Magazine article Geographical

A Thousand Years of Turkish Delight: The Royal Academy of Art's Turks Exhibition Promises to Be One of Its Outstanding Events of This Year. Drawing on Some 370 Works, Many of Them Never before Seen outside Turkey, the Show Depicts the Everyday Life and Fantastical Demons of Mediaeval Central Asia

Magazine article Geographical

A Thousand Years of Turkish Delight: The Royal Academy of Art's Turks Exhibition Promises to Be One of Its Outstanding Events of This Year. Drawing on Some 370 Works, Many of Them Never before Seen outside Turkey, the Show Depicts the Everyday Life and Fantastical Demons of Mediaeval Central Asia

Article excerpt

They swept westward from the steppe and created a series of empires that held sway over Central Asia for more than a millennium. The deeds of their rulers--Tamerlane, Seljuk, Mehmed II the Conqueror and Suleyman the Magnificent--have passed into legend. But who exactly were the Turks? A new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA), opening on 22 January, aims to find out.

Turks is a straightforward title for a show with a sprawling subject matter. The four curators--from Harvard University, Istanbul's Topkapi Sayah and Sakip Sabanci museums and the RA--have exhaustively sourced pieces that reflect the diversity of people and places subject to Turkic rule between 600 and 1600. Spilling out of the academy's galleries and halls are treasures that chart the succession of the Uighur (c. 744-840), Great Seljuk (1040-1194) and Anatolian Seljuk (1081-1307), Timurid (1370-140S), and Ottoman (c.1450-1924) empires.

The 370 exhibits come from 37 lenders in 11 countries--and yes, let the RA trumpet those numbers, because the scope of Turks is truly impressive. You're unlikely ever to see a show that comes closer to capturing the complexities of Turkic identity.

Turks' great achievement is to breathe life into the history of one of the world's most remarkable cultures. The capture of Delhi by Tamerlane's armies in 1398, for example, was a bloody affair that left the city in ruins. How unexpected, then, is an elegant 15th-century miniature displayed here, showing the warrior seated upon a carpet by a winding stream, raising a cup while musicians serenade him on hand drum and lute. This, surely, depicts a gentle courtly idyll--a summer's day entertainment under a pomegranate tree but a quick look at the title puts a wholly different spin on it: Tamerlane Celebrating his Conquest of Delhi.

The picture also packs a symbolic punch. The pomegranate and the cup represent, respectively, abundance and eternal life--part of an iconographic tradition that dates back more than 600 years to Abbasid ceramics of the ninth century.

This is one of the fascinations of the Turks--that a restless and warlike people, forever on the move and internally divided, nonetheless fostered periods of intense artistic flowering. The so-called Timurid Renaissance of Tamerlane's time bequeathed us jewel-bright miniatures and the monumental domed and vaulted structures that survive to this day in Central Asia. However, his legacy is rivalled by those of the other Turkic superpowers. The Uighurs excelled in murals and frescoes; the Seljuks fused the literary and the artistic, creating a humanist, idealised vision of the human form explored in both painting and poetry; Ottoman artists perfected the celebrated Iznik ware, and created calligraphy that was no less beautiful for its employment in symbols of secular and religious authority.

Examples of all these art forms--and many more--can be found in the RA's exhibition. The exhibits are arranged chronologically, the centuries unrolling as you walk through ten crammed display rooms. So keen are the organisers to ensure nothing is overlooked that this is the first academy show where the admission price includes a free audio guide. There is even a separate children's audio guide and a full programme of events and activities for visitors, young and old.

But, as with any exhibition of this size, part of the pleasure of Turks lies in coining across unexpected treasures and oddities for yourself. Selim I's dagger, fashioned from steel and crystal and resembling a glittering, deadly icicle, won't be short of admirers. Nor will the magnificent red-and-black kaftan of Mehmed II, or the golden yagatan (sword) of Suleyman the Magnificent displayed nearby. Take a moment in the same room, however, to find a small notebook containing some doodled portraits and an awkward sketch of a horse. There's even a charming and well-rendered drawing of an owl, as if the owner were a Harry Potter fan, rather than the childhood notebook of Mehmed the Conqueror--a wonderful reminder that even the 'great men' of history were schoolboys once. …

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