When you look at old photos of Istanbul, you will find the city more exotic in the 1970s. The city was alive as a bustling market at that time, and many American cars were driving through the streets. At the time, a high school teenager was graduating from Kabataş High School, where he was educated and heading to the coastal town of Fındıklı where his greatest pleasure was catching fish. However, he did not know that he was catching fish in the garden of Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts, now known as Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts. One day he left the garden and entered the huge building behind him. Once inside, he was mesmerized by an exhibit on display. He could not understand for a few minutes why these works of art were here, but then learned that it was the famous Turkish art academy.
This high school student was the gifted artist Ahmet Özel, and it was his first encounter with Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts, founded by famous Turkish painter Osman Hamdi Bey as the first fine arts education institution. in Turkey. Özel does not come from a family of artists. He was the son of a migrant family who tried to survive in harsh conditions. But there was one thing for sure: he had a talent for painting. Everyone thought he was talented but no one steered him towards a career in this field. It was his first encounter with the academy that motivated and encouraged him. Subsequently, Özel decided to receive an education in its magical atmosphere. He was not well prepared but passed the entrance exams. As you can imagine, he succeeded and entered the world of painting.
Although his first brushstroke on canvas was a stroke of luck, he took firm steps towards painting and became one of the most productive Turkish artists. I interviewed him about his latest exhibition “İç Güneş” (“Inner Sun”), which opened on March 16 at Diani Gallery and on display until April 6, I found myself in an intense conversation in one minute. I was looking at a wise man with a cultural and informational accumulation of years. The more he talked, the more curious I became about his art and his point of view.
I learned the aforementioned details about his discovery of art and then wanted to know more about his style and themes. Before coming to the interview, I saw on the internet that art critic Ruşen Eşref Yılmaz was praising Özel’s works. He said, “Ahmet Özel’s painting is a set of polysemic phenomena that imply the existence of human beings as part of the cosmic universe.” While Özel was talking about his themes, his lyrics reminded me of Yılmaz’s commentary. Özel was really in the individual journey of humans. He said he focused on people in his paintings until the 90s. Then, he leaned towards the theme of the sky. Özel values this inclination as a concept that developed in him to understand the universe and creation. The artist then began to reflect meteors on his canvas. These meteors transformed into angels and mother figures and finally into light. However, Özel emphasizes that he always scrutinized the creation of the universe and human beings with an intuition-based dialect and reflected it isolated from time and space in a mythological dimension with mystical arrangements.
Daily Sabah’s Irem Yaşar (R) with Ahmet Özel at Diani Gallery.
Noting that he always begins to paint without any preparation, Özel sees his works as a mirror for himself. He pointed out that the only thing he tries to do in his work is to reflect what he has inside. Executing his talent in an off-the-cuff manner, he said, “I don’t like to transfer something that has been completed in my mind. I like the improvisational process of painting. I don’t want to destroy the excitement that this provides me.”
Admiration for Bruegel
As I watched his devotion to his art with such deep longing as he spoke, my interest in knowing his ideas and feelings about famous artists grew. I couldn’t wait and asked him about the characters he looked up to. After this question, his eyes twinkled. The artist waited a second and said he was really moved especially by the work of one artist although there are many others he admires. This work was “The Blind Man Leading the Blind” (aka “The Parable of the Blind Man”) by Dutch Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel. He says he made a copy of this work during his academic years, and this painting became his source of inspiration from that day on. “Even if people don’t know it, this painting remains as a frame in all my productions,” he said.
At that precise moment, the founder of the Diani gallery, Telga Südor Mendi, interrupted the conversation with the same enthusiasm. She said she attended the comprehensive exhibition that the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna organized on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel.
As she spoke of how fascinated she was by all of Bruegel’s works, a rarity in the art world, Özel listened to her with admiration. Then, he recalled at first sight that he had seen “The Blind Leading the Blind”, which was kept in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. When he was in Italy for education on a scholarship he won, he visited the museum but didn’t know his beloved piece was here. He said he felt like he met an old friend when he first saw it and added that he watched it for half an hour at least to examine all the colors in it. .
I saw that Özel and Mendi share the same taste for art and the same feelings. It is therefore not surprising for me to see that these two have come together to open an exhibition. Indeed, they planned to hold this exhibition for many years. When every detail was ready, they decided to act. Özel works carefully in his personal exhibitions because he believes that all works should describe him and they should be close. His latest exhibition, “İç Güneş”, is also such a production. He chose each painting carefully and prepared everything, even the frames with care. Özel pointed out that he tried to reflect the healing and light of humanity in this exhibition by using mythological elements and descriptions of various rituals.
Özel is an artist who sees himself as part of society. For him, artists should not be seen as leaders or pioneers. Therefore, I can assure you that you will witness the artist’s modesty at “İç Güneş” as well as perfect brushstrokes and deep meanings behind the paintings, where you will accompany the epiphany of his own life through the abstract elements on display.