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Mythology, Book Art and Can Göknil

Metin AND

THE PAINTINGS OF CAN GÖKNIL DISPLAYED in her personal exhibitions in recent years weave a framework of unity around mythological subjects. For the artist, mythology is the richest and most universal of sources. In the West, the majority of painters, sculptors, oratorio and opera composers, librettists, choreographs, poets and writers have been using this rich source for centuries. Here, on the other hand, apart from the odd poet, composer or playwright, this source remained untapped. Can Göknil is an artist who has set herself on mythology. She chooses her mythological subject, explores it in depth, and then sets out to create her work.

Mythology comprises five main topics: theogony, which explains the genesis of gods; cosmogony, on the creation of the universe; anthropogony, on the origins of man; escathology, which discusses such issues as the future of humanity, the end of life and the world, immortality of the soul, hell, heaven, the rise from the dead at a certain endpoint and the day of judgement; the fifth is etiology. These are tales that explain the origins of a certain reality, an institution, a name or an object; or the reason of a natural element. They go deep in history and are very widely spread In Anatolia, myths—sometimes called legends—abound that explain how a mountain, a river or a lake was formed or how a living creature came to being. Apart from this, an important branch of mythology is the one that exalts legendary heroes accredited with supernatural powers. Some of these heroes are fictitious; others are real figures that have acquired legendary proportions. Prophet Ali, Alexander the Great, and Hamza, prophet Muhammed’s uncle for example are real people who have become legends. Great epics have been written relating the stories of these heroes, such as the Iskendernâme, Battalnâme, Saltuknâme, Hamzanâme and Danismendnâme.

Mythology has two dimensions, one vertical, the other horizontal. The vertical aspect expresses the dimension of mythology that began in the depths of history and reached all the way to the present, passing through the scriptures of monotheistic religions; whereas the horizontal dimension expresses the spread of mythology, its universality. The vertical dimension is the build-up of a certain belief, layer upon layer, from under the soil of a narrow patch of land to the top. An example from Syria: a foreign company was laying railway tracks in some region in Syria. According to the plan, the tomb of a holy man greatly respected by the local Muslims had to be demolished. The people protested vigorously, and the company relented, agreeing to spend the large sums of money needed to number the stones of the tomb one by one –with the help of the locals– and move it away. When the tomb was moved, remains of some Christian saint were discovered below it, and below this the statue of a horned creature belonging to a polytheistic faith. Turkey has countless examples of this, especially in buildings that had been turned from churches into mosques. The Yusa mosque in the Yusa Tepe district of Istanbul for example, features a “tekke” and a tomb. Some claim that this complex belongs to Joshua, the biblical prophet, but it could equally well be called after a dervish, a saint or an apostle of the same name. Originally the place was an altar for Zeus; in Byzantine times it became a church of some St Michael; and the Ottomans built a mosque and a “tekke”. It used to be called the complex of Yusa Peace Be Upon Him.

To give an example of the horizontal dimension of mythology. In 1960, Güngör Dilmen, a playwright, wrote a trilogy on the legendary King Midas of Phregia, the first of which, Midas’s Ears, was performed to great success. That set me thinking on whether this legend had likes in other cultures. After a short search I found parallels in Morocco, Iran and India. A few details notwithstanding they were all similar. But what really caught my interest was the exact facsimile of that legend; which I found in the Kirghiz version of the myth that explains the formation of Lake Issyk, in the north of Kashgar. A flood destroyed the city and its inhabitants leaving behind a lake. This is how the legend explains it: this city was ruled by a childless khan; after many prayers he had a boy whom he called Yeni (New) Khan. But the boy had been born with the ears of a donkey, so the father hid him away. When the father died Yeni Khan assumed the throne and took to killing any barber who shaved his head. One young, intelligent barber succeeded in winning the khan’s confidence, and became a close friend after he swore that he would not betray the great secret. The khan even made him a vizier. One day the khan and the barber went hunting and they raced their falcons. In his excitement the barber exclaimed “my falcon will beat the donkey eared khan’s falcon”. He immediately understood what would befall him and ran away to the mountains. One day he came to the city, stood at a well and prayed that this tyrannical khan be punished. His prayers were answered: the well started flooding, eventually submerging the whole city. The boy’s donkey ears were a punishment from the gods. In the Phregian myth, King Midas was the referee in a musical contest between Apollo and Pan; when he preferred Pan’s flute to Apollo’s lyre, Apollo was cross and turned King Midas’s ears into those of a donkey. Who was being punished for what in Kirghiz myth? When the khan’s wife was found with child after years of childlessness, she was punished for having conceived him illegitimately to please the khan. It could also be that the khan was a tyrant and thus incurred the punishment of the gods.

CAN GÖKNIL PUT TOGETHER AN EXHIBITION on “book art” based on “illustrated manuscripts”. This is the first time a painter makes such an exhibition, if I am not mistaken. Hand-written manuscripts were the only means available before the invention of printing. Printing had begun in Europe early on, and it was not until much later, in the 18th century, that it started here, and only in the 19th century that it became common. Ottoman book art is a collective art; it is rather more fitting to talk of ‘book arts’ instead. Books adorned with miniatures in Ottoman times fall into two categories: those where miniatures illustrate a text; and the “murakka”, an album without text. Within this division there were various calligraphic types and illumination techniques. In this collective work, artists of various disciplines worked together on the preparation of the book to attain a common goal. First the paper is ‘conditioned’ for good absorption of ink and paint, for good appearance and for durability. This is called finishing the paper. It is a rather complex process, and those who did it were veritable artists. At the head of this team of artists were the authors, the poets, the writers or the translators. The poets were always at the forefront. The historians of the Shahnâme tradition, for example, mostly wrote their histories in verse. Calligraphers then wrote the text on paper. It is fair to say that calligraphy was most important and most elitist of Ottoman arts. The readership of a manuscript consists of its owner and his close circle, whereas an inscription on a mosque or a fountain, or an epitaph is there for all to see. In the exhibition of Can Göknil, visitors are free to look at the books and turn the pages as they like.

Other artists involved in book making include the “zerefsân”, the one who sprinkles the pages with gold; the “cedvelkes”, who draws gilded or ink frames; those who draw the floral ornaments; the “müzehhip” or illuminator; and, if the manuscript contains miniatures, there is the “nakkas” who draws them and who usually specialised in a certain type of miniatures. The cover of the book also involved various artists. The cover could be of such material as leather, satin or velvet, and there were the artists who studded it with diamonds, pearls, rubies or emeralds. Other artist used the techniques called “lake”, “ruganî” or “edirnekârî”, yet others sketched landscapes on the cover or engraved illustrations. There were the artists who marbled the inside of the cover or the frames around miniatures, gilded the frames of miniatures or adorned them with animal and floral figures. This, which appears to be the last process, we find in some of Can Göknil’s etchings. In short, Ottoman manuscripts are total art.

One hundred years after Turkey’s belated discovery of printing, and about the same time as the rest of the world, the litography technique arrived. Henry Cayol set up a stone printing workshop in Istanbul in 1831, to be followed by Antoine Zellich in 1869. The lithography technique was used mostly in illustrated folk tales. These illustrated lithograpgical books were not unlike manuscripts illustrated with miniatures in that the pictures were drawn by hand and form a whole with the text inside the picture and the captions. In a way, the books in Can Göknil’s exhibit fall somewhere between the two. Her pictures are are hand-painted etchings. The text is also written by hand.

There are five big books in Can Göknil’s exhibition. There are also etchings on the walls and small paintings on the narrow banners hanging from above. Visitors to the exhibition will have a busy time turning the pages of the five books and looking at the paintings, for there are so many interesting things to see. Once you step in, you are in Can Göknil’s fascinating, rich and fantastic world.

The five books carry the titles of Ottoman manuscripts, and deal mostly with magic, fortune telling, heavenly bodies, angels, djinns and other creatures. The largest of the artist’s books is Davetname. It was also written by Firdevsî-i Tavîl (Firdawsi the Long) who lived through the reigns of three sultans; Mehmet II the Conqueror, Bayezid II and Selim I. The original manuscript contained 141 illustrations. We first learned of them from Malik Aksel’s book Anadolu Halk Resimleri1. These illustrations sparked great interest at the time, to the point that one of them, the multi-headed jinn figure, was used by the Gülriz Sururi and Engin Cezzar company for their booklet covers and posters. This magnificent 15th century manuscript was transcribed by Fatma Büyükkaraci of Bogaziçi University and printed by the “Turkish Source” series of Harvard University. The researcher also subjected the work and its illustrations to scientific study. The book is a scientific guide to magic, charms and heavenly bodies.

The author of the Davetnâme wrote another book, the Süleymannâme, a giant epic of King Solomon, mentioned in various sources as having ran into somewhere between 330 and 380 volumes. Bayezid II found it too long, so he took 80 volumes of it and burned the rest. It is on account of this work that the author earned his nickname, “the long”. The first volume of this work is in the Chester Beatty library in Dublin and contains two large miniatures on double pages. These two miniatures are as different from other miniatures as the paintings of the Davetnâme are unusual. The paintings in these two books would be the envy of science fiction filmmakers in Hollywood. In my book Minyatürlerle Islam-Osmanli Mitologyasi2, published in 1998, I included only three illustrations from the Davetnâme, for technically they are not miniatures, but I had the two miniatures from the Süleymannâme printed on large scale and in colour. I think it was the first time these miniatures were printed in colour. Can Göknil started with the Davetnâme and went back to the mythology of civilisations 3,000 years back. She was inspired by the idea of tablets to present the illustrations as nine triangular charms.

The second book is Hayretname, the Book of Puzzles. Ottoman books with this title usually deal with fortune telling. But Can Göknil turns it into a legendary “tekerleme”3. Tekerleme in its various forms –in children games, in tales, and the dream-based folk theatre– is the most striking form of irrationality and surrealism in folk literature. The “tekerleme” in the Timarhane play of Karagöz is very rich. Can Göknil paints these truly puzzling examples of “tekerleme”.

Another book is the two-volume Yildizname, the Book of Stars. It is about the zodiac. One volume is dedicated to signs attached to the sun and the other to signs attached to the moon. Each horoscope is presented with verse by Hülya Onur, and the names of the horoscopes are in Ottoman. Ottoman manuscripts usually list not only the stars of the zodiac, but also the planets and a whole set of other stars and heavenly bodies. As far as I know the British Library has the only manuscript with miniatures dedicated solely to horoscopes, but the title page is missing, so we do not know the original name. It is from this book that I obtained the names of the horoscopes that I used in my book mentioned above. I referred to this manuscript as the Book of Horoscopes.

The fifth book is called Falname, the Book of Fate. The Topkapi Palace Museum contains 35 manuscripts of the same title. There is also a Persian manuscript called Fâl-i Kur’an, which contains 60 miniatures, most of them about religious topics, especially prophets. The Fâlnâme is in fact a genre, present in Islam and in other cultures. The Ottoman Fâlnâme was commissioned by Kalender Pasha, one of the viziers of Ahmed I. This book tells the fortune of those who read it; the reader opens the book at random and the miniature and text on the page he opens tell his fortune. These are big miniatures, but who made them? In his Seyahatnâme, Evliya Çelebi gathers miniature artists in four groups, classifies them according to their work and names them. One of the four groups is the Esnâf-i Falciyân-i Musavvir4; it contains but one name. The text and verse on the page tell the story of the miniature, which tells the reader his fortune. This artist is probably the one who did the miniatures of the Fâlnâme. Nurhan Atasoy and Banu Mahir, art historians, found such big miniatures in the Topkapi Palace Museum and suggested that they were used with narrative. This tradition is very common in Iran where the story tellers called “Perdedârî” would hang a screen (perde) on which are drawn all the events of the story –usually the tragedy of Karbelâ– before the audience and point to the event they are relating. The ancient Uygurs have a similar tradition, where holy texts were explained using illustrations. This show was called “görmük”. You may open Can Göknil’s Falname randomly to see your fortune. But in the Falname of this optimistic artist, no matter where you open the book you will fall on good luck.
The Ottomans used the extraordinary imagination of miniature artists to create this world which they called “ilm-i nücûm”5 and “ulûm-i garibe”6. Can Göknil, as befits a true artist, probed this world and from it created, within a modern conception, her own fantastic world using her imagination. Who knows to what wonderland she will take us next?

1 Anatolian Folk Painting.
2 Islamic-Ottoman Mythology in Miniatures
3 A from of narrative found in folk tales based on a puzzling duell of clever replies.
4 The Class of Fortune Depecters
5 The Science of Stars
6 Wierd Sciences


by: Güven TURAN

For so long now Can Göknil in the nucleus of her creativity,has been taking us to a journey to mythology. This adventure began in Central Asia, drifted to Anatolia, toured the Near East and again returned to Anatolia, at times lost in the mists of three thousand years before Christ, and at other times vividly depicting the latter-day legends of Yasar Kemal. In this exhibition, forget about what is hanging on the walls for a moment, and approach the five big, leather-bound books resting on their custom built tables. Dark-coloured, thick but soft to the touch, the leather cover of the first book carries Can Göknil’s name more like a “tugra” than a signature –or rather more like a charm– grabbing our attetion first and then the book’s name: Davetname. Lift the cover; turn the pages and there you will find the story of Anzu the Bird Man and the Tablets of Destiny, along with 11 amulets. Can Göknil says this book was inspired by the Davetnâme written and illustrated by Firdevsi the Long of Balikesir in the late 15th and early 16th century, yet this Near Eastern work suddenly takes us back a thousand years, to the cylindrical seals of ancient Mesopotamian civilisations. This ‘fusion ’–a word I use in its nuclear physics sense– opens up a whole new world before us; a new perspective.

Before you move on to the next book – called Falname– I suggest you stop and think, for the page you open will relieve your future. And if you are seeking for an answer to “what will I be?” you may encounter a page with maybe a fortuneteller, maybe a traveller, a lover or, God forbid, a poet. So to avoid an unexpected prophecy, it is best to open the book at the first leaf and turn the pages one by one. The illustrations of the Falname are the result of a collaboration’ between a 17th century miniaturist and a 21st century painter.

Go with Hayretname next. The rhymed cryptic verse –called tekerleme– you read here is in a way the key to this verbal and visual journey. These examples of “tekerleme” are taken from the books of tale collectors. Although the myth never starts, the “tekerleme”, along with deceptive curves of the illustrations, betray an imagination of surreal proportions. The word “Hayret” in the book’s name refers to the depicted world that pushes the limits of reality to an absurd world where Ionesco and Beckett would feel at home. But this is not a mere word play. These words also engulf criticism, and Can Göknil translates this criticism in her illustrations.

There are two remaining volumes that have the same title: Yildizname, the Book of Stars. Unlike Falname, the Yildizname is not meant to reveal pages of your future, for your future is set at your birth by the sign you were born under. Can Göknil’s Yildizname preserves a long tradition. The book is in two volumes because Middle Eastern horoscopy manuals traditionally list the signs of the zodiac in two groups: the Burûc-i kamer, or signs of the moon; and the Burûc-i sems, the signs of the sun. The book not only lists the 12 signs of the zodiac, the sun and the moon are at the head of their respective groups and at the end is the “sema”, the sky that includes them all. As she does in her other books, Can Göknil transforms the miniatures of the traditional Yildizname into her own paintings. Her unique lines come to life with her unique coloring,while rendering the twelve signs of the zodiac.

Now you can look at works on the walls. Here you will see the similar works as in the books, executed with an entirely different interpretation. The nuances are there, as if passed through the sieve of emotions at the moment of creation, or maybe even influenced by the weather. Each display is a figure –or maybe an icon; it is not easy to decide– similar to those in the book; nay even identical. But the changing hand of the artist is visible in each of these icon-like wooden prayer tablets or in these hanging rolls. There are also original prints that repeat the pages of the books; and they reiterate the uniqueness of her execution within the repetitive character of the print media.So even if you do not buy the whole book, you may buy the page of your horoscope or that of a loved one.

fter each exhibition of the artists I diligently follow up, I ask myself “What next? What will we see in the coming exhibition?” Can Göknil started with the mythology and myths of thousands of years ago and came all the way to the classical Ottoman period. What next? The mythology of the 20th century?

by Godfrey GOODWIN

“The heart of this exhibition is the set of grandly bound volumes of plates depicting the signs of the Zodiac.Visitors are invited to turn the pages and study the plates in their sequence which gives the work,like all major engravings and prints, an intimacy as if viewer and artist were in private conversation.It is this relationship that helps the visitor to see so deeply into the mysteries of atmosphere and explore its inward language.

The same works are framed to form a more traditional exhibition and their study is also rewarding.One has learnt to expect an extraordinary use of depth that has become a tradition with this artist.Perspective is a maze of layers whether large or fragmentary without a common plane:for the journey is into a sea of shadows.

But these are not shadows but tones of colours which are predominantly browns out of which figures and lions and planets emerge.Such images have not sheltered in her work before even when she probed the imagery of Turkish fables.Here she is responding to the universal concept of the signs of the Zodiac which as naturally as their stars and planets recognise no frontier of place and time in the emotional world of living humanity since before history. Newspapers and fortune tellers still exploit them to predict nothing that anyone could ever take seriously.But their timeless qualities shelter in a genuine awareness of a symbolism that talks wherever the human mind will listen.It is a language that cannot fade.It has taught this artist to burn a way through a forest of superstition.Those who search into the depths of Can Göknil’s pictures will glimpse the highway of eternity.



While preparing this project, which is about Illustrated Manuscripts, I made frequent references to the Surnâme-i Vehbi by Levni. There are 25 original copies in various museums of this manuscript, but only two were illustrated. The edition prepared by Esin Atil and printed by the Koç Bank Press (1999, Istanbul) was my reference source which reflects the circumcision ceremony of the four sons of Sultan Ahmet III. This tale of Ottoman palace festivities is probably the best example of the ‘readability’ of Ottoman miniature art. Levni, a miniaturist himself, was present at the circumcision ceremony, and in recording what he saw, his added humour brought joy to the festival. His work is a visual carnival that compliments the lyrics of the poet Vehbi, carrying the readers to the very borders of an artist’s horizon.

Because of my infatuation with books, I have been writing and illustrating books for preschool children for thirty years. My artistic approach to the illustrated book is that of a painter:I want each picture to add a new dimension to the page or to the book itself. In this exhibition I have added text to my pictures in order to draw the viewer closer to my art and help them reach different mental perspectives. I see books as works of art born through the union of text and image. In this exhibition, I want to introduce the viewers to five classical manuscripts that I have chosen from the Ottoman repertoire. While reinterpreting these books page by page and sharing this experience with the viewer,I wish to draw attention to the classical through my contemporary efforts.

• My Davetname, the first of the five books, is a book about astrology and talismans inspired by the Davetname of Firdevsi the Long of Balikesir which was written in the late 15th cen-tury or early 16th for Sultan Bayezid II. The manuscript was probably illustrated by the author himself.

• The Hayretname is a collection of “tekerleme”s which I gathered from Boratav, Celaleddin Kismir and Bilge Türkçin.It is a fantasy world for which the title was a loan from an unknown manuscript.

• My Yildizname volumes, with its verse by Hülya Onur, were prepared after my encounter with the books about theOttoman tradition of astrologers, a most worthy occupation in those days.

• The very popular Falname was based on the alleged predictive powers of the Koran. The miniaturist Kalender illustrated a falnâme for Ahmet I in the 17th century in which he used images based on Ottoman and Islamic mythology. A page opened at random predicted the viewer’s fortune– as is in my Falname.

I owe some words of gratitude to friends who helped me prepare for this exhibition: To Fatma Büyükkarci Yilmaz for introducing me to the Davetnâme manuscript. To my friend the poet Hülya Onur for the verses she wrote for the Yildizname. My special thanks to Metin And, who always compliments his extensive knowledge with pictures , thereby providing a source of inspiration for many artists. And my gratitude to my husband, Recep Göknil, for the perfect infrastructure he set up to facilitate my work.