Western or Eastern?
A Review of “My Name Is Red” from an art historical Perspective
“I don’t want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning.”
The drawing of a tree, a copy of one of the illustrations for Enishte Effendi’s book, points out a recurring conflict in the novel “My Name Is Red” between art as representation of the world that God perceives, and art as depiction of the world which naked eye sees. In the world of Islamic art, the artists ought to create images stick to the text and the meaning of the world God created, so the tree on a single sheet laments that he lost his meaning without being a part of a book. When Enishte tells Black what Ottoman miniatures are, he says, “the images are the story’s blossoming in color” (Pamuk, 26). The images function as words to tell the story. Many people even think calligraphy should outweigh images in importance, disparage painting as flirtations with heresy.
To escape from the punishment for depicting the real world, miniaturists insist that the tree should be an idealized tree which represents God’s infinite reality, not the reality of a moment. Miniaturists create paintings to depict the world that God perceives, so an artist with talent will only see the world in one way, the correct way that God sees. In Islamic religion, no one can compete with God. Any hint of the identity of the artist proves that the person wants to do what God does which is one of the greatest sins. In the novel, master Osman uses “courtesan method” to examine the unnoticed details in the painting to identify miniaturists. He sees the detail as imperfection which disrupts the perfection of God’s vision by adding the artist’s signature in it. In contrast, Enishte Effendi says the detail is not a fault at all but determined by the artist’s past, from the depths of the soul and forgotten memories, which should be praised as personal characteristic or style. He thinks style is inevitable and different schools create distinguished styles. One example he explains to Black is that master miniaturists in Shiraz and Herat portrayed the same subject matter by selecting different scenes and placing horizon line differently.
Enishte Effendi asks early in Chapter 6, “does illustrating in a new way signify a new way of seeing?” (Pamuk, 28). He thinks this is the main reason why the Elegant has been murdered, because a new way of seeing the world challenges the identity and brings anxiety. The tree thinks himself as realistic as the one in the forest, distinctive from other trees. Similarly, by looking at the portraits rendered in European style, the viewer would immediately know who the sitter is. Each one of the framed life-like paintings is different from another. The realism and uniqueness help the viewer to distinguish a person, tree or dog from others. Enishte considers this is a natural way for painting since realistic painting depicts what the eye sees, and has a power to influence people who look at it. First, everything existing in the world is of the same importance. A tree could be depicted in the center of a page, the same size as the Sultan. Second, the concept of individuality could have been raised. Each artist has a distinctive style and an individual way in which the artist handles form. Moreover, the dignity of the individual would be emphasized. As Enishte Effendi says, “they also want us to know that simply existing in this world is a very special, very mysterious event” (Pamuk, 108). Enishte Effendi is obsessed with the European style. He asks the artists to paint for a secret book without a text, and wants Black to write the text for the illustrations. In this secret book, the artistic form precedes the meaning. The significance of the tree lies in its uniqueness.
The author described the preference of European style at the court comes from the cultural diffusion. An example is that Enishte Effendi traveled to Venice as the Sultan’s ambassador and fell in love with Western style. On the trip of informing Venetians to surrender Cyprus, he was almost killed. However, he observed the portraits hanging on the walls that Venetian masters had made. Without knowing the accompanying stories, Enishte was simply attracted by the significant details and the realistic nature of the portraits. He thought the Venetian painting was created just for the sake of picture itself. He wanted to make such a portrait for the Sultan to represent his entire world including the material objects as well as the inner riches, the joys and fears of his realm. The Sultan wanted his portrait made in Frankish style as a symbol of power so he commissioned a secret book which contains a portrait of himself in European style as a gift for Venetian Doge to demonstrate his wealth and territories under his control. It will be a gesture telling the Doge that Ottomans can see the world like Venetians, so it is possible to establish a friendship between two powers. This book is also made for the thousandth-year anniversary of the Hegira to show that the Ottomans could compete with Venetians by using their styles very well.
The story is presented in first person and is narrated by one character in every chapter. Different narrators provide multiple perspectives on the same story which is more complete than narrating it from one point of view. This style of narration mirrors both the collective approach employed by the workshop and the perspectives in European art, which helps me understand Islamic miniature painting well. The picture of the world and the collision between two ways of seeing the world have been presented clearly. Thus, the reader gets to know each character’s emotions, stories, and sufferings.
Shekure was my favorite character. Though she is shrewd, in love with both Black and Hasan when she married Black and calculates her life to get everything she wants, she is independent and intelligent. She wants to be depicted in the painting, wants her story recorded in the pages of a book. She also notices the formulaic poses and gestures used on the images of women is problematic. She says “the painters substitute the joy of seeing for the joy of life” (Pamuk, 413) at the end of the novel pointing out the biggest problem of miniature artists.
The hardworking, long-suffering artists devoted their lives to the workshop and the books. They were beaten and even humiliated by the master artists when they were apprentices. They wanted to depict the infinite reality of God’s vision as a timeless meaning of painting but they did not even know how God’s perceives the world. They thought the glories of God would be attained from memory in the purest form, so blindness was considered as a reward from God for a miniaturist’s lifetime of hard work and devotion. Seyyit Mirek, Bihzad’s mentor, says through the darkness of memory and blindness one could see God’s vision of His world. Master Bihzad thought he had achieved the perfection to represent the world of God’s vision so he blinded himself intentionally to avoid changing his painting for other patrons’ desire and taste. Artists like master Osman and the murderer Olive refused a new style and thought the formulaic solution is the best way to attain the infinite reality but failed to depict the most important emotion in life. Shekure says that painters can draw a smile, but they are not able to paint the bliss. For the artists in the workshop, the Ottoman style helps identify themselves. Their pride and honor rests upon their way of seeing the world. On the contrary, in Shekure’s eyes, the truth of the world is not the idealized reality, is emotions and experiences of humans. Thus, the miniaturists better understand that art is always about blending of styles, and the meaning of art is not fixed, is open to interpretation.
Pamuk, Orhan. My Name Is Red. New York: Vintage International, 2002.