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GERMAN ACADEMICAL FORMALISM AND ITS INFLUENCE ON THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF MEDIEVAL ART AND ARCHITECTURE OF TURKEY

Zehra Tonbul

Turkish Cultural Foundation Fellow (2012-2013)
Ph.D. Candidate, History of Architecture, Boğaziçi University


German formalism was an extension of a Hegelian understanding of a progressive human history vis-à-vis the Biblical one, and art history developed to be one of the most significant means to reach it. Travels and archeological excavations inspired a study of art history, in which the artifact was interpreted to be the indicator of eras and cultures and thus took on the role of the historical text. The developments in science and psychology also aided the formalist view of art history, in which a teleological mapping of art objects would suffice to understand culture. The object was believed to enact the DNA of a culture and it was empiricism, a science of objects that emerged in the absence of documents.

Archeological discoveries of Medieval Islamic heritage in Mesopotamia as well as a Hellenistic heritage mainly in Pergamon put the classicist art historical construction into question. The Renaissance rupture from the Middle Ages came to be questioned. Alois Riegl from Vienna School of Art History in his Stilfragen (1893), inquired into continuities between Hellenistic, Byzantine and Sassanian art. Again from Vienna, Strzygowski sought into Byzantine and Armenian medieval architecture and later nomadic art to hypothesize a different lineage to Germanic identity. He praised German Gothic, and condemned Italian Renaissance, as he traced within Medieval Art Arian roots to Central Asia. Thus, he contested what Marchand calls the “Mediterrenian fetish” of the Europaenid identity, in an article titled Orient oder Rom . His claim was the existence of different cultural connections, a different lineage to European identity, other than the Roman-Renaissance one.

Strzygowski declared “Asia Minor” as “the new country of Art History,” in his 1903 book Kleinasien Ein Neuland Der Kunstgeschichte. In 1917, in his book titled Altai-Iran und Völkerwanderung, he proposed an Arian cultural synthesis connecting Altaic, Iranic and Germanic identity and nomadism formed the transition. Consequentially, it was initially Josef Strzygowski, who referred to a Turkish art; his student Heinrich Glück made its preliminary survey, and published it in 1917 with the name Türk Sanatı. In the Türkiyat Mecmuası of 1924, Glück wrote yet another article, titled “Türk San’atının Dünyadaki Mevkii” -The Status of Turkish Art in the World, - in which he inquired into a reading of a Turkish art of universal dimensions. Strzygowski in the same periodical wrote his article titled “Türkler ve Orta Asya Sanatı Meselesi” -Turks and the Question of Central Asian Art.

While German quest in Medieval lineages deemed Asia Minor to be the place for a new art history, the Turkish national quest for a pre-Ottoman past deemed Anatolia to be the space-time of the Turkish nation, in the inquiry for a pre-Ottoman past. It was initially Mehmed Fuad Köprülü, who dwelled to find Turkish cultural signifiers both in literature and art of Medieval Anatolia. Yet, it was in 1940s and 1950s with students of Strzygowski, a richer study on Medieval Turkish Art and Architecture could be done. Ernst Diez, later Kurt Erdmann and Katharina Otto-Dorn were invited for positions in Istanbul and Ankara Universities. Diez and Otto-Dorn founded the art history departments in Istanbul and Ankara respectively and educated a first generation of Turkish art and architectural historians.

Diez mainly took on what Glück started; he ventured to construct a historical understanding of Turkish art and its origins. The title of Ernst Diez’ 1946 book on Turkish art and architecture precisely reflects this quest: Türk Sanatı: Başlangıcından Günümüze Kadar-“Turkish Art: From Its Beginning Up Until Today.” In this first book on Turkish art and architecture, Diez mapped a Turkish cultural space from Central Asia to the Ottoman Empire, reading “stilwanderung”s between cultural spheres of Byzantine, Armenian, Seljuk and Ottoman art. For him, in conformance with the formalist tradition and the Hegelian understanding, Seljuks bore what came before -Islam, nomadism, shamanism and the cultural space of Eurasia- -and promised what came after-the Ottoman art. Otto-Dorn was in Turkey between 1954 and 1967, and continued the formalist tradition with employing the motif as the code of Seljuk spirit. She could observe the “liberal spiritual background,” the “independent mind,” the “unorthodox spirit,” the “unconventional image-oriented attitude,” of the Seljuks through the motifs of figural stone reliefs . Otto-Dorn also employed Riegl’s Kunstwollen, as she viewed Seljuks to have a self-image and a will to art . Their students, the first generation of Turkish art historians continued to built on the formalist tradition: Oktay Aslanapa reworked Diez’ book in later editions; Semra Ögel, Gönül Öney, Oluş Arık and Beyhan Karamağaralı continued to work on the prominence of the motif.

Strzygowski and his students thus formed a significant basis for knowledge on Medieval Anatolian Art and Architecture, and also with their students at Istanbul and Ankara Universities have shaped the course of art history scholarship in Turkey. Through them, German and Turkish cultural inquiry encountered an art historical “wanderung,” very much characterizing twentieth century episteme of cultural and political entanglements.



Ernst Diez
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