Anatolian culture in your works when your contemporaries were caught up in completely different trends?
You go abroad both for the challenge and with resignation. I did not go there blindly. Of course I was overwhelmed by Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Of course I went crazy over his Moses. But I was also aware that we had riches of our own. The generation that preceded us went West in awe. They believed that the farther you got from Paris the less you could paint. In my art on the other hand Anatolian culture was always the determining factor.
Now, as an established artist who has left behind 50 years and numerous Istanbul paintings, are you experimenting with any new things? Or it this it for you?
Are you kidding? I continue to experiment of course. I have experimented with various materials, as you know. But I’ve got something completely different up my sleeve now. My daughter Renk Erbil and I are working on new visual projects using sound, light and color. In November I’m going to London to work with a sound engineer. We are planning to open a three-way exhibition that takes the relationship between sound and color as its jumping off point.
So, contemporary art from an Academy teacher?
An Academy teacher imparts academic knowledge, but he is not duty-bound to produce academic paintings. I want to get away from painting on canvas and get involved in technology.
Devrim Erbil was born in Salihli on 16 September 1937.
His family was originally from Uşak, but life for the whole family began in Balikesir.
The artist held his first exhibitionin in Balikesir with two classmates when he was still a junior in high school.
Entering the Painting Department of the Istanbul State Academy of the Fine Arts in 1954, he graduated in 1959 from the studio of the Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu.
Erbil, who became a professor in 1981, retired from the Mimar Sinan University School of Fine Arts in 2004 but continues to teach at Istanbul’s Doğuş and Kültür Universities.