Naz Uyulur
Last updated: 23 February, 2016

Modernism, art and literature: A reflection on Europe and Turkey in the inter-war period

"The new Republican regime of Turkey was not isolated from the artistic and literary movements in European authoritarian regimes", writes Naz Uyulur.

During the inter-war period, European authoritarian regimes’ perception of art and literature was closely related with their view on modernism. Even though the leaders of these regimes were quite modern figures in the sense that they pursued further industrialization, technology, growth and development while preserving a future-oriented outlook, they were highly cynical about modernism when it comes to art and literature. The reason behind this was very simple: modernism was perceived as a counter-culture, always having the potential to criticize the regime itself by offering alternative realities other than they promote. In other words, they were negative towards modernism because modernism put emphasis on the individual and promoted the autonomy of the artistic and literary field, leaving modernism – at least the way we know it – at odds with these regimes’ ambition to create a collective, unified national culture. That was the reason why most of the modernist artwork in Germany were burned to the ground or USSR got rid of all the previous modernist work within this period.

At that point, Italy (Mussolini regime) stands out as a slight exception. While Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR rigidly disfavored modernism in literary and artistic sense, Mussolini was softer towards it. There were a bunch of modernist intellectuals that stood by Mussolini, and the regime was more pluralistic and more permissive towards modern art – at least within the first ten years of Mussolini’s power.

In all authoritarian regimes, though, art and literature were used to move the society, in other words, used as a propaganda tool for mass mobilization. During that period, poster and graphic art were used extensively in an instrumentalist way, simply to convey the message of the regime in the most summarized, condemned and direct way to make the whole society understand them.


The authoritarian regimes of the period were largely dependent on the slogans, mottos, art, literary productions and even architecture to fill the ideological gaps and vagueness of the “national” culture and arts. These regimes were struggling to define and base the grounds of their national culture to claim leadership and cultural superiority in the continent, but due to the complexities of defining their national culture, they were clearer about what their culture is not, or what should be rejected. Therefore, in order to cover up or compensate for these ambiguities, they relied heavily on aesthetic production.

The third observation we could make about the European authoritarian regimes’ relations with arts and literature is the way they perceive arts. Having a totalitarian perception of the society, they were in favor of creating an art of politics, making it not a tool but an ultimate end of fascism.

The last, but not the least fundamental characteristic of the relationship of European authoritarian regimes with art and literature was the characters/heroes of the literary productions and the theme that revolved around them in their stories. Almost all literary works produced within that period used the figure “flaneur” (ordinary man in the city) and the stories were mostly themed around the concept of homelessness, decline of family and moral values, rise of material and sexual desires within the society. In addition, at the end of the stories, there was always a moral and ethical point/lesson to be grasped: do not remain aloof from taking political action and always choose a political side. These characters in the novels were always at a critical turning point of their lives and most of the time, “taking action” was offered as the best solution.

Being a neighbor to the continent and dealing with its own national construction, the new Republican regime of Turkey was not isolated from the artistic and literary movements in European regimes.

The early Turkish Republic’s attitude towards arts and literature, if talking within the framework of modernism, was closer to that of Italy’s Mussolini regime and its eclectic/pluralist ideology. Turkey was hesitant towards the Hitler model and was troubled with the anti-modernist, anti-bourgeoisie model in modernism. The negative, oppressive and repressive attitude of fascist regimes did not receive a welcoming response from the Turkish intelligentsia and the authors, as they were rooting for a nation-building process with a more optimistic and developmentalist attitude. In seeking for a more future-oriented approach, Turkish intelligentsia liked the hopeful and optimistic aura of the Italian model, turning more to this regime in their own journey of nation-building process and the arts and literature to be developed from there.

In addition, the early Turkish Republic differed from the fascist regimes in terms of two significant respects that also made effect on the artistic and literary activity of the period. Firstly, they did not favor the racist ideology of these regimes and the official Kemalist ideology openly denounced discrimination based on racist grounds. Secondly, the early Turkish Republic declared that they seek international solidarity and peace, emphasizing democracy as the ultimate ideal.

“The negative and repressive attitude of fascist regimes did not receive a welcoming response from the Turkish intelligentsia”

Apart from the attitude mentioned above, the early Turkish republic bared some resemblance to the fundamental characteristics of these regimes in the inter-war period, most particularly in the sense of how they used arts to compensate for the ideological gaps, how they used arts and literature as a propaganda tool and of the themes and figures they used in literary activities.

Just like the authoritarian regimes in Europe, the early Turkish intelligentsia also saw art and literature as a way to fill in the gaps of ideological vagueness concerning national culture and art. Facing the same trouble of defining the boundaries of what constitutes the Turkish national culture, art or literature, the Turkish intelligentsia of the period was also surer of what the new Turkish attitude should not be instead of what it is, and therefore relied heavily on leveraging the artistic and literary activity to compensate for this gap. Even though all the authors and leading figures of the era came together under the goal of a common nation-building process, there was also an evident intra-elite debate going on within the sphere. While, for example, the bimonthly journal published by the Ankara People’s House was more hesitant towards modernism, saw and understood the concept of national art as a return to the traditional local sources and perceived modernism as the product of the aging Europe, Kadro members were a bit more moderate and argued that modernization could only be achieved through time, first starting with the material change, then coming and effecting the culture, art and literature. But unlike Ülkü or Kadro, there were also groups that favored modernism in art, the most important group worth mentioning being the D Group. Founded in 1933 by artists trained in Europe, D Group emphasized and favored modern and high art.

The second important similarity of the early Turkish artistic and literary production with that of European authoritarian regimes was the way that they used art and literature as a propaganda tool. While the success of this aim is highly questionable as the early Turkish Republic lacked source and technology to use artistic and literary productions to move the masses, the idea was still there and tried to be actualized most particularly through People’s Houses and People’s Rooms.

Atatürk and his daughter Sabiha Gökçen visiting the Pertek People’s Houses. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Another point where Turkish literary production was similar to that of European authoritarian regimes was that of the figures and themes authors and poets used in their literary works. The concept of flaneur, the sense of “loss of home”, poverty and inequality constituted the main themes surrounding the novels of the period, and these works also almost always revolved around the moral dilemma of taking action, most particularly in the political sense, i.e, whether to join the liberation war or not, whether to go to Ankara from Istanbul or not. The reader was faced with the question of remaining passive or taking action and consequently the characters were always at a critical turning point of their lives. As a moral lesson, these novels usually ended with the offering of “taking action” as the best solution to this moral dichotomy.

In sum, as can be seen from this brief analysis of both the European authoritarian regimes’ relationship with arts and literature and the similarities/differences of the early Turkish Republic within the same respect, the intelligentsia of the new Turkish regime showed significant resemblances but also differences. The early Turkish intelligentsia’s approach towards art and literature was similar to European authoritarian regimes in terms of how both used these elements as a tool for mass mobilization, filling in the ideological ambiguities of the new regime and the concepts and heroes that surrounded the literary production.

However, the new Turkish Republic and the key literary figures of the period differed from Europe in terms of a more moderate approach towards modernism and what it offers while seeking towards a more positive and developmentalist future-oriented outlook.  As this analysis clearly shows, although the early Republican period and the literary and artistic production within it cannot be fully grasped without fully acknowledging the effect of European authoritarian regimes, there were also significant differences that needs to be addressed in order to get the full picture of the regime and the nation-building process of the period in the newly-founded Turkey through artistic production.