Nuri İyem, a prominent Turkish painter (1915-2005), is best known for painting sad faces and Anatolian migrants. These were his signature themes. İyem’s good friend, the famous Turkish author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, described the faces he painted as “tight like a sculpture, elegant like twilight, and plain like old frescos and icons that carry within them the smell of time passed.”
Having lived in the US for over 40 years, I discovered Nuri İyem accidentally on the internet. One link led to another, and I found myself admiring one of his paintings. I could not take my eyes off of it for several minutes. There was something pleasantly familiar about the painting. Initially, I could not put my finger on it. Then I figured it out. The face I was admiring in the painting reminded me of my mother! It was as if my mother had posed for it when she was younger. I recall hopelessly trying to read and understand a lot from the beautiful hazel eyes of the woman in the painting – as if she were my mother longing to share with me many untold stories.
After this initial encounter, I started to read about Nuri İyem. I learned that his inspiration for the sad women faces he typically painted was his elder sister who had died years ago when he was just 7 years old. At that age, his sister was his main caregiver and he was deeply affected by her untimely death. Throughout his career, İyem painted many different women faces; but their eyes were always the same – shy, beautiful and melancholic.
İyem’s second favorite theme in his paintings, the Anatolian migrants, almost always reflected the migration of Anatolian people from rural to urban areas within the country, usually on foot, carrying all their belongings with them. These paintings are decidedly haunting and filled with an aura of sadness and great loss.
Even in his “migration” paintings, İyem consistently depicted the Anatolian women as workers making a living off of the land. In his later years, he became best known for this depiction. In 2005, after he died, the guests at his funeral service wore on their lapels a photo showing İyem standing in front of a painting symbolizing his beloved working Anatolian women.
Before long, I became an ardent admirer of Nuri İyem, especially of his sad women faces. They touch and move me in ways that no other painting has ever done. Thank you Nuri İyem for painting those fascinating faces, and thank you internet for giving me access to all this beauty. Next time I am in Istanbul, I plan to visit the Evin Art Gallery where some of İyem’s paintings are occasionally on display. After admiring them on the internet for so long, it will be a pleasure to see some of these paintings in person. I can hardly wait!
But for now, I continue to daydream, imagining myself standing in front of my favorite İyem painting, the one reminding me my mother, admiring it in total awe and feeling endlessly grateful for the opportunity.
Aysel K. Basci is a new writer working in nonfiction. She was born in Cyprus and moved to the United States at age 19. Her writing recently appeared in the Bosphorus Review of Books and the Adelaide Literary Magazine.