Magazine article The Spectator

Bridge over Troubled Water

Magazine article The Spectator

Bridge over Troubled Water

Article excerpt

Within the expanding aquatic metropolis that is Istanbul, two late-20thcentury bridges straddle the continents of Europe and Asia. These traffic-laden steel bridges, spanning high above the ferries and other boats which ply the busy waters of the Bosphorus below, are visibly useful links between two civilisations. They are also symbols, perhaps, of the noble dream of bringing the mentality of the Muslim world closer to that of the non-Muslim world in a spirit of mutual admiration and respect.

A cultural event like a Rodin exhibition is worthwhile for its own sake. Held in a Muslim country, it may also nurture such a noble dream. Alas, a recent Franco-Italian diplomatic catastrophe with Muslim repercussions -- an entertaining one, admittedly -- has just been notched up by no less a sporting event than the World Cup Final.

Dubbed 'a genius' like Rodin, the former French captain Zinedine Zidane may be a non-practising Muslim but he has proved a practised master of the Marseilles headbutt to the solar plexus. Franco-Muslim relations are currently combustible. Could Auguste Rodin succeed with sculpture in the sensitive field of cultural diplomacy at a time when 'Zizou' Zidane has so sadly failed with football?

Certainly, the metaphor of a bridge between civilisations provides a perfect context for the major retrospective exhibition Rodin in Istanbul (until 3 September) at the Sakip Sabanci Museum (SSM). It is organised jointly with the Rodin Museum, Paris. The mounting of such an ambitious show, which follows Picasso in Istanbul, poses huge financial, administrative, logistical and intellectual challenges. Dr Nazan Ölcer, director of the Museum, announces in her foreword to the weighty catalogue that 'since it was established just four years ago, Sakip Sabanci Museum has set out to be a meeting place for world cultures'. An exhibition on Genghis Khan is to follow.

The Sakip Sabanci Museum, in other words, is a phenomenon. The Sabanci family is a very prosperous one and members of it have become enlightened patrons of learning and the arts. The museum is equipped with the requisite state-of-the-art technology. It is situated in the garden of the beautiful Sabanci family home in Emirgan overlooking the Bosphorus, about 40 minutes by car from central Istanbul. Its parent institution is Sakip Sabanci University, a private international university.

A bronze statue of a horse, bought at auction and an unwitting harbinger of things to come, was placed in front of the Sabanci mansion in 1952 shortly after the family had moved in. To the consternation of some local people who have grown fond of it, the horse has now been temporarily replaced by Rodin's 'Monument to Victor Hugo'. The eyebrows of the Emirgan locals are not the first to be raised by the monument, however. In the 1890s, Rodin's decision to present the great literary icon unencumbered by clothes shocked French officialdom, which failed to appreciate that it was dealing with the legitimate heir of Michelangelo himself.

The 'Monument to Victor Hugo' is the only sculpture to be shown in the open air, although Rodin himself believed that sculpture is an outdoor art. Natural light inside SSM, which is built on a hill, comes from the windows facing the Bosphorus.

The museum's array of artificial light is mainly well directed, however. Entering the exhibition proper, there is an educational overture in a corridor replete with photographs. On the right are people and events in Rodin's life. On the left are late19th-century movers and shakers, including Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein -- the usual suspects.

At the end of this corridor is Rodin's sculpture of 1877, 'The Age of Bronze'.

Already Rodin's great humanity begins to touch the heart of the Western viewer.

Surely it will touch the heart of a Turkish public even though this public may be more attuned to calligraphy, craftsmanship, beautiful, intricate abstract patterns and the great architectural spaces of mosques. …

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