A Delightful Conversation with Süleyman Saim Tekcan on Art and Career

A Delightful Conversation with Süleyman Saim Tekcan on Art and Career

We are at the Istanbul Museum of Graphic Arts (IMOGA). This time we met with my esteemed teacher Professor Süleyman Saim Tekcan for an interview.

A Delightful Conversation with Süleyman Saim Tekcan on Art and Career
Photos by Serkan Eldeleklioğlu

We are at the Istanbul Museum of Graphic Arts (IMOGA). This time we met with my esteemed teacher Professor Süleyman Saim Tekcan for an interview. Our paths crossed years ago when I was not even an art student yet. More precisely, when my dear professor was the Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Işık University, he had visited my first solo exhibition at Ayazağa Işık High School, which was located right next to his building, and invited me to his chair to meet him. As someone who had the chance to work together in the same atelier environment, I would like to express once again that I am very happy to know him so closely from the dozens of conversations we had at the Imoga Museum, which was one of my indispensable stops when I came to Istanbul during my art education in London. Süleyman Saim Tekcan is a versatile artist, a mentor who has devoted himself to both his art and art education, who is successful in all branches of art such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, cinema. Again with all his sincerity, he welcomes me in his studio in the museum surrounded by his works and we start the interview…

You were born in Trabzon in 1940, and between 1958 and 1961 you studied at the Painting Department of Ankara Gazi Education Institute under teachers such as Refik Epikman, Veysel Erüstün and Şinasi Barutçu. So how did you meet the art of printing, which has an important place for you?

I worked in a printing house in Trabzon at a young age. This printing house was publishing the newspaper Sesi of Trabzon. I worked as a typesetter. The typesetter arranges the letters as words and places them on the caliper. These are shaped into a page and the pages are printed as a newspaper. I did all these works in my childhood. Then, of course, I was taking the newspaper under my arm and distributing it to subscribers in Trabzon. This is how I met with printing. Of course, it was not something I thought I would be a print artist in the future. Gazi Terbiye was a very important school. It was an education that started in a very important and special building founded by Atatürk and built by Architect Kemaleddin. There were many departments; literature, science, pedagogy, German, English, French, painting, music, etc. Gazi Terbiye was an institution that would raise Türkiye to its feet in terms of education. Gazi Terbiye, as it was then called, later became Gazi Education, and now Gazi University. Very recently, when I went to open the big exhibition at the National Library in Ankara, they invited me and gave me the biggest award of Gazi Terbiye. I felt that I stood in a very important place among the graduates of that school. Şinasi Barutçu was our Graphics teacher. There we learned how to make gravure, lithography and we practiced other printing techniques. In other words, my meeting with the printing arts, which we call artistic printing, started at Gazi Terbiye.

IMOGA is not only a museum but also a place that supports both mature artists and young artists, providing them with workshops or the opportunity to learn printmaking. I have also had the opportunity to make woodblock prints here many times… So how do these opportunities you offer interact with you and the museum? How did your museum adventure begin?

Actually, people who graduate from Gazi become teachers. I worked as a teacher in teacher schools in Artvin, Erzurum, Trabzon amongst some others. I established printing workshops in these places. Before I came to Istanbul and established the museum (IMOGA), the atmosphere that enabled me to become a multidimensional printmaker started when the ministry appointed me as a founding teacher at the Istanbul Atatürk Institute of Education, which was then called Istanbul Atatürk Institute of Education. I established a workshop there by carrying the lithography press and lithography stones that were not used in the state printing press. Then I established engraving and serigraphy workshops. Thus, workshops in the professional line were established at the Atatürk Institute of Education. At that time, I participated in an engraving competition organized by an important hotel to establish my own workshop. In the end, my engraving was awarded and I received a very serious amount of money. At that time, I had engraving presses, drying racks and all other elaborate production made for my own workshop and established my workshop. First it became Artess, then Çamlıca Art House and then a museum. This adventure lasted for a few years. In the meantime, I did research on printing arts in Germany. I researched the intricacies of the art of printing in many institutions. It was very difficult to buy a printing press in Türkiye. I made the printing press myself. This beautiful adventure, despite all these difficulties, was the reason why I was able to achieve the highest quality and highest level of printing in Türkiye. Some of the prints even won awards on the international platform. As a result of the high print quality, many professors from the Academy and artists from outside wanted to make prints in my studio. The art of printing has taken a very important place in the world of the last century. At a time when it was impossible to buy original oil paintings, print arts that the middle class could afford came to the agenda. Our atelier gave the biggest names of Turkish art the opportunity to work in this print studio, but it was never for money. The employees usually quit their jobs to pay off their debts and thus a collection was formed. One of the most important things in this museum is the “immortals corner”. That is the most important place here. We have a wall of portraits of artists who created works here, who are no longer alive but who left their mark on Imoga. For me, these are the immortals…

A Delightful Conversation with Süleyman Saim Tekcan on Art and Career

This (Imoga) is quite a big building. As far as I know, it was built as the first contemporary museum building in Türkiye and it is the first and only printmaking museum in Türkiye. It is also one of the largest printmaking museums in Europe. Did you aim for this?

We started with an international print biennial, but unfortunately we couldn’t organize the second one. Artists from many countries of the world participated in that biennial and we kept some of the works that won awards and were selected for exhibition. Some of them are on display in our museum today. Thus, we have many works from both Türkiye and the world in our museum. The foreign museum directors who came at that time also visited our museum during the biennial, attended our exhibitions and said that you are a museum that is at the top among nearly 10 graphic arts museums in the world. With 25,000 works – perhaps the richest collection in the world – we are a printmaking museum that also includes works by very important Renaissance artists such as Albert Dürer, Rembrandt and Goya. In order for students to benefit from all these opportunities, our museum can be visited free of charge. Thus, art education institutions come without interruption. Many educational institutions, including students from the Department of Painting and Drawing, visit the museum. Nearly 100,000 people visit the museum every year. This is a huge number for Türkiye, but if this museum were in Europe, it would be around a million people.

It is very valuable that you offer this opportunity. It is very important not only for the education at the school but also for the students to come and see these works, maybe sketch them.

Of course, as a result of 40-50 years of accumulation, we have so many works reproduced with different techniques. Although we change them on our walls from time to time, the works that we can exhibit constitute a very small part of our collection… For example, we have a library section where master’s and doctoral students come a lot. Students come, we meet them here and in a way we continue their art education here. I already call myself an art educator, I have been an art educator for 60 years.

A Delightful Conversation with Süleyman Saim Tekcan on Art and Career

You are one of the rare artists among Turkish painters who is identified with the horse symbol and uses this image. What do horses, which have formed your artist identity and become your signature, mean to you? In your early works, your “horon” or folklore-themed works evolve into the horse theme, how did this process progress?

Horse is part of my family. I actually have 7 important periods. This is stated in my books, but my grandmother was a Circassian woman who rode horses, so maybe the integration with the horse in my family starts from there. Then there is Nazım Hikmet’s famous poem: ” Galloping from farthest Asia and jutting out into the Mediterranean like a mare’s head—this country is ours”. We came on horseback, all empires are built with horses. Without the horse, no empire in the world would have been built. Now we use cars, but we ask “how many horsepower is the car?” so we still see it as a source of power. Not only that, the most important creature in what we call the golden measures is the horse and the human being. For this reason, it is a creature that has been painted in all ages, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and up to the present day.

A Delightful Conversation with Süleyman Saim Tekcan on Art and Career

You exhibit both paintings, prints and sculptures in every exhibition. Especially your exhibition ‘Cyclical Odyssey’ at Tophane-i Amire was a magnificent exhibition where all of them were together. Do you think it is important for an artist to use different mediums together?

Now of course there is a reason for this.  The most important reason is that I studied at Gazi Terbiye. When I studied there, I didn’t just study drawing and painting, I studied graphics, sculpture, ceramics, I learned wood carving, I got to know metal… It was a very interesting school. Maybe I can say that it was the institution that formed my identity as an artist today. Later, I worked as a teacher at the Academy, but at the Academy, all branches are one-on-one and you have to choose one, either you learn only painting or only sculpture. The boundaries are clear and there are walls in between, whereas all the renaissance artists are people who live in an atmosphere of art without walls. I consider myself very lucky for this. It is my luck to have been educated in a school like Gazi Terbiye, which includes all branches of art. That is why I sculpt, I paint, I do every technique related to printing arts. Being able to work with different techniques adds a lot of value to my creativity. I think I am lucky in this regard.

So which do you enjoy the most, printmaking, painting or sculpture? Which do you feel closer to?

I am an artist on the international platform in printmaking, I have international awards. There are techniques that are associated with my name, in other words, there are some techniques I have developed. For example, when one of my sculptures is placed in Mecidiyeköy, they say “he is a print artist but he also makes sculptures”. I also experience such different things. Leonardo was like that. He made the Sistine Chapel and then he made the statue of David. I say that changing activities is a recipe for rest. When I get tired while painting in oil, I sit down and draw. Then I take a zinc, prepare an engraving, play with clay, make sculptures or sculpt meerschaum. These are my must-haves.

A Delightful Conversation with Süleyman Saim Tekcan on Art and Career

So can we say that one triggers the other?

Of course the thought does not stop. For example, when I am drawing a pattern, I think “how can this pattern be sculpted” or “how can it be oil painted”.

You are both an artist and an academic and the founder of many art faculties. Your academic identity is as important as your artist identity. In 1996, you founded Yeditepe University Faculty of Fine Arts in Büyükada and assumed the role of Dean. Could you tell us a little bit about this?

At that time, Bedrettin Dalan came to visit me – or rather to deceive me – at Çamlıca Art House. He said “I am establishing Yeditepe University and I want you to be one of its founders”. I offered him other names, but he insisted on me. So I retired and became one of the three founding professors. We founded the university, and then I founded the Faculty of Fine Arts. When he asked me, “So where should we do it?” I said, “Büyükada.” Büyükada was a place I loved very much when I was in cinema. I spent many beautiful days there. Its gardens and houses are like poetry. There was a building belonging to Yeditepe University. I decided to restore that building and make it the Faculty of Fine Arts. We selected 200 students through an exam that maybe 2,000 people took, and we selected very valuable students. The Anatolian Club opened all its doors to us and allocated some places for the students to stay. It was a great atmosphere in Büyükada and it continued there for more than 10 years. I was the dean for two years because I had to establish the museum and I had other projects. They didn’t want me to leave, but I left for these projects. It was a very important place because it had become a living place in winter. Büyükada had become lively, so it was the cause of a big circulation. I was thinking of organizing a summer academy there, not only for Turkish students, but with students from all over the world… I thought it would add a great richness, but it didn’t happen. My workshops and my museum filled my time.  I wish it could have happened…

Then I wanted to visit other islands so that I could compare Büyükada with other islands. I visited Capri in Italy. There were three galleries there. There was a very beautiful atmosphere where the rich people of the world visited and bought paintings. Büyükada was a beautiful island, maybe three times as beautiful as Capri. Unfortunately, since we don’t appreciate anything, the period in Büyükada continued for one more semester with very valuable professors I brought, and then Yeditepe Faculty of Fine Arts moved to its current location. The current location is also very beautiful, but Büyükada had a very different atmosphere. I wish it had stayed there. Going back and forth to Büyükada was a kind of travel and it was a life adventure where students could discharge. Yeditepe’s emblem still continues with the logo I designed. There are seven hills in the logo and there is a circle, and that circle is Büyükada. The university wanted to change it from time to time, but no emblem could replace it and they continue to use it. I recently went to an exhibition opening with Mr. Bedrettin and he still says “I’m glad we started this journey with you”. It was such an adventure, Büyükada.

A Delightful Conversation with Süleyman Saim Tekcan on Art and Career

You were one of the leading roles in your friend, the great film master Metin Erksan’s film “Sevmek Zamanı”. How did you get involved in this project?

During my art education at Gazi Terbiye, we had a theater hall and we were doing theater there. Artists from the Ankara State Theater would come and put on plays. I acted in a few works put on stage by the artists from that state theater. I can say that I received a theater education in this way. Then, by chance, Trabzon came up during my reserve service and we founded an amateur theater club in Trabzon. There we staged a very famous work, ‘Victory Medal’. It was a sold-out amateur theater club for six months. It was a very nice atmosphere and I was the main actor in it. There were brothers here who took very good photographs at that time. They started taking pictures of me. One day when I was saying, “What will happen?” I got the news from Ses Mecmuası that I had made it to the finals. Tunç Okan came first, I came second and I got a lot of movie offers. I have four movies; ‘Dear Teacher’, ‘My Love and Pride’, ‘Flower Girl’ and ‘Time to Love’. ‘Dear Teacher’ is my first movie and all the finalists from Ses Mecmuası are in it. We were like a class full of students with Ediz Hun, Hülya Koçyiğit, Süleyman Turan, Yusuf Sezgin and many other friends I can’t name, and the teacher was Hülya Koçyiğit. Hülya Koçyiğit and I recently made a program on ‘Lives Like Films’ but we haven’t watched it yet. It’s being prepared, I’ll let you know and you can watch it. We talked about this movie there. That’s how I got to know Metin Erksan and starring in my last movie ‘Sevmek Zamanı’ was perhaps one of the turning points of my life. At the time, I was also working as an assistant principal at Nişantaşı Işık High School and I was living on the money I received from there. With what I earned from there, I was buying myself nice clothes. You have to dress stylishly because you are being interviewed and photographed in magazines. It’s an active life, but after ‘Time to Love’ I thought I should leave the cinema because I decided it would be better to have a career. Now all my friends from the cinema say you are the smartest man. I tell them, “You are the most famous, I envy you.” For example, we sit somewhere with them, we have dinner. Young people come and take pictures with them, but not with me (smiles). Jokes aside, we have such nice days. ‘Time to Love’ had a different place and has survived to this day. For example, there was an online chat last night and they always asked me about Sevmek Zamanı. I have always had a friendship with Metin Erksan. He was a professor we worked with at Mimar Sinan University and Işık University. So we had a beautiful relationship.

How has your experience in cinema contributed or has it contributed to your art? What does cinema mean to you and your art?

Cinema is a branch that includes all arts. There is poetry, literature, music, painting, photography, architecture, everything. I have a friendship with Metin Erksan, and together with Sami Şekeroğlu, we did a lot of service in the establishment of the Cinema-Television Institute. We had the opportunity to watch the most important films of world cinema. Interpreting them, talking about them… All of these were actually good examples of artistic evaluation. Of course, I look at art in a different way and cinema definitely has an impact on this. In the meantime, there were other dimensions that my creative identity took me to, things that made me happy. That’s why I think I made the right decision by quitting cinema.

Speaking of ending your career in cinema… when I was listening to one of your interviews you said that there is such a thing as ‘stopping’. You said that for an artist, a work is never finished, but he knows/feel when to stop. I can feel and understand this as an artist. Art speaks the same language regardless of time and space. This museum has emerged from a thought that aims to be together with artists, in a sharing-interaction.

Art is actually from the point where you start to the point where you end. The point I call knowing how to stop is actually very important. Every artist has different things, they have a stopping point. We also know that some very important artists in Europe put paint and brushes in their pockets and wait for a time when no one is around to continue their work hanging in the exhibition. So art is something that never ends. But sometimes when you don’t know how to stop and move forward in a painting, it deteriorates. That point is a very important point. A painting is never finished. Also, every artist thinks that he or she will achieve the development in the periods he or she lives in – in other words, if it is a visual work, the best of the painting he or she integrates with perception – in the painting he or she will make in the future. It is a very important saying of Leonardo. They asked Leonardo on his sick bed what he was thinking about. Leonardo replies: “I have just learned to paint, now I am dying”… So painting is something that does not end. That’s why I have an artistic adventure that doesn’t stop, I have the chance to express myself in different ways with different techniques and I’m very happy. I think there are very few people in the world who can move around in such different things as I do.  I think I have created my opportunities well, I was able to create such a museum and workshop. I am one of the few people in Türkiye who have these opportunities both as an art educator and as an artist.

A Delightful Conversation with Süleyman Saim Tekcan on Art and Career

I would like to end our interview by talking about your latest exhibition ‘At’nagme’ at the Ankara Millet Library. At the very center of the exhibition is a book you wrote called ‘At-nagme’. How did this exhibition come about?

I was offered an exhibition by the Ministry of Culture. At first I said “let’s not do it with something that already exists” and I wanted to do a new project. ‘At’nagme’ was a book project that I wanted to do. My art is about our culture. I think it is not possible for an artist who is not based on his own culture to be free. I mean, you go to Europe and the workshop you go to is either an impressionist or a cubist workshop and as a result you become either an impressionist or a cubist. I don’t see this as right, you will receive education there but you will be yourself. If you look at my paintings and you don’t say Süleyman Saim Tekcan’s sculpture, painting or engraving, it means that I haven’t created my own identity. This is a very important thing for me. Now, when we start from our own culture, I say this as an Ataturkist, if it wasn’t for Atatürk, I wouldn’t be me right now. I made that exhibition in a place he founded, where we are living the centennial year. I studied in public schools, I studied in a boarding school like Gazi Terbiye and I owe a lot to him. But we also read Ottoman history in all high school books. Calligraphy was very important in the Ottoman Empire. My father was a calligrapher and Emin Barın, with whom I worked at the academy, was one of the most important calligraphers in Turkish art. One day when he was sitting with me, he brought me an inscription on a white piece of paper, a tughra that read ‘Süleyman Saim Tekcan tughra’. He said, “I brought this for you, this is your tughra”. When I asked him why he did this, he said, “Two Suleimans were born in Trabzon: one Suleiman the Magnificent and the other Suleyman Saim Tekcan”. That tughra is the reason why I first made the Süleymanname book and then my At’nagme book. I am a person who sees calligraphy as the pinnacle of our abstract art. What is written in it is not important to me at all, but the aesthetics of calligraphy is very important. Based on that aesthetics, I prepared a preliminary article, followed by a book with my drawings and engravings, and then held a big exhibition at the Millet Library with drawings, oil paintings, sculptures, ceramics and other things. I am very happy for that. My three-month exhibition was extended for one more month due to the intense interest. It will continue until the end of April. It is the biggest exhibition I have ever done.

That’s what I was wondering, which of your exhibitions has excited you the most so far or which was your biggest exhibition…

I also love my exhibition “Cyclical Odyssey” at Tophane-i Amire, but this exhibition is just as impressive. Here only the subject is ‘At’nagme’. The exhibition in Tophane was an exhibition of all my periods. Time will tell how long we will live from now on…

A Delightful Conversation with Süleyman Saim Tekcan on Art and Career
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