Utku Varlık The Last Palette Of The Golden Age
WE TALKED WITH UTKU VARLIK, A PAINTER OF THE ART AND LITERARY MILIEU OF THE 1960’S ALONG WITH ALIYE BERGER, SADI ÇALIK, ÖMER ULUÇ AND SEVIM BURAK.
Witness to and active participant in the last 50 years of Turkish art, Utku Varlık is one of the last painters of the Golden Age of the sixties. We had a pleasant conversation with Varlık, whom most of us have forgotten but who continues to paint at his atelier in Paris. The conversation began in Paris and ended on his son Alex’s terrace in Galata.
Q:How would you describe the milieu in which Utku Varlık was shaped?
A:When I entered the Fine Arts Academy in the 1960’s, Turkey was undergoing a great transformation. We lived in the academy, it was our biosphere. We spent five glorious years there thanks to our teachers, the atmosphere they created and the academy director, Asım Mutlu. Whether you believe in nostalgia or not, everything was very nostalgic in those years. Istanbul today strikes me as a panoramic city. In those days it was a meaningful black-and-white photograph.
Q:How much interest was there in painting in the Istanbul of the 1960’s?
A:There were just a few galleries in the city. Paintings were not sold in those days but were either given away or exhibited. In order to train faculty members, the state started offering educational scholarships to students for study abroad. About 20 of us from the academy were awarded such scholarships and went to Paris. If you ask why Paris, it's because all the big names in the painting business from Mübin Orhan to Abidin Dino had been living there for years for various reasons. So we went there, too, and I stayed. My ambition was to live there and paint, as I had dreamed of doing.
Q:What did you find there?
A:Paris was a happy-go-lucky city in those years, and painting wasn't dead yet. My field was lithography and engraving, so I entered the atelier of Georges Dayez. At the academy, we had always looked to the foreign artists. I learned a lot about my technique during those four years.
Q:For me you are like a fictional character because you appear in all the stories. You’re always there at all the gatherings of the art and literature crowd in the 60’s and 70’s. Can you tell us a little about that circle?
A:As Gorky said, “My universities” were outside the Academy, all the wonderful people, writers, poets of my early dreams and the Istanbul. I fell in love with reading from an early age. I’d always yearned to meet those beloved writers and poets of mine. I’d always wondered where they were and what they were doing. When I went to Istanbul, my first task was to find them. One of the first people I met, for example, was Metin Eroğlu. And Edip Cansever was one of my best friends. Ditto for Turgut Uyar, Cemal Süreyya…
Q:You don’t have to be a writer to be a good reader. You can be a good reader if you work at it. Is it the same with painting?
A:I call it museum culture. For example, you can become a writer by developing yourself, but painting requires a school. I learned painting, not the paint, from Bedri Rahmi. I learned poetry and profligate existence too. Curiosity, for instance. If you’re curious, you will go to museums, you’ll have a look around. You’ll keep going back to look at the paintings.
Q:I’ve spent a long time looking at your paintings. They have many layers. The unusual treatment of the shadow of the staircase, for example, caught my attention.
A:Painting isn’t really so big on mathematics, although there are those who make it so, Jan van Eyck, for example. When he depicted fruit in front of a window, he calculated everything right down to the angle of the shadow cast by the sun. But painters in those days had all the time in the world, by thinking of painting, which I have always dreamed of.
Q:Do you feel satisfaction when you look at your canvases?
A:Absolutely not. No one is ever satisfied with his own work. I’ve always painted the painting I have in mind three or four years after the fact. If only I had the money and I could collect up all the paintings I’ve ever sold, stage a public burning, and start again.
Q:Let’s say a painting is finished… Do you ever think, if only I had done this part differently?
A:A painting is never finished. In 1960 the French Ministry of Culture sent around an order to the art museums to let the authorities know whenever Pierre Bonnard turned up, because he was altering things he didn’t like in his paintings with a small palette and brush he carried around stashed away inside his trench coat!
Q:When you are working on a painting, do you ever finish it in your mind?
A:No. A painting undergoes a great transformation from the moment it is conceived to when it is finished. It starts from a preconceived plot, but always results in differently.
Q:What are you doing at the moment?
A:I do very few shows. Exhibiting is not an obligation in any case. Most recently I received an invitation from Shanghai, so I’m going to go there and have a look, see what they’re doing and what I could do, because Paris is no longer the place where everything is happening.
Q:Can one see the influence of any Turkish painter when one looks at your paintings?
A:No, you will never see any Turkish influence in my paintings. You may detect a Flemish influence, but when you look at my work it’s an amalgam. It’s not something originating from a single figure or a single place. The mysticism in my paintings is emotional, it’s a poetic mysticism.
OUR PAINTERS HAVE FOLLOWED THE FASHION
You will see fine painting and technique in any of Osman Hamdi Bey’s canvases, from the smallest right up to the largest. Many painters were sent abroad after the founding of the Republic. That whole generation, from Bedri Rahmi to Nurullah Berk, they all went to work with Derain or Levy. There was a shift to modernism in the 1930’s. Bedri Rahmi looked to Dufy and to my beloved Albert Marquet. Ali Çelebi looked to a German Constructivist painter. Cubism was in vogue at the time and Nurullah Berk painted in that style. Whatever the fashion was in painting, they all followed it slavishly. They did not develop their own style or content in painting.