Issue #89

Winter 2024

Disappearance of the Iznikk Motifs: Theft or Flight?

by Patricia Newbery

Disappearance of the Iznik motifs: theft or flight? by Horace Monk, Emeritus Mimar Sinan Professor of the History of Ottoman Art and Architecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies. The Ottoman Review, vol. 54, no. 1, Spring 1988.

Scholars have long agreed that, in the first year of the Great War, Enver Pasha, the Young Turk Minister of War, ordered all Iznik motifs[1] to be locked in a bank vault. What remains in dispute is why: most scholars believe it was to protect them during the hostilities, but a significant minority has always argued that the motifs – so closely associated with Ottoman power at its zenith – were incarcerated to prevent the uprising they were believed to be planning in support of the beleaguered imperial family.

The protective school poured scorn on the notion that the Young Turks could have felt threatened by the pallid shadows the motifs had become since their brief heyday more than three centuries before but, in 1952, a young Frenchman[2] researching the run-up to the war in the archives of the Sublime Porte chanced upon a document that lent credence to the theory.[3] It appeared to be a spy's report that some of the motifs – the tulip, the tiger stripe and its frequent companion the triple spot are explicitly mentioned – planned to travel to Eastern Anatolia where they hoped to recover two of their lost colours, the high-relief bole red and the much rarer and less manageable emerald green. The defensive school seized upon this to point out that, clothed in their ancestral colours, the motifs would have been formidable opponents.

It has never been established when the motifs disappeared from the bank vault in which they were confined; much less if they were stolen or escaped. For several decades, few people knew its location, though it was assumed to be in Istanbul. With the rise of Ataturk, that city, its centuries of glory distant long before the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, suffered the further indignity of losing its status as capital. To the ravages of earthquake, fire and war was added that deadliest of afflictions, neglect. I lived in Istanbul in the 1930s and well remember how, walking through its streets and lanes at night, its disintegration was audible, while, by day, the dilapidated and abandoned buildings, the heaps of rubble where one had finally succumbed to despair, were a constant reminder to the city of the low esteem in which it was now held.

In 1975, the crates that once held the motifs were found in a sound, if shabby, art nouveau building. Originally a bank, it had for some decades housed the offices of several small companies. When the engineers and architects who were to renovate it made their initial inspection, they began by descending the winding stair to the basement, where they found an open door with the words Coffres Forts above the lintel. Passing through it, they entered a series of vaults. In the first, a single smashed crate lay on its side. In the second, scores of small crates were stacked chaotically against the curved wall; others were scattered about the floor. The scene in the third vault was reminiscent of an ancient burial chamber: one huge crate stood sarcophagus-like at its centre, while three much smaller ones lay to one side.

All the small crates were labelled in Ottoman Turkish. The specialist called in to inspect them reported that the labels referred to the motif or motifs each crate had contained. The large crate in the innermost vault was not labelled, but was punctured by dozens of holes in the shapes of many of the motifs. Three of the small crates in the second vault were similarly holed, two by single motifs (the tulip and the carnation), the third by the tiger stripe and the triple spot.[4] It was this that led some to believe that the motifs had not been stolen, but had escaped: that the tulip, the carnation, the tiger stripe and the triple spot had broken out of their crates and released their fellows.

The discovery was a short-lived sensation in the popular press at a time of mounting political violence in Turkey. In academic circles, it occasioned more sustained discussion, but along familiar lines. The defensive school interpreted the scene in the vaults as a vindication of their view that the motifs had been locked up to prevent an insurrection. The protective school claimed it was a hoax, seizing on an article in The New York Times[5] in which prominent art critic Joseph Warner[6] described the scene as ‘an art installation' and its discovery as a ‘stunt'.

Even in academic circles, debate soon died down. Many of those who, between the wars, had been exercised by the question of the fate of the motifs were long dead and few younger scholars were interested. It was noted as an aside in one article that, despite their absence from the bank vault, none of the motifs had been seen for years, except where they had always been, on tiles and other wares that had survived from the sixteenth century. But then, two years ago, several motifs, notably the tulip and the carnation, appeared on contemporary vases and plates exhibited at the First International Congress on Turkish Tiles and Ceramics, held in Kütahya, and some months later on wares displayed in an Istanbul gallery. Unlike the insipid imitations stencilled onto cheap crockery previously available, these motifs are undoubtedly genuine and their colours bright and intense. It is even suggested that the lost bole red – or something very like it – is in evidence in places.

All the new pieces are by Mehmet Gürsoy, a young potter working in Kütahya. While his work has received universal praise, he has been criticised for calling his atelier ‘Iznik Çini'.[7] His riposte is that ‘Iznik' is now associated less with the town itself than with the excellence of the wares once produced there. He has not divulged how the motifs came into his hands or how he succeeded in producing a colour at least equal in beauty to bole red.

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[1] The conventional term ‘Iznik motifs' is misleading. The motifs used by Iznik potters were widely employed by carpetmakers, embroiderers, stonemasons, armourers and other Ottoman craftsmen. There is, moreover, not a shred of evidence that any originated on wares made at Iznik, but a great deal that some had their origins elsewhere. There can be no doubt, for example, that the wave arrived in Ottoman lands on Chinese porcelain, while the Tughra-illuminator style of decoration was derived from the Sultan's calligraphic signature. Certain pigments used on Iznik ceramics in the second half of the sixteenth century are undoubtedly unique, however.

[2] Jean-Charles Empereur, who abandoned academic life under something of a cloud shortly afterwards and became an artist.

[3] The document remains unpublished.

[4] The triple spot consists of three spots or balls of equal size arranged to form a triangle. It often appears between rows of wavy lines reminiscent of a tiger's stripes to form a motif known as Chintamani.

[5] ‘Installation Masquerades as Crime Scene', October 11, 1975.

[6] Warner is also an expert in ceramics from the Islamic world.

[7] https://www.iznikcini.com/

Author Bio

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Patricia Newbery's work has appeared in magazines such as Ambit, The Citron Review and The Rupture, and been shortlisted/highly commended for various prizes. She's a British/Irish translator and editor and lives in Egypt. The original inspiration for this piece was the installation 'Another letter to the reader' by Walid Raad shown at the 15th Istanbul biennial in 2015.