ISTANBUL: Ukranian painter Alexis Gritchenko came to Istanbul as a refugee from Moscow after the October Revolution, fell in love with the city’s Turkish Islamic aesthetic and woke up the city’s West-admiring painters from their deep ‘sleep’
Writers, poets, painters… Throughout its ancient history, Istanbul has hosted countless artists, and most of them bid farewell to it on their way to their hometowns, having fallen in love with it. Among them was a Ukranian painter, a “refugee” like those who are trying to find a way from the Middle East to Europe today.
Known for his love of Hagia Sophia, this person was Alexis Gritchenko of Ukrainian descent, who was one of Russia’s well-known painters and art historians.
In fact, Istanbul has called to Russians for hundreds of years. For many, it was the political significance of it, as stated by Napoleon: “He who conquers Constantinople rules half the world.” But Russians gave a different level of importance to the city due to its status as the heart of the fallen Byzantine Empire, an empire that has had much influence on Russian socio-religious life.
Gritchenko (1883-1977) was one of the indispensable figures of the modern art scene in Moscow. At the beginning of the 20th century, he participated in exhibitions with avant-garde painters, wrote art criticisms and gave lectures. He was especially a savant in the field of Byzantine art.
However, after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, Gritchenko was convinced that he could not stay in the country any longer.
“Art is becoming a tool of propaganda,” he had said as he fled to Istanbul on a ship from the lands where communism had begun to dominate.
However, he had not only escaped the oppressive regime, but he had also saved a painting technique entirely unique to himself by doing so. The technique and style that he had founded would be known as “dynamocolor,” an art movement influenced by cubism and futurism.
In love with Istanbul
When Gritchenko set foot in Istanbul in November 1919, the city was going through turbulent days under British occupation. But he was little interested in modern-day concerns. What called to Gritchenko was the traditional and historical aspects of the city that was scorned and dismissed by many Ottomans of the period.
He was fascinated with the historical peninsula and wandered every inch of it. Temples, side streets, boathouses and coffee houses…
He recorded his impressions of the vibrant ports, markets, sacred spaces, majestic monuments and the daily life of Istanbul while wandering through the streets, notepad, pen and brush in hand.
‘Did you pray today?’
He loved Hagia Sophia the most. He would depict praying Muslims, teachers and dervishes there with his unique style.
Although he was a non-Muslim, he would visit so many mosques that his Russian friends in Istanbul would joke with him when they stayed at his home, saying, “Did you pray today?” That is how some of his famous works were created, namely “Hamal in Prayer,” “Prayer Time” and “Four Men in Fezes.”
However, the refugee painter had arrived in Istanbul penniless and hit hard times in the city. He was forced to paint with watercolor due to his lack of funds, something he used to scorn.
Art in cemeteries
Despite his difficult circumstances, Gritchenko managed to attract the attention of the famous Turkish painters of the period with his art in what would be considered a short period of time. He established close friendships with artists like Ibrahim Çallı, Namık Ismail and Feyhaman Duran, and moreover influenced them with his art.
Gritchenko, with his broken Turkish, explained that French art could not be an aspiration for Turks and emphasized they should be inspired by the tombstones and miniatures of their culture. Çallı heeded what Gritchenko said.
Interestingly, it was a Ukranian painter who taught confused Turkish artists their own culture’s worth.
Ahmet Haşim, who was one of the famous writers of Turkish literature, had first judged Gritchenko to be mentally ill when he met him at Sanayi-i Nefise (Fine Arts), or today’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. However they became quick friends, and Haşim kept Gritchenko’s paintings at his home.
The extraordinary painter left Istanbul where he stayed for two years, after meeting the archaeologist Thomas Whittemore who became a great patron of his.
Unable to forget the city, Gritchenko opened exhibitions on the scented culture of Istanbul in France, where he settled. He also wrote a memoir called “Deux ans a Constantinople” (“Two Years in Istanbul”) and recorded those days in history.
Dozens of works of Gritchenko remain on display in more than 20 museums, archives and private collections around the world. It is known that the famous Turkish business owner and collector Ömer Koç is also a fan of his.
Not like Europe
In Gritchenko’s paintings in Istanbul, one encounters the heroes of the city from over which a fog has fallen. Figures from over a century ago, from sincere worshippers to hermit dervishes, from old fishers to men in fezzes. In the steamy paintings that Gritchenko created with his “dynamocolor” style, city walls, mosques, tombstones and other shrines and temples greet today with “hope.”
The paintings are infused with Gritchenko’s sentiments. As Gritchenko had once said, “Everything in this country is for painters … This place is not like Europe. I can take my every step according to my own will, desire, sometimes completely according to my exhibitions. This is the place of the painter.”
Sometimes it surprises you that he didn’t care about the other things that were going on in Istanbul in those years.
Of course, when you witness this artist who came to Istanbul as a refugee and his struggle to hold on to life, you envy him.