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Reframing Ottoman Art Histories: Bringing Silenced Voices Back into the Picture

Faire entendre la polyphonie du passé : pour une histoire repensée des arts ottomans
Vazken Khatchig Davidian
p. 7-17


Ce texte est l’introduction du numéro spécial de la revue Études arméniennes contemporaines intitulé « Pour des histoires de l’art plurielles : redonner voix aux Arméniens ottomans ».

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Entrées d’index

Mots-clés :



Art history

Index géographique :

Empire ottoman, Arménie, Turquie
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  • 1 G. Kürkman, 2004.

1An unexpected encounter in 2004 with the two weighty tomes of Garo Kürkman’s Armenian Painters in the Ottoman Empire1, displayed prominently in a bookshop window, became the trigger point that led to the raising of pertinent questions regarding the manner in which art histories are produced. Beyond the immediate curiosity surrounding the artists’ identities collated in Kürkman’s compendium, arose the niggling realisation that even the names and oeuvre of those who had been highly influential and respected figures during their lifetimes did not feature in art history. How could such striking absences from the art historical literatures of the Ottoman Empire, or Turkish and Armenian art historiographies, be explained?

  • 2 Here, the term “artist” is expanded to its widest sense to include the men and women who engaged wi (...)

2The themes of presence in and absence from art history and art historiographies act as the common threads that run through, and connect, the seven essays that comprise this volume. Yet, while the focus here is very much on art history, and art practice, it should be noted at the outset that the concerns raised transcend the merely art-historical: cutting across disciplines, they go straight to the heart of the manner in which the turbulent and heavily politicised seas of the Ottoman historical past are navigated by historians of all stripes and shades today. For, broaching questions of representation and misrepresentation, and inclusion in and exclusion from art history, directly mirror what are in fact much broader and deeper, even overarching features, omnipresent in the production of Ottoman histories, with their manifestations in art history only symptomatic of a greater malaise. Meanwhile, despite the emphasis on Ottoman Armenian artists2, this volume poses no interest in the construction of a crude unitary, fixed and exclusive canonical record, itself very much the domain of nationalist art historiographies lifted from Eurocentric teleological canonical models, or in the production of a survey of artistic contributions of members of a single, “distinct” ethno-religious community. Instead, these essays ought to be regarded as party to a wider discussion currently taking place under a revisionist framework that extends beyond art history. This is one that questions and confronts the manner in which all non-dominant Ottoman voices that do not neatly fit into the reductive hegemonic nation-centric historical narratives have been excluded and written out of history; reflects upon how they can be restored onto their rightful historical landscape; and, calls for their inclusion. Advocating new types of methodologically and empirically sound Ottoman histories that challenge the misconstrued and misrepresented historical pasts projected by dominant historiographies, they critique the problematic and inadequate approaches of both Ottomanist and nationalist/nation-centric historiographies.

  • 3 See D. Quataert, 2006; D. Gutman, 2015.

3Art history, and its methodologies, with its inherent openness and multidisciplinary reach, has a particularly valuable role to play in the revisionist Ottoman historiographic project. For falsifying, manipulating and silencing the visual properties of the image, the artefact or structure, active historical documents in their own right that speak and not merely passively illustrate, short of their total annihilation, often prove far harder to tamper with than the text: a building, a photograph or a painting, as storehouses of meanings and barometers of historical moments are much harder to misrepresent or ignore completely as silenced and covered up signs always find a way to leak out. Moreover, while introducing Ottoman Armenian voices into this discussion might seem as good as any of a score of others, when it comes to reframing the Ottoman art historiographic lens, their consideration has an especially instructive role to play: after all, Ottoman Armenians represent the one significant native Ottoman group with a wide geographic reach whose contribution, particularly prominent throughout the long nineteenth century, has played a major role in shaping all aspects of Ottoman visual culture (and not just visual culture). For Ottoman art history, without its Armenian actors – artists, architects, photographers, sculptors, calligraphers, craftsmen and women, decorators, patrons, dealers – is untenable. Yet, beyond a handful of very recent studies by art and architectural historians within Turkey and abroad at long last beginning to explore their legacies, there still exists a pervading disinterestedness and reluctance, even unwillingness, to discuss contributions by Ottoman Armenians to the arts openly, honestly and critically. This is of course a reflection of the wider attitudes present throughout all areas of Ottoman Studies. One needs only revisit the debacle around prominent economic historian Donald Quataert’s resignation from the Institute of Turkish Studies in the USA in 2006 to grasp the depth and magnitude of the problem.3

  • 4 J. Elkins, 2007, pp. 9-10.
  • 5 Ibid.
  • 6 S. Errington, 2007, p. 417.

4In his 2006 essay Is Art History Global? the art historian James Elkins dispels the assumption that “art historians are driven by purely personal passions, unconnected to politics or by a disinterested sense of historical veracity”, thereby exposing close affiliations between art history and national and regional identities as being the driving force behind art historians’ interests.4 He explains that “senses of nationalism and ethnicity have been sometimes the explicit impetus behind art historical research from its origins in Vasari and Winckelmann” thereby strongly affecting their content.5 After all, as cultural anthropologist Shelly Errington has observed, both art history as discipline and the nation state were inventions of the nineteenth century, alongside the accomplishment of European colonial expansion.6 In view of these observations, therefore, it is unsurprising that world art historiography is dominated by canonical, linear Eurocentric/western-centric narratives, frameworks and categorizations, in which the work of the non-western Other is sidelined, either through the fabrication of categories such as “Islamic” or “Primitive” art, or, in the case of non-western artists working in western modes of production – such as oil on canvas painting and photography – simply deemed unworthy of study and dismissed as mimetic and derivative of a western art tradition. It is to rectify this problem that, starting with the art historian John Onians in 1996, calls for a concept of world art studies where the subject can be approached from a global perspective across time and place, and studied from all relevant disciplinary viewpoints, have been made. Yet to this day, the art production of non-Western artists, such as the diverse work included in Kürkman’s compendium, is absent from dominant art histories, plagued by strong Western-centric biases.

  • 7 While the present Republic of Armenia is not a post-Ottoman state territorially, major segments of (...)
  • 8 C. Philliou, 2008, p. 662.
  • 9 See e.g. L. Chookaszian, 2011; A. Aghasyan, 2009.
  • 10 See Z. Çelik, 2002, pp. 19-26.

5Meanwhile, the art-historiographies of the successor states and communities7 emerging from the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire, replicating the above models, have imposed them on the constructed spaces of the nation or national group, through the invented category of “national art”. The art historiographies of these states and communities provide an art historical dimension to historian Christine Philliou’s apt observation that the production of history “amounted to a consensus to negate a common Ottoman past and promote distinct national pasts, presents, and futures”.8 It is not difficult to see the deeply troubling essentialist currents underwriting many of these hegemonic narratives present in vast tracts of Turkish, but also Armenian (and other) art historiographies. While the former constructs an artificial Turkish-Ottoman art historical canon, aimed at specifically eradicating all non-“Turkish” Ottoman artists, the latter privileges the output of mostly Russian Armenian artists as subservient to the cause of an imagined national liberation ideology. Needless to say the Ottoman Armenian artist is excluded from both these mostly twentieth century nation-centric historiographies. The Armenian and non-Muslim identities of the artists (and often subjects) disrupt the nationalist Turkish imagination, complicate and challenge the Kemalist project of “Turkification”, that appropriates vast areas of the Ottoman art historical space for the Turkish nation. Meanwhile, any representation of, and interaction with, the artists’ Ottoman context and cultural environment complicate myopic nationalist Armenian views, bolstered through the additional traumatic prism of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1916, that render all aspects of Ottoman and Armenian coexistence, integration and experience as negative. Approaches of establishment art historians and institutions in Armenia have further exacerbated this problem and, in the rare instances when Ottoman Armenian artists, such as Arshag Fetvadjian (1866-1947) and Panos Terlemezian (1865-1941), have been conscripted into the straightjacket of an invented Armenian “national” canon, they have been stripped bare of any “Ottomanness” or other identities9. Recent approaches by some Turkish art historians, adopting binary interpretations of postcolonial methodologies that advocate “speaking back” to and disrupting a Western dominated canonical historiography have so far merely replicated one dominant gaze for another, the “national”. In these works, making extremely narrow, selective uses of material, the Ottoman artist becomes the “Turkish” artist, imagined as resisting “Western colonialism”10.

  • 11 E. Rogan, 2015, p. xi.
  • 12 M. Roberts, 2015, p. 4.
  • 13 See W.M.K. Shaw, 2011, p. 188, fn. 17.
  • 14 E. Eldem, 2009, p. 39.

6The historian Eugene Rogan has rightly observed that the standard practice that had emerged by the early twentieth century to refer to the Ottoman Empire as Turkey “neglected the ethnic and religious diversity of the Ottoman Empire, where Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, and Armenians had as much claim to an Ottoman identity as Turks did”.11 It is troubling that even sophisticated recent art histories suffer from inconsistencies when they discuss the work of “Ottoman Armenian” or “Ottoman Greek” artists but of “Ottomans” when referring to Ottoman Muslims, perpetuating the implication that Ottoman Armenian or other artists were somehow not quite as “Ottoman” as their fellow subjects, thereby often unwittingly reinforcing nationalist equations of “Turk” with “Ottoman”.12 Some art historians underplay such exclusion of not just Ottoman Armenian, but most non-Muslim, artists from Turkish art historiography as an oversight due to the emphases of Turkish ethnicity during the republican period13. These are not oversights: prejudice and chauvinism manifest themselves in ways that range from the very subtle, yet deliberate, erasure of all non-“Turkish” voices to the crude, unscholarly and racist, while others resort to self-censorship. Historian Edhem Eldem’s forceful reaction against this overall environment is entirely justified when he writes that “Turkish historians should not be allowed [his italics] to write Ottoman history alone [… w]hat needs to be done is for non-Turks to reclaim […] their part of the Ottoman past, however painful this may be”.14

7This volume, a partial heeding to Eldem’s call, aims to repopulate the Ottoman art historical landscape with some of its Ottoman Armenian actors. For after all, despite an acutely painful historical baggage, deeply scarred by massacre and tainted by wholesale extermination, mass violence alone does not explain, define or represent the centuries of the Ottoman Armenian historical experience nor does it present the whole picture. From the vantage point of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1916, it is high time that scholars at last begin to critically engage with the vast and diverse abandoned tracts of the Armenian Ottoman historical past that have been relegated to a historical wasteland for an entire century.

  • 15 C. Philliou, 2011, p. xxvii.
  • 16 A. Assmann, 2011, p. 328.

8To do so effectively it is the archive – the collective, cumulative and inclusive Ottoman historical archive – that they must turn to. Philliou is correct when she observes that the various archives scattered throughout the post-Ottoman world show “that the larger Ottoman story does not begin and end at the Prime Ministry Archives of İstanbul (as important and abundant as those archives are) and cannot be fully appreciated without the experiences, activities, and vantage point of Ottoman Christian elites”.15 While Philliou’s reference is to Ottoman Greek sources and the sphere of Ottoman governance, her argument holds true for all areas of engagement with the Ottoman historical past, and especially so in the realm of cultural production and the arts. Here the archive is far larger than the Topkapi Archives and those of national institutions, palaces and museums. After all, an overwhelming and unbalanced reliance on controlled state archives results in the production of skewed histories that normalise and project singular official positions. As literary theoretician Aleida Assmann, paraphrasing Jacques Derrida, has posited “control of the archive means control of memory”, itself a political act.16 The multilingual, multi-confessional and multi-ethnic composition of Ottoman society ensures that diverse archives and memories, spread wide and far across the post-Ottoman world, cannot be controlled nor silenced and will always challenge reductive official versions imposed onto diverse Ottoman pasts.

  • 17 R. Antaramian, 2014, pp. 194-195.

9Yet, the continuing unwillingness to seek out, question and consider alternative Ottoman views and counterpoints to the overbearing dominance of the perspective of the central state persists to typify the practice of most scholars venturing into the Ottoman historical past to this day. Herein lies the state’s archive’s ability to impose itself onto the historiographic body without check. Meanwhile, the politicisation of history has ensured that the problem remains particularly pronounced when it comes to the treatment of Ottoman Armenians, with Ottomanist scholars often not adhering to the same academic standards that they purport to maintain elsewhere. The historian Richard Antaramian has rightly observed the shared epistemology between Turkish nationalist and “the more scholarly brand of Ottoman social and cultural history […] haring the same pernicious flaw as that of nationalist narratives, [where] much of the professional Ottomanist scholarship reproduces and normalizes the views of the Ottoman state and state officials”.17 Yet many historians of the Ottoman Empire remain unconcerned and unfazed by the statist biases that their own works replicate. It is here that the archive must speak back, and expose the untenable and flawed foundations of their work for what they are. For, how much longer will these scholars be able to maintain the pretence that they are presenting a true and representative picture of an empire’s history and society when they are obliged to encounter, confront and respond to the rich archival record, and pay attention to the overwhelming multiplicity of voices that they have hitherto through indifference, laziness or political expediency been determined to ignore?

10Within this environment the important unutilised Ottoman Armenian archive has a crucial role to play. Despite the overwhelming destruction of the last century, it is, and remains, formidable and wide-ranging, having survived thanks to the decentralised nature of much Armenian organisation. Thousands upon thousands of documents, texts and images hold crucial material that shed light on every aspect of Ottoman history and society, and document every area of the Ottoman Armenian historical past. Yet, wantonly neglected, they await to be interrogated by scholars. While it is understandable that most academics are not conversant in Western Armenian, the apparent lack of curiosity of what these archives might hold is inexcusable.

  • 18 Aikaterini Gegisian was one of the eighteen selected artists. The exhibition, curated by Adelina (...)
  • 19 See A. Cüberyan von Fürstenberg, 2015.

11That this volume is a publication of the foremost repository of archival material on the Ottoman Armenians in Europe, the AGBU Nubar Library in Paris, should not come as a surprise, and is far from accidental. The most important institution of its type, it was strategically established in Paris in the 1920s by visionaries Boghos Nubar Pasha (1851-1930) and Aram Andonian (1875-1952). Its rich resources make it an indispensable archive in the study of Ottoman history. In a sense, through the publication of this volume it is the Nubar archive that is speaking back to the inadequate and deeply problematic art historiographic record on the Ottoman Empire. Here, the archive, acting as the great enabler, allows hitherto accepted truths, distortions and myths to be challenged and dismantled, for the first four studies presented on the following pages are the fruit of encounters, planned or accidental, wholly or in part, with texts and images from its unique collections: David Low’s study on provincial photographers in Ottoman Armenia provides a conscious stepping away from the dominance of Constantinople-centric narratives and an opening up of provincial life through the photographic lens and the pen of Ottoman Armenian actors in Kharpert (Harput); Alyson Wharton departs from the figure of the celebrated architect to that of the often unsung craftsman and decorator by exploring the work of Sopon Bezirdjian; Gizem Tongo considers the different identities of the artist Panos Terlemezian, lionised by Armenian historiography but a reviled persona non grata in “Turkish” art histories; Vazken Khatchig Davidian delves into hitherto unexplored genres of art criticism and the visual arts associated with the Constantinople Realist Generation of the 1880s. Meanwhile, Eray Çaylı articulates the notion of accident and geographical feature as actor and partaker in research through the conceptualisation of experiences of unintended encounters with Ottoman Armenians. In the final section, two practice based texts by artists Helin Anahit and Aikaterini Gegisian present highly subjective and personal artistic responses that revisit and contemplate their own Ottoman historical pasts and presents. In this, the centenary of the Genocide, such engagement with complex identities is highly topical, as was recently reflected and vividly exemplified by the work of the eighteen Diasporan artists18 whose collective exhibition, Armenity/Հայութիւն, representing the Republic of Armenia at the Venice Biennale of 201519, was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion for best national pavilion.


  • 20 See W.M.K. Shaw, 2011, pp. 20-30, 36-39; M. Roberts, 2015, pp. 129-136.

12This volume is intended as one small step towards a reframing of Ottoman art history, in the hope of making it more representative and inclusive. In so doing, it also aims to reintroduce, and underline the essential role, of the neglected archive into the discourse. After all, Kürkman’s Armenian Painters in the Ottoman Empire too constitutes one such archive: for its compiler, through the processes of collecting, collating and publishing, has made available a consolidated and collective body of visual documents, that would otherwise have remained scattered, hidden, and in the dark. The result has been that they can no longer be ignored by art historians: the recent welcome reintegration of some Ottoman Armenian artists into the studies of progressive art historians is not accidental but is to a great extent a response to the archive that Kürkman has brought to light and made public.20 Yet, this is only a small step: there remains so much more to be done in order to return to art history the voices of all Ottoman artists, be they Greek, Jewish, Levantine, Assyrian, Arab, Kurdish, Albanian, and other, that have until now been kept silent. Only by reintroducing them into the discourse we can truly complicate and disrupt inherited or newly constructed historiographic structures, while in the process, gaining a more accurate, nuanced and complete picture of the art and social history of an empire. In ending, this volume would have been impossible without the hard work of the scholars involved and the encouragement, crucial input and constructive comments of all the anonymous reviewers. I would like to express my gratitude to them all for their invaluable contributions to the discussion.

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Aghasyan Ararat, Հայ Կերպարրվեստի Զարգացման Ուղիները XIX-XX Դարերում [The Ways of the Development of Armenian Fine Arts of the 19th-20th Centuries], Yerevan: Voskan Yerevantsi Publishing House, National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, Institute of Fine Arts, 2009.

Antaramian Richard Edward, In Subversive Service of the Sublime State: Armenians and Ottoman State Power, 1844-1896, University of Michigan: PhD thesis, 2014.

Assmann Aleida, Cultural Memory and Western Civilisation: Arts of Memory, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Çelik Zeynep, “Speaking Back to Orientalist Discourse”, in Jill Beaulieu and Mary Roberts (eds.) Orientalism’s Interlocutors: Painting, Architecture, Photography, Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 19-41.

Chookaszian Levon, Արշակ Ֆեթվաճեան [Arshag Fetvadjian], Yerevan: Printinfo, 2011.

Cüberyan von Fürstenberg Adelina, Armenity/Հայութն: Contemporary Artists from the Armenian Diaspora, Milan: Skira Editore, 2015.

Eldem Edhem, “Greece and the Greeks in Ottoman History and Turkish Historiography”, The Historical Review, 2009, vol. 6, pp. 27-40.

Elkins James (ed.), Is Art History Global?, London: Routledge, 2007.

Errington Shelly, “Globalizing Art History”, in J. Elkins (ed.), 2007, pp. 405-440.

Gutman David, “Ottoman Historiography and the End of the Genocide Taboo: Writing the Armenian Genocide into Late Ottoman History”, Journal of Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, 2015, pp. 167-183.

Kürkman Garo, Armenian Painters in the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul: Matusalem Publications, 2004.

Philliou Christine, “The Paradox of Perceptions: Interpreting the Ottoman Past through the National Present”, Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 44, no. 5, September 2008, pp. 661-675.

Philliou Christine, Biography of an Empire: Governing Ottomans in an Age of Revolution, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011.

Quataert Donald, “The Massacres of Ottoman Armenians and the Writing of Ottoman History”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 37, no. 2, Autumn 2006, pp. 249-259.

Roberts Mary, Istanbul Exchanges: Ottomans, Orientalists and Nineteenth Century Visual Culture, Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

Rogan Eugene, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920, London: Allen Lane, 2015.

Shaw Wendy M.K., Ottoman Painting: Reflections of Western Art From the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic, London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

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1 G. Kürkman, 2004.

2 Here, the term “artist” is expanded to its widest sense to include the men and women who engaged with visual arts of all types: painters, photographers, architects, decorators, crafts-persons, and others.

3 See D. Quataert, 2006; D. Gutman, 2015.

4 J. Elkins, 2007, pp. 9-10.

5 Ibid.

6 S. Errington, 2007, p. 417.

7 While the present Republic of Armenia is not a post-Ottoman state territorially, major segments of its population trace their origins to numerous nineteenth and early twentieth century migrations or forced relocations from Ottoman Armenia or the wider empire: beginning with those immediately after the 1828 annexation by the Russian Empire of large tracts of Persian Armenia, to the thousands fleeing the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1916, and the waves of repatriation during Soviet times. As such, I would argue that Armenia is a post-Ottoman state from a societal viewpoint. Likewise, the post-1915 Armenian diasporas are very much post-Ottoman communities.

8 C. Philliou, 2008, p. 662.

9 See e.g. L. Chookaszian, 2011; A. Aghasyan, 2009.

10 See Z. Çelik, 2002, pp. 19-26.

11 E. Rogan, 2015, p. xi.

12 M. Roberts, 2015, p. 4.

13 See W.M.K. Shaw, 2011, p. 188, fn. 17.

14 E. Eldem, 2009, p. 39.

15 C. Philliou, 2011, p. xxvii.

16 A. Assmann, 2011, p. 328.

17 R. Antaramian, 2014, pp. 194-195.

18 Aikaterini Gegisian was one of the eighteen selected artists. The exhibition, curated by Adelina Cüberyan von Fürstenberg, transformed the entire island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni into an art space.

19 See A. Cüberyan von Fürstenberg, 2015.

20 See W.M.K. Shaw, 2011, pp. 20-30, 36-39; M. Roberts, 2015, pp. 129-136.

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Vazken Khatchig Davidian

Birkbeck College, University of London

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