An Interview with Taner Ceylan

Published May 30, 2018 on Degree Critical.

Taner Ceylan. Ingres (2015); oil on canvas; 47. 5/8 x 35 7/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery

One of the most prominent figures in Turkish contemporary art, Taner Ceylan is renowned internationally for his hyperrealist paintings. What he strives for, though, is something beyond simple reproduction of reality—he’s after the sentiment. He calls his paintings works of “emotional realism,” and his process comes with technical, social, and even physical challenges: Ceylan is known to spend ten hours in front of his canvas, as still as he can be, without seeing anyone other than family and a couple of friends.

Ceylan lives in his invented world of dreams. This biosphere turns canvas into atmosphere and light, paint into skin, hair, and blood. In the dark corners of his paintings, he dines with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, smokes with Guiseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, and sings with Frida Kahlo: they are a secondary—though maybe an even more intimate—family for him. Amongst them hide emperors, lovers, dancers, boxers, and finally, infamous princesses and impossible blues.

Represented in the United States by Paul Kasmin Gallery, his nostalgically titled exhibition We Now Must Say Goodbye was on view from October 8–31, 2015.

This interview was originally conducted on October 9, 2015 in Turkish, and has been translated by the author. The text has been edited for clarity.

Cigdem Asatekin: How did you first come up with this project? What is the show at Paul Kasmin about?

Taner Ceylan: My exhibition is, in effect, a project that evolved by using art history and asking new questions. I interpret the art historical archive and form new inquiries; that’s the gist.

I recently began questioning the relations between a painter—that is, someone other than me—and his painting. I am a painter, and I believe profoundly in the work that comes out of my hands, the work and its feeling—its story. That’s why I started out with a desire to reproduce, replicate, and almost extract this work out of my system.

I am a very spiritual man, a very sensual man. I really think that I connect with painters, other creators like me, through my creative process. I conjure them and their souls. I mingle with their energies. Sometimes the painting develops with amazing coincidences. My hand makes things on its own. I mean, my work also has this sort of sensual and spiritual element to it. Maybe the spirits just make me do it! (Laughs) I don’t know, it is possible. Jokes aside, art history means a lot to me. And because of that, we’re hand in glove with these makers of art history, so to speak. Now it’s their turn to be at the center of my own making.

CA: Interesting, the Dorian Gray quote in the press release makes a lot of sense now. 

TC: Yes, what Oscar Wilde’s character Basil Hallward says in The Picture of Dorian Gray is very significant. “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter,” he says. “The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion.” What an amazing quote!

CA: Can you tell me a little bit about the structural process of the project in the current show?

TC: I started reading about the lives of both of Princesse de Broglie, the subject of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 19th-century portrait, and the painter himself; and there is really not much information. So I decided to start keeping diaries that imagined the princess’s daily life. As I said before, I tried to conjure the knowledge of my subjects; I called them to me. And that was the creative space in which I constructed the entire exhibition at Paul Kasmin Gallery. I fictionalized them.

One piece of solid historical information is that Ingres’s painting of the Princess was widely criticized when it came out because of its glamor. The infamous blue—which was studied and analyzed by many, only to be discovered it was impossible to be captured in the same tone again—is definitely an aspect of it, but other than that, the general atmosphere surrounding the princess was criticized for not belonging to her. It overshadowed her. The dress, the flamboyance of the chair, her hand fan, the gloves, even the light…What I mean is, when the painting was first presented, people said that the princess wasn’t as glamorous as the woman depicted. She was very religious, though intellectual—she wrote books. She was very quiet, very introverted, and she was so shy that she just couldn’t socialize; that sort of a lady.

In the end, when Ingres first showed the painting, people said, “This is not about the princess, it’s about you.” It comes around to Oscar Wilde’s words, in a sense. I dug up some quotes from Ingres himself about this work, about how he suffered producing it. “A very hard painting, it makes me suffer. Why do I even accept commissioned paintings anyway? I will never accept any commissions ever again.” He never did in the end. But then again, he was very pleased with the outcome of the princess’s portrait.

Ultimately, I ended up revealing the truth, by placing his head on the princess’s body. I also painted the head of the princess, on a small, separate canvas. I separated their souls from each other; I liberated both souls that were trapped inside the painting. Now they are free at last. This was the inspiration for the exhibition title, which is from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera: “We Now Must Say Goodbye.”

Taner Ceylan. Self Portrait [series of 6] (2015); graphite on paper; 13 3/4 x 9 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

CA: There are also drawings in Ingres’s style, with your portraits on them.

TC: Yes. In the end, this interpretation, this construction of the exhibition, is ultimately fictional. And it’s my fiction. I gave some thought about how I can disclose this, and I decided to place my head on top of self-portrait drawings by Ingres. The drawings are very specific; they put an end to all this: There is Ingres, and the princess, but no—this is Taner’s project. All of this is actually Taner.

CA: What can you say about this new series, in relation to your earlier work?

TC: The previous series was called The Lost Paintings. My point was to employ a critical approach to the Western Orientalist paintings. Those paintings from the past were showcasing the East in a way that doesn’t exist at all, like a fairytale: Too decorative, too empty, too westernized. You know, those slaves who worked painfully in the Harem were pictured as girls smoking, lying down, and posing. My purpose was to twist this way of thinking and to reveal the pain. In The Lost Paintings I altered the fiction and displayed the reality, just like I did with Ingres. One can call it lifting a veil. This idea is the main path I follow.

CA: How was the working process?

TC: Technically, it was so hard. I struggled a lot—a total challenge. That was one of the reasons I picked the portrait of the princess in particular. I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exactly a year ago, in October 2014, to see the painting. I wrote a letter to the curator, told him that I would like to reinterpret this painting, and asked for help. The curator suggested that they could send me a very high-resolution image, or that he could go to the painting with pantone color books in his hand and analyze it for me. But in the end we decided that I should be there myself. We went to the Met with loads of equipment, we analyzed the colors all day, took many pictures and data. I gathered all this information and got back to Istanbul.

But here is a very interesting fact: this is an impossible blue. It was genuinely impossible to capture this color in particular. Ingres put a lot of very transparent layers on top of each other to achieve this blue. I came close to it; but of course it is impossible to get it exactly right. I tried to produce something to grasp that certain feeling, as well as I could. I think it turned out pleasantly.

There is another painting on my mind now. It is an unfinished piece by William Adolphe Bouguereau. I have been thinking about it for years now, that it is not finished. I am obsessed with finishing it. Maybe now I can begin to do that.

CA: First you separated and freed the souls, and now it is time to integrate yourself with it?

TC: Totally. This playground is never-ending; it is limitless. This is the way my mind works, I function more with concepts. And I love realism. I am seeking the ways to bend concepts within the frames of realism. I like playing with concepts, not with paint and forms.

CA: Where does the term “emotional realism” come from?

TC: People call my work hyperrealist, or photo-realist. I can’t get on board with that. Their objective is making an artwork so real that every thread of hair or every single pore in the skin is real. But they don’t pursue the emotion. My purpose is this: When you look at my painting, don’t see the color red—see the blood. Don’t see the eyelids; see the gaze. I am after the sentiment. I am trying to take the viewer behind the image, beyond it.

But it is important to be very, very good at achieving this kind of realism. If someone sees the painting and thinks how bad it was painted, it wouldn’t work. You have to be meticulous. The technique has to be invisible. The paint has to be invisible.

Taner Ceylan. Princess Broglie (2015); oil on canvas; 15 3/4 x 11 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery

CA: What about abstraction? For example, a red Rothko painting also gives or evokes an emotion. It is not a symbol, yes; but it also does create something else from it?

TC: Rothko’s red is not a symbol. It is a space. Here is an example: When I was teaching Basic Design in Yeditepe University, I had a technique to help the students to understand abstract painting. I used to give each of them an abstract painting and ask them to envision a room for it. “Design a habitat, a living space for this, based only upon this painting.” They would create amazing things just by looking at the picture. They would understand just then: This is a suggestion of life. Abstract painting is something that opens up spaces, opens up life.

CA: How did this all start? When did you start painting?

TC: It runs in the family, actually. I had a rough childhood, grew up away from my mother and father, in between Germany and Turkey. My only escape was pencil and paper. When I was in the world I created, everything else would disappear; all the struggles and pain would go away. As a child, I was inside my own fantasia. And the next thing I know I’m 18, and then I’m 20, 30, 50. The world I created is too real.

I am not a social guy. And since my paintings are realistic in technique, people get really wrong ideas about my life. Especially about this series I painted starting from 2002, all about gay lives inside the hidden hotel rooms of Istanbul—the luxury, the sexuality. But they were all fantasies. They had a huge effect in Turkey at that time. People were shocked. “Where do you live? Who are you with, who are these people? Is this real?” People wanted to make films out of my life. But those weren’t real; they weren’t a documentation of my life. This is how genuinely I live in this fabricated world of mine. My technique is very conspicuous in terms of this as well. My paintings look real because I believed in my reality, I fell for it; and I still live there. That world that I created is very, very precious to me. It is beyond everything. It is my biosphere.