Gültekin Bilge is a Turkish Cypriot Artist, born in Cyprus, 1945. He received his M.A. from the Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts where he studied under Devrim Erbil and Ali Çelebi before graduating from the atelier of Dinçer Erimez.
Since moving to the UK in 2011 his work has been exhibited internationally throughout Europe and in the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan. During this period he has also received many awards. His works are held in private collections in Turkey, Europe and Japan.
Bilge’s journey through life has not been easy. He was unable to paint for many years after losing the use of his right hand when he was shot in the 1974 Cyprus War. The injury led to a dark period in his life, full of anger, pain, frustration, powerlessness, isolation and loss of identity. These emotions find full expression in his abstract artworks, which have a haunting emotional quality.
During the long period of recovery to his hand Bilge worked as an art teacher whilst continuing to follow developments in contemporary art. He was searching to develop a modern style of painting which had international reach but could also be recognised as influenced by his Turkish roots. Gradually he recovered sufficient use of his right hand to enable him to develop the Turkish Weave, Turkish Whirling and Dissolve techniques that have become his own language of expression. Oil is the primary medium. Bilge also makes his own paints with alkyds and resin. He paints on board. In recent years he has painted on wood as a means of breaking free from the convention of working within a rectangular frame. Early influences were Bosch, Goya, Rembrandt, Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, and Chagall, but mostly he works from nature.
Bilge has a very unique way of viewing human experience. He finds it impossible to separate his life from his art and at times he has difficulty “fitting in” to the “normal” world. He often describes himself an outsider who does not perceive things in the same way as others see them. Even from an early age he seems to have known that he was somehow different from those around him. His artworks reveal his intensely subjective view of life and human relationships.
Endlessly restless and constantly searching for new and different modes of expression in oil painting, Bilge is never satisfied with one effect or technique. He seems to continuously push the boundaries by developing new techniques and trying out new ways of working to develop new and different forms.
Growing up in Cyprus during the 1950s and 1960s there were many ethnic tensions. Even as a small boy Bilge can remember being subjected to ethnic prejudice. Nature was his refuge from these troubles. For the most part his early years were spent leading a simple and relatively peaceful life in the village of Ceyhan, which is in the south west Cyprus. Close to the village was a river where white limestone rocks were washed downstream by the current. As a boy he escaped from into nature and spent many hours carving these stones to produce figures of animals and people. All of these early carvings and other early works were lost when his family were made refugees several times during the troubled years between 1963 – 1974.
At school Bilge demonstrated a talent for drawing portraits; he dreamt of becoming an artist, but given the circumstances there were limited opportunities to develop his artistic abilities. This period in the history of Cyprus was dominated by ethnic tensions and violence flared up regularly. There was an ongoing campaign within elements of the Greek Cypriot community to achieve union with Greece and to rid the island of the Turkish Cypriot people. Turkish Cypriot villages were attacked and many people had to flee their homes; they moved to other villages or fled into the hills for safety. Greek Cypriots controlled many checkpoints and Turkish Cypriots were not free to travel across the island; they couldn’t even go to the seaside to swim because it was too dangerous to travel from their villages. As a schoolboy of 13 years old Bilge was regularly on night watch to alert his community in case there was a night time attack on their village. At the age of eighteen he was drafted into military service by the Turkish community; for over three years he lived in the hills and was trained as a commando. These fighters often fought alongside British troops to try to stop Greek Cypriot extremist attacks against moderate Greek Cypriots and against the Turkish Cypriot community.
In 1966, at the age of 21 Bilge gained a place at the Istanbul Academy of Fine Art. He graduated in 1972 with an MA in Fine Arts where he worked at the ateliers of Devrim Erbil, Ali Çelebi and Dinçer Erimez. During his time at the Academy, his artistic talents were expressed in many different ways. In addition to his aptitude for drawing, painting and sculpture he displayed musical and dramatic talents. He was a folk singer playing a traditional Turkish instrument (Saz). He also had a talent for mime and was head of the Academy’s pantomime theatre group for two years. Bilge’s first private exhibition was held in Istanbul in 1972. During this period he was invited to go to Norway and Germany to exhibit his work. In 1973 he returned to Cyprus for personal reasons and started earning a living as a commercial artist, whilst continuing to paint.
In 1974 the Greek Junta staged a military coup to establish “The Hellenic Republic of Cyprus”. This was a violent period in the history of the Island. During the coup more than 3000 Greek Cypriot supporters of Makarios and supporters of the Communist party AKEL were killed by supporters of the Greek Junta. They also put into effect an annihilation plan called AKRITAS which aimed to exterminate Turkish Cypriot people. Bilge once again became a soldier to try to help defend his people. Tragically, he was shot in the right hand with a dumdum bullet. By the time he reached hospital he had lost so much blood that his heart had stopped and he had to be taken to theatre to be resuscitated. The hand was so badly damaged that surgeons wanted to amputate but when they found out that Bilge was an artist they worked to save it. He was later transferred to Ankarra and thanks to the skills of the specialist consultant in the Gülhane army hospital his hand was eventually saved after many months of further surgery. However fine motor skills were lost and it was many years before he regained his ability to draw and paint.
Then began difficult years of recovery. There were many long lost years when he felt unable to draw and paint because of the problems with his hand. From 1975 until 2005 he worked as an art teacher and also taught photography, pantomime, theatre and folk music. During this period he married and had two children. Although he outwardly coped with his situation, this was a difficult period; he felt very constrained by the circumstances of his life and his internal landscape was very bleak. Bilge was deeply frustrated because he was unable to draw and paint in the same way as before the injury. He tried for many years to work with his left hand but could not regain his previous abilities and was dissatisfied with the works he produced. Despite the frustrations associated with his injury he continued to maintain his artistic vision. He worked for many years to rebuild his drawing and painting skills. Meantime he researched art forms and investigated alternative methods of expression. He explored photographic techniques in order to develop a form of art photography. However at heart he wanted to paint in oils and his ambition was to develop an original contemporary style of painting that can be recognised as uniquely Turkish. Therefore he continued trying until eventually he began painting again full time from 2005 onwards. Only three paintings have survived from the period 1975 to 2005.
Bilge’s artistic development can be traced through his paintings. Whilst he consistently employs vibrant colour there has been an investigative journey through form and texture.
As if to make up for lost time he has worked at a furious pace resulting in a very productive period between the years 2006 – 2011. He has restlessly explored different forms and developed new techniques and has become increasingly satisfied that he is able to express his ideas and feelings in the work he has produced.
The 2006 paintings are an early exploration in trying to develop forms and motifs that might be recognised as a Turkish style. During this period he researched the forms of old Uygur Turkish writing and experimented with ways to adapt them into oil painting using the sgrafitto technique. These forms which he now calls “Turkish Weave” began to emerge in late 2006-7 and are predominant in the paintings produced in 2008, notably the Cyprus Time Bomb series.
Late in 2008 Bilge tentatively began playing with the boundaries of the images to break free from the convention of working within a rectangular frame. By 2009 most of the images have irregular boundaries. Around this time he also developed the “Turkish Whirling” technique, which materialises in the 2009 artworks. This new style of oil painting was created by adapting the forms of traditional Turkish marbling (a water based technique to imprint designs onto paper). The result generates a similar visual effect to marbling although often with a very high gloss finish that almost looks like ceramic. During 2009 he also experimented with trying to use the Turkish Whirling technique in acrylics and mixed media. The paintings in the Joy of Discovery Series (2009) are the outputs from this period of using the sgrafitto and whirling techniques to produce a series of images that play with form, colour, and texture. These images provide a strong contrast between the Turkish Weave forms and the marbling effect. The Turkish Whirling technique is employed in most of the paintings in the Endless Expression Series (2009). In many of the artworks of this period we also see the emergence of a ripple texture that also gives the appearance of a ceramic finish.
The Turkish Whirling technique really comes into its own in the Beautiful Seeds of Destruction series (2010). In all of these paintings, the high gloss marble effect is contrasted with embedded images of disease which are matt in texture. Also in 2010 the first wood series builds upon the idea of changing the boundaries by painting directly onto irregular natural wooden shapes. In these paintings the whirling technique is again often contrasted with different textures.
In 2011 Bilge’s ideas of playing with boundaries ideas progressed to develop the Carved Wood series. In these artworks the wood is carved into fabulous shapes before being painted. Many of them consist of two or three pieces, so the composition is complex; paintings within paintings. In 2011 he was searching for a new texture when he discovered that he could use cedar resin combined with oil paint to achieve the effect he was searching for in order to refine the “Dissolve” technique, which is predominant in the 2011 Carved Wood series.
Bilge has taken inspiration from many artists. When he was at the academy he discovered Bosch and was influenced by his use of fantastic surreal imagery. He appreciated Rembrandt for the dramatic use of the central light and admired the clean lines and strong forms of Modigliani. He has expressed admiration for the works of Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, Magritte, Dali, Chagall, Pollock and Rothko, describing these masters as “stretching the boundaries of compositional rules and helping us see the world in a different way”.
He researched ‘primitive art’ from ancient civilisations and expressed great admiration for their symbolic expression. However, mostly he takes inspiration directly from the natural world. Bilge is quoted as saying that “everything can be found in nature and all lessons can be learned there”. He has described nature as his mother, father, and teacher.
Exhibitions & Awards
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has been under embargos for almost 40 years. The political situation limited Bilge’s opportunities to exhibit, although he participated in various group exhibitions and sold works in Cyprus and Turkey. From 2004 – 2011 Bilge had a permanent display of works at his own atelier in the Büyük Han, Lefkoşa (Nicosia). Whilst he was living in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus he did not exhibit internationally because of embargoes on trade and cultural exchange. Since moving to the UK in 2011 his work has been exhibited internationally in the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan and throughout Europe. During this period he has also received many awards. His works are held in private collections in Turkey, Europe and Japan.