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Interview with Devrim Erbil

Photo: Devrim Erbil - Turkishtime
 Untitled Document

The following is the interview with famous Turkish painter Devrim Erbil published in June 2003 issue of the Turkishtime.

We visited one of the masters of Turkish painting, Devrim Erbil in his workshop.

Devrim Erbil's home-workshop is on a road in Suadiye where old apartment buildings are spaced by magnolia and hyacinth trees. Inside, there are loads of huge paintings, engraving, stained-glasses, exhibition and conference posters and carpets, the designs of which are woven. One of the forerunners of carpet-painting in Turkey and around the world, Erbil's designs were put on to machine-woven carpets by Penelope Fabrics a short time ago. The subject headings of our conversation multiplied…When we went there, we interrupted his chat with fellow artists, but by virtue of this, we enjoyed a long and enjoyable chitchat with him.

TURKISHTiME: Seems like many people knock on the door of your workshop and there is no limit to chatting…
DEVRİM ERBİL: Since it is linked with the identity of an artist, I think that a workshop is a very important space. In our time, there were very few painters with their own workshops. Even Bedri Rahmi only had a workshop much later. I met with Yaşar Kemal (Turkish author) there, with Ms. Füreya (ceramic artist), Azra Erhat (critic and writer), Sabahattin Eyüboğlu (writer)…Chats, discussions, quarrels were always present; it was a place that was alive. It was difficult to own a workshop. Also, spouses of artists are not always easy people. They grumble about the smell of paint, this and that. Now artists have such workshops, pools and so forth; I'm actually envious. In our time, there were two galleries. When I went to Madrid for my specialization, I looked up to it. Paintings were not sold, there was no such thing as being a state artist, with the worst possibility, one would be a high school art teacher.

Are the new workshops, places like you recall, noisy, tempestuous and breathing like the workshop of Bedri Rahmi or did the notion of workshop turn into individual areas of work?
First, where there is an artist, fighting and noise won't be missed. This is the very nature of creativity. One can't be an artist without shooing anybody's chicken, as a teacher in school or a husband at home. Hence, workshop is an important place; I would give up my summerhouse, but not my workshop. I am also fussy, for example, the messiness of engraving did not fit here, so I separated it. Or else I love engraving; I think the democratic approach of sharing that is present in engraving is crucial.

With the support of Penelope Fabrics we had the chance to see your designs on machine woven carpets. But carpet-painting has been your area of interest for a long time. Is it the relatively more democratic sharing of art, just like engraving, that affects you?
Definitely, because this is my approach to art. When art is restricted to a limited circle, it does not mean much to me. It is not my word; art is a notion as old as is humanity. In primitive ages, life and art was within the most beautiful combination. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Bauhaus School was in an attempt to combine aesthetics and function, life with art. With the influence of my teachers, I have always seen art sharable. I also travel around Anatolia a lot, I see that Anatolia spawns a brand new culture from the diverse cultures within itself. That love of nature in tiles is so boisterous. I look at the carpets, the miniatures and in them I can see the sparkle in tradition. Carpets are especially important for me because my father's side is from Central Anatolia, Uşak. When I was a child, my aunts wove carpets at home. At my circumcision ceremony in 1947, my aunt who had probably never painted a picture in her life, gave me a small kilim she had woven as a gift. How can I not like carpets! Carpets are a Turkish gift to humanity.

How were you driven to carpets as works of art?
In the 1970s, Özdemir Altan won the big carpet competition of the State Radio House. He wove our work later. It was in this period that I came to love carpets. In 1991, I did a huge carpet-painting for the Honorary Hall of the Presidential Residence. On one wall was the one by Zeki Ormancı, on another wall, hung mine. These are the largest carpets woven as a work of art. 3.30 meters in height and 9.50 meters in length. Five people worked for a whole year for this. After this work, I did not want to stop pursuing it. We rented a place in İzmit and continued. After the earthquake, we had to vacate that place. At the moment, there is a workshop in Bursa where my carpets are woven. In Balıkesir, the governor's office set up a kilim workshop. They did very nice work there. In the meantime, we crossed roads with Penelope and we clicked. We looked to see what would happen if these carpets and kilims were woven in a machine and the results were amazing.

Isn't the production process peculiar? The pictures of an artist educated in the West but nurtured from the East, from his own land are produced with the technique of those lands, but in a machine made by human hands and maybe those carpets go to the West…
It really is peculiar. The kids at the academy have weaving workshops, too, but instead of taking this trouble; they go for more creative works where they can get quicker results. It isn't always possible to find trained personnel; machines can handle some details better. As a generation we haven't been too involved with machines, but if it can do what's in my mind…It is also important to keep it limited to a certain number like engraving; they are all certificated, special work. This is an avenue, if it can be established; it is something that will be interesting for foreigners as much as for us. For example, I met a French painter in Antalya. She wasn't a well-known painter in France, but she had told me, "If I paint, nobody would notice, but when I come here and weave them as carpets, I sell instantly". The wall carpet with pictures is no different than a picture. On another level, it is the synthesis of cultures. Carpet is a technique of tradition, but when it stays within the boundaries of traditions, it doesn't have much of a meaning.

Is the evasion of the young artists in the Academy of carpet work, one of the signs of the East-West conflict that can be dealt with in a much wider framework?
In Turkey, modernization has always been perceived as defying everything. Maybe this was necessary in the first years of the Republic, but it is now time to settle scores. I have always been against the way our generation was brought up. Art education used to start with Ancient Greece and 90% of workshops did not harp on Anatolia, Mesopotamia or Egypt. We viewed our culture from the perspective of Westerners. Certain imitationist art currents have been very popular. There are still extensions of these so I say now is the time to settle scores. There are now many opportunities for this. There were many people who thought the way I did before me, there still are. So it's not just me. Traditions are like genes, but one has to be aware of them and play around with them.

You were born in Uşak, grew up in Balıkesir and the "Devrim Erbil Art Museum" is in Balıkesir…
Because my father was a government official, we went to Balıkesir two or three years after Uşak and at that time we organized many activities there. In 1959, we founded the Balıkesir Culture Foundation. We published the New Resource magazine, organized festivals and exhibitions. Afterwards, my attachment to that place has never been severed. With the governor and my friend the mayor, we wanted to open a modern museum there, when it didn't happen, they said, "Let's do a museum of your pieces", that happened. Now the museum is going to move to its new building where there is going to be a modern art section.

I reckon there have been many trailing your path in your family…
Yes. My three wives were painters. All my kids, except the fourteen-year old from my third wife are interested in art. My elder daughter Çiğdem is a painter and academician at Yıldız University. My other daughter studied graphics in London, now she lives there. My son Evrim is an interior architect, he also lives abroad. I suppose we have a disposition...


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