Turkish Delights; the Royal Academy's Latest Blockbuster Exhibition Is a Treasure Trove with a Complex Story to Tell about the History and Culture of Turkey, Writes Terry Grimley

Article excerpt

Byline: Terry Grimley

Some opponents of Turkey's bid to join the European Union have objected that it is culturally alien to Europe: but which Turkish culture would that be, exactly?

Visitors to the Royal Academy's spectacular exhibition The Turks are likely to be sent scrambling for their atlases in an attempt to disentangle the diverse geographical range of ingredients - not least Chinese - which went into the arts of the initially nomadic Turkic people who first emerged in the 6th century.

It is by no means coincidental that this pioneering exhibition exploring the roots of Turkish culture should have opened in London at this particular moment. The catalogue comes complete with messages from Tony Blair and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

For an exhibition of its scale it has been organised in the remarkably short space of 15 months, prompted by the offer of spectacular loans from the Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul. Many of the star exhibits have never previously been seen outside Turkey.

A period of 1000 years, from 600 to 1600, is reflected in more than 350 objects gathered from 11 countries, with St Petersburg contributing some monumental early sculptures.

The exhibition climaxes with the Ottoman empire in its full Islamic glory, with its stunning ceremonial armour, jewel-encrusted metalwork and ceramics with floral decoration made doubly familiar through their later imitation in England.

However, it begins in much less familiar territory, with Chineselooking Buddhist murals and other images reflecting the cultural as well as mercantile exchange of the east-west Silk Road.

As the historic phases succeed each other - the Uyghurs (7th century), the Seljuks (c 1040-1194) and the Timurids (c 1370-1506) - we see a civilisation becoming increasingly militaristic and assertive.

Consequently, the arts of Turkey, Iran and Central Asia seem to flow seamlessy together, particularly in the many ravishing examples of illuminated manuscripts. A series of these records the taking of Baghdad on August 7, 1401 by Timur, otherwise known as Tamerlane or Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine.

In a remarkable exhibition within an exhibition, The Turks introduces to the west a major individual artist whose work transcends time and place. Muhamed Siyah Qalam (Muhammad of the Black Pen) was a 14th century artist who painted genre scenes and - most characteristically - fantastic images of fighting demons in a blotchy graphic style which seems to have something Russian about it.

His name may encompass a leading artist and a group of followers, and his drawings, mounted as though in a scrapbook with works by quite different artists, are being shown outside Turkey for the first time - and probably the last, for the forseeable future. …