While Turkish collectors were the first to revive interest in artists from their country who came to Paris to spice up modern art, they are now facing more rivals.
Fikret Moualla (1903-1967), La Partie de cartes (The Card Game), gouache on paper, 52 x 65 cm/20.5 x 25.6 in.
Paris, Drouot, November 17, 2020. Audap & Associés auction house
The School of Paris, in both its first and second forms, was a decided magnet for 20th-century cosmopolitanism, and a remedy for nationalism. Its exponents regularly turn up in the art market, and we keep discovering artists from other walks of life. This time, we focus on the generation contemporary with the birth of the new Turkish state, which arose in 1923 from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Many responded to the siren call of modernism, especially after the Second World War, gravitating around the founding figure of Fikret Moualla (1903-1967), who arrived at the very end of 1938.
Two recently published books, including the catalogue raisonné of Fikret Moualla's paintings by Marc Ottavi and Kerem Topuz, trace the careers of these artists, shedding light on their aesthetic quest, their desire for independence and their need to root themselves firmly in the century. An invitation to follow them through Paris's cobbled streets into the smoky silence of their studios.
The Eulogist of Streets and the Night
The sale of the Weil-Thenons' collection dispersion—1,380 lots all told—was a marathon that kept bidders breathless for three days (September 16, 18 and 21, 2020, Millon auction house). The couple owned no fewer than 20 works by Fikret Moualla. As true admirers of 20th-century art, whenever they liked painters they would buy literally dozens of their works. The highest bid, €35,100, went to a gouache entitled Femme et vase de fleurs (Woman and Vase of Flowers): a price in the high range of his works in the French market. Moualla encapsulated the qualities of the starving, alcoholic artist of Charles Aznavour's song La Bohème. He never painted on canvas, only hundreds, even thousands of gouaches on paper expressing—or positively shouting—his love of street scenes, anonymous people in everyday life, people of the circus and the night world. He often depicted celebrations, though he often lapsed into madness. As specialist Marc Ottavi tells us, "More than poverty, Moualla feared any form of authority, especially the court authorities, which sent him to a psychiatric asylum seven times." He was an oddball who drew on the blinding qualities of Expressionism to depict vibrant characters and never succumbed to the appeal of the abstraction dominating Paris at the time. It would not have suited an artist who used an intensely vigorous palette to produce real snapshots of society.
Avni, Nejad, Bitran and Others
Between 1939 and 1955, eleven artists in turn left their studios in the Bosphorus for those of Montparnasse. Like their colleagues from all over the world, they were drawn by their love of modernity. Most of them knew each other, having attended the classes of Frenchman Léopold-Lévy at the Fine Arts Academy in Istanbul. In the early days, all of them endured being equated with followers of Orientalism. The cliché persisted until they were finally recognized for their true worth, and critics acclaimed the vitality of this young scene, which was also aided by the efforts of avant-garde gallery owners.
Avni Arbas (1919-2003) and Nejad Devrim (1923-1995) arrived in 1946. Arbas, who remained in France until 1977 (while Devrim left in 1968) was one of Moualla's closest friends. He told endless stories about him, some of which feature in the 2009 book on Moualla by journalist and writer Hifzi Topuz (b. 1923), Fikret Moualla, anatomie d'une bohème (Fikret Moualla: Study of a Bohemian).
The price index of Arbas, who moved from figuration to abstraction, now lies in the five-figure bracket. Last October, with Aguttes in Neuilly, an oil painting from 1963, La Montagne (The Mountain), fetched €22,046. His world record dates from 2010 (Piasa, April 12), when a Nature morte aux fleurs (Still Life with Flowers: 130 x 89.5 cm/51.2 x 35.2 in) garnered €47,090 (source: Artnet). Devrim's prices rose sharply in the early 2010s, before falling back and stabilizing. On October 30, 2020, a Composition sold for €7,680 at Ader.
Abstraction was the mode of expression of all these artists. We can also mention Selim Turan, Remzi Rasa, Mübin Ohon (an Expressionist influenced by his encounters with Poliakoff and Messagier), Hakki Anli, Albert Bitran and two women artists, Tiraje Dikmen and Fahrelnissa Zeid. On November 25, 2020, a group of works on paper by Zeid came up for sale with Thierry de Maigret. Kept in the same families since their acquisition, they sold for between a few hundred and 20,000 euros. The wife of an Iraqi prince, Fahrelnissa Zeid embodied 20th-century cosmopolitanism. She stood out for her highly personal visual language, like a new calligraphy interlocking mosaic forms in strong colors, which she developed in the Fifties.
At the end of the 1960s, Paris relinquished its role as a shining light of modernity to New York. Exhibitions of Turkish artists became rarer. Their paths separated, with some returning to their homeland, and others remaining, or choosing other countries: Poland for Nejad Devrim, Jordan for Fahrelnissa Zeid. It was in Turkey, in the last decade of the 20th century, that their importance was finally recognized, thanks to collectors, galleries and private museums. Today, interest stems from all over the world, and the publication of these two new books should open up new prospects for them.