BACK to Sirag     BACK to Publications

Section artists of the Gallery

Karel Sirag

From: "De Wereld in de War" ('Refined Confusion'), Miniatures by Karel Sirag, published 1989 by Galerie Lieve Hemel, Amsterdam, written and compiled by Koen Nieuwendijk.

A Few Reflections

Many of the conventions governing human intercourse arise from necessity. It is a matter of survival that a number of clear agreements be reached. You can't run a red light without risking a possible catastrophe. What could be more entertaining, with this notion in mind, than creating your own world in which no such agreements obtain, in which a piece of fruit assumes the dimensions of a natural disaster, in which you can extract human avarice, man's dependence on certainty and other such foibles from their normal context? Karel Sirag seems addicted to just such a fun.

Once upon a time, however, the world ordained that artists should be utterly solemn about the packaging of their creations. Thereafter their task was to hold a mirror up to man, to make people aware of their shortcomings, to identify their abuses and, ideally, to provide in addition ready-made solutions -although in general insistence on this point was not so stringent. As a result works of art have usually radiated sorrow and misery, seldom humour and levity. It is debatable whether the desired effect has ever been achieved, and although I'm well aware raising these doubts will not win me friends, my intentions are in no way inimical. What I'm bent on saying is that Karel Sirag's work is an exception to the cited rules, not because he is out to challenge them, but simply because the gently irony in his miniatures comes so very naturally to him.

Although on the one hand you may not expect a painter to comprehend how extreme his behaviour is -day in, day out sitting scrunched up in front of a panel, paint brush in hand- which already indicates that prescribed behaviour is fundamentally wrong, that is not to say that he comports himself automatically as prevailing professional norms dictate, not the deviation from these norms emanates from premeditation. In other words Karel Sirag is not the moralist one might be tempted to infer from his panels. But, oh ceaseless complexities of life, the observer is scarcely permitted any other option.

To a certain extent Sirag indeed tries to maintain distance from his familiar surroundings in order to prevent his work from becoming stranded in inexhaustible social commentary. Towards this end he undertakes many journeys to faraway places, observing avidly how people there attempt to resolve life's quandries, and subsequently he comingles scraps of our Western helplessness with distant local practices, adding for good measure perfectly disproportionate complications. Thus in some miniatures one encounters architectural styles from Italy and Turkey and popular customs from Tibet and Nepal, a skater must prove his worth in the Sahara, the Himalayas figure as decor for diverse, breakneck activities. Sirag also draws inspiration from sources closer to home. It is then not distance which enables him to keep a grip on the relative importance of things, but proximity: by turning over the first stone, one reveals another universe which, through its parallels with the realm of man, affords Sirag more themes than even he could exhaust. And the insects, their music persists.

Interweaving Themes

In keeping with Sirag's capricious leaps of the imagination, the foregoing description provides only a general point of entry to his work. There are numerous specific themes which foil any too heavy interpretation, while at the same time lend emphasis to meaning by way of an associative detour. Like the onion, the fresh green shoots of which poke vulnerably into the light -it is beautiful in a special way, but continues to grow. However briefly the moment may last, it was there for whoever whishes to see it. No applause, no citations, merely a transitional phase.

How fleeting in comparison to man's striving for immortality, wishing to substitute logic acquired through arduous effort for what in nature appears a spontanuous sequence of events. From Sirag's paintings there speaks a delight -which we may call perhaps sardonic- in mankind's desparate contriving, little of which endures except for inexpressibly much rubbish. The theme of kitsch is manifest continuously. In the world of art an invisible line separates what is and what is not kitsch, a border Sirag chooses resolutely to ignore. He can be irreverent towards old masters, and thus towards popular taste, or at least the art world's notion of what the man in the street admires. He makes shameless use of romantic landscapes of snow and other related crowd pleasers expressly to accentuate the alienating effects which he adds. And what is the disconcerting result: the snowy scene emerges as an indispensably setting within which the absurd and preposterous take place.

The shrinking of a scene to miniature size plays a remarkable role in this process. This holds true, indeed, not only for Sirag's works. A crude subject in small format is notably less striking than when painted life-sized. Sirag exploits reduction of scale as a feint. Through what he adds, as a kind of dual reminder of proportion, the reduction turns into a form of irony. The addition, in some instances, is, remarkably enough, a magnification, at least within the miniaturised context. A paper boat acquires the dimensions of a row of houses, a snail the format of a trailer-truck. The effect can be amusing or melt the heart, but at times the viewer can't avoid a confrontation with the awkwardness of his diminished fellow creatures which sets him thinking. It is something like what happens during a film when you want to cry out to the hero, "Look out, behind you!". People, however small, are rendered in proper proportion to the landscape and to the buildings. It turns out to be simple objects, such as pieces of fruit, books, paper, tin cans, bottles which pose critical problems for people. A mere apple that must be dragged up a mountain demands great ingenuity in the construction of a hoising apparatus. It should be noted here that in the world Sirag paints any and all technical refinement does not exist. Muscles are the primary source of power. Solutions must be sought with extremely primitive means: poles, ropes, little more than that.

The theme of flying is prominent. For Sirag flying means to depart from familiar surroundings, the chance to look on the world from a totally new perspective. For lack of options, he repeatedly situates himself on a mountain top in order to drink in the landscape below. In the series MacGregor the wish to fly keeps reasserting itself. How moving are the undiminished attempts of this quasi-mythological figure to master the empty air with wholly inadequate resources. Here the stylistic device of enlargement with respect to the context also appears. Items like a bucket, a mushroom, a paper glider have disproportionate size and would, if they were in reality so large, lead primarily to out and out disaster. Sirag himself believes that partly owing to his fascination with flight, birds so frequently are the subject of his miniatures, and coupled with this admission the viewer might well imagine that it is out of a kind of unsuspected jealousy that Sirag regularly saddles his birds with handicaps which make their getting airborne nonetheless an eighth wonder of the world.

On Patience and a Steady Hand

In devoting himself to the execution of miniatures, Karel Sirag has to face formidable technical difficulties. A number of these are characteristic of realistic painting in general, but in addition the miniscule format makes demands all its own. The question often arises whether Sirag works with a magnifying glass. That isn't the case. One obvious reason to do so might have been that the lens would make details more visible, but painting is not merely looking, but also applying paint. It is furthermore true that if one gets too close to a painting, one's relation to the whole may suffer. What applies to a large work, during the painting of which the artist time and again steps back to appraise the effect of his latest strokes on the whole, holds true as well for the scale on which Sirag paints.

In practice Sirag's approach amounts to his reliance, to a significant extent, on feeling. The fine tip of his brush obscures the very spot where paint is being applied. Years of experience have taught him how he can best suggest the third dimension. Here the remarkable fact comes into play that the reduced format itself necessitates creating the illusion of depth with small strokes. In larger paintings, depending on the technique used, this can be achieved with perfectly smooth surfaces of paint. Strong magnification of "The World of the Book" reveals a technique reminiscent in certain respects of the impressionists. In fact the naked eye can barely perceive how Sirag accomplishes what he does, and that emphasizes yet again the degree of refinement of which he is capable. Unintentionally Sirag has therefore posed the printer of this volume grave technical problems. Insiders will perhaps like to know that for lithographing the slides of Sirag's paintings an extremely fine screen was chosen, one which required utmost care during printing. Here, no reduction in size was attempted, as is usually the case. No, Sirag's works are reproduced at exactly their real size, a most literal rendition this of the word "reproduction". Imagine, the printer as miniaturist!

Biographical Notes

It not seldom happens that people imagine the name Sirag is not Dutch. A little bit of digging around the family tree, however, discloses that in the mid-seventeenth century a certain GabriŽl, living in Leiden, had cause to rejoice in the birth of a son, named Andries Sirach GabriŽlszoon. His offspring Heindrik, born 1684, was the first to bear Sirach as his family name, which one generation later became spelled 'Sierag'. Since 1818 the name also has been written as 'Sirag', although all three variations still occur today. 1)

Probing has brought to light that 'Sirach' is an old Hebrew word, Aramic to be precise, which means, "I have suffered, but have been set free." The name may refer to release from prison, or religious conversion. As far as it is possible to discover, the word served for the first time as a name about 190 B.C., when the author of one of the 'Apocrypha' was known as Jesus Sirach. 2)

Karel Sirag was born in 1948 in Driebergen. Although many small children spend some of their time defacing paper and are extolled by their parents for displaying the creative gifts of a genius, Sirag undeniably demonstrated an abnormal ability to draw which he himself at the age of nine translated into a wish to become an illustrator later in life. Secondary modern followed on the heels of elementary school, years which might have inspired Bordewijk to write 'Bint' had he not already done so. From 1966 to 1969 Sirag successfully completed training at 'Academie Artibus' in Utrecht. Then in 1971, after a stint in the army, he settled down for good to paint. his 'pararealistic period', Sirag felt himself strongly inspired by such painters as Magritte, Dali and Max Ernst (especially his work from 1935 to 1945). Nelius Faling from Utrecht who suffered continuously from severe pains and sought to relief in the painting of bizarre scenes also impressed him profoundly. Sirag's style was then of a surrealistic nature.

Gradually the apocalyptic visions which characterize this period disappear, yielding to a more detached, considered view of the surrounding world. Sirag then discovered how reducing things to miniature scale helped him express his rejection of the absolute in favor of the relative. Sources which spurred him on included medieval European miniatures, and certain artists in particular, such as Piranesi and Canaletto. The work of, among others, Schelfhout, Springer and Spitzweg, the German romantic notable for his starched vein of humour, has had its impact on Sirag's development as well.

1) Source: Recent family tree research by A. Sirag, Leiden.
2) 'De Apocriefe Boeken I', Kok, Kampen, 1958.

Miniatures Past to Present

Miniatures were not originally considered independent works of art. Yet the word 'illustration' as used today is too restricted to denote the lavish fashion in which, dating from roughly the 11th century, manuscripts were embellished. Book printing had yet to be discovered, the notion of reproduction was unimaginable. The way in which hand-written books were made attractive to the eye developed from the decoration of initial letters to the creation of veritable works of art. Images at first derived from the text of the writing to be adorned, but proved capable of emerging as self-contained, so that it was no longer exceptional for the written word te be subordinated to illustrative art. With the secularization of society and, in part, as a consequence of the invention of the printing press, the hand-decorated manuscript faded in importance, while little by little the miniature secured a place of its own in the totality of painting. The genre survived to a significant degree in the form of portraiture, thereby occupying, however splendid on occasion, a secondary place in the historic development of art.

Up to this point miniatures as fashioned in the West have constituted our topic. Elsewhere, too, however, beautiful miniatures were painted, as in 15th century Persia and, under Persian influence, in India -the so-called 'Rajput miniatures' whose production lasted down to the beginning of this century. Nowadays a small format is not enough to mark a painting straightaway as a miniature. Only few painters consistently occupy themselves with the genre, owing presumably on the one hand to the complicated technique which requires years of perseverance to master and on the other to rapidly changing trends on other fronts in the art world. The rarity of true miniaturists only heightens awareness of Karel Sirag as an exceptional talent.

Source: Bernard L. Myers, Trewin Copplestone, 'Kunstgeschiedenis in Vogelvlucht', Becht, Amsterdam, 1977. (Original English title: 'The MacMillan Encyclopedia of Art', Trewin Copplestone Publishing Limited, 1977.