One of modern Turkish painting’s most interesting and important artists, Fikret Muallâ was born in Istanbul in 1903. His father was Mehmet Ekrem Bey, second director of the Public Debt Commission, which was set up for paying off Ottoman debts to Europe; his mother Emine Nevber Hanim. The years 1910-1915 at Kalamis-Moda, a fashionable quarter on the city’s Asian Marmara shore, were a period of ‘childhood bliss’, until a soccer injury at age 12 left him with a slight limp for the rest of his life. He was sent first to Saint-Joseph and later to the famed Galatasaray Lycée, both of which gave instruction in French. Recovering at age 15 from the Spanish flu, which he caught at school during the great epidemic of 1918, he nevertheless passed the disease on to his mother, who died of it. Her death was the first in a chain of events that would affect his entire life. Muallâ, who became completely uncontrollable after his father’s second marriage, was sent first to Switzerland to study. From there he went to Germany, where he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. The city’s bohemian lifestyle was his introduction to modern art and its leading exponents and, inevitably, to alcohol. Upon his return to Turkey, with the help of friends Muallâ became a painting teacher at his former alma mater, Galatasaray Lycée, but was soon dismissed for ‘behavior unbecoming to a teacher’. After a brief teaching stint in Ayvalik on the Aegean coast, he returned again to Istanbul, this time making a living by writing for newspapers and magazines and making sketches. In 1934 he held his first one-man show in Beyoglu, but it aroused little interest. His weakness for alcohol had finally become an addiction from which he would never recover. Creating scenes in restaurants and bars, he ended up at a police station following one such incident and was committed by his fellow-journalists to the Mental Hospital at Bakirkoy-Istanbul. His roommate there was another famous artist, musician Neyzen Tevfik, of whom he would later say, “if I have a little knowledge of and taste in literature, I owe it to him."
Returning once again to Istanbul’s bohemian scene, Fikret Muallâ painted the city at the request of Abidin Dino, who was in charge of the Turkish Pavilion at the World Exposition in New York. It was, in a sense, Muallâ’s farewell to the city. According to some with the money he was paid for the paintings, according to others with an inheritance left from his father’s death, he left for France in 1939. In France, where he would spend 29 years of his life and get into trouble numerous times for his quick temper and addiction to alcohol, and in whose mental hospitals he would languish as he had in Istanbul, It was the Parisians who provided the inspiration for his work. In Paris he studied at the studio of Othon Friesz in the Grand Chaumière Academie, where he made the acquaintance of many an up-and-coming artist, most notably Picasso. “Although he rubbed shoulders with such greats as Picasso, Matisse, Signac, Ziem, Dali, Chagall, Dufy, Van Dongen and Pisarro, he never imitated anyone in his painting,” says his close friend Taha Toros, adding, “Through the types he created and his works, which were at times witty, at times provocative, he was a true Parisian painter."
Another acquaintance from his Paris days was Bedri Rahmi Eyuboglu, who describes the artist’s outlook on life as follows: “Imagine an artist responsible for nothing but painting pictures whenever the impulse takes him. An artist who is prepared to go hungry and thirsty three days a week; who picks up cigarette butts from the street as if gathering berries in the countryside. An artist who, the moment he manages to sell a few pictures with the help of friends and acquaintances, gets drunk on the hardest liquor, eats the most expensive food, and rages at those around him, flinging the most outrageous insults.” As Dr. Safder Tarim puts it, painting for Muallâ was synonymous with life, with breathing. He painted with great speed, fusing time past and present as he translated the people of his own world onto paper. When he was unable to find paper during the Nazi occupation of Paris, he stealthily ripped posters off walls and used the blank portions for his gouaches, which he gave to waiters in return for food and drink. Meanwhile gallery owners and collectors, knowing full well that he would eventually earn fame, snapped up his paintings for a song. But Muallâ’s dissolute life in no way affected his art. His style was improvisational. Nudes, still lifes, landscapes, Paris streets, marketplaces, cafés, bars, bistros, jazz musicians, card players, balloon men, children, animals, the circus, hookers... In the words of Youki Desnos, Fikret Muallâ’s are “colors that evoke dreams and confer meaning”.
In 1959 Fikret Muallâ paid several visits to southern France, where he came under the patronage of a certain Mme. Angles, who bought his paintings during this period. It was again Mme. Angles who extended a helping hand when he suffered a brain hemorrhage at the end of 1962, installing him in her home at Reillanne, a small village in the Southern Alps. Continuing to paint, albeit without the old enthusiasm, Fikret Muallâ seemed to sum up his life in a letter he wrote from there: “In my opinion every artist should suffer hardship, anguish and hunger. Only after that should they enjoy life. After the age of fifty, people start to seek comfort and health, and to think. That is my fate. My life has passed in a struggle against poverty. Now in this quiet village I submit to living peacefully by myself waiting for the final period of my life as ordained by God. Apart from this I have no problems! No pretensions. We have seen every kind of circumstance the world has to offer, we have tasted very few of the pleasures of life. Today what is left but for my tongue to recall the past and my brush to paint?” Fikret Muallâ died towards morning on 26 July 1967 in a home for the indigent in the neighboring town of Mane. He was 64 years old. In 1974 his remains were brought to Turkey at the behest of the then-President of the Republic, Fahri Korutürk, and buried at Istanbul’s Karacaahmet Cemetery.
Reference: Bahar Kalkan/SKYLIFE
Some selected examples (please click on pictures to enlarge):