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In the spirit of the Atelier Mordecai Ardon
2006 Etchings, Paris
Miniatures
To Love the Inherently Small, Miniatures 1999 -2009
Autumn Mysteries
pictures from group exhibitions

Art work by technique:
Water
Oil
Drawing
Engravings and prints
Mixed technique
Geometric structures

All of the miniatures exhibited here were also part of other group exhibitions of miniatures between 2000-2008. The majority of exhibitions were under the auspices of the "Israel Miniature Art Society" (IMAS) in Israel and abroad.  Most of these miniatures are painted in water colors but there are some individual miniatures that are oil paint on paper (The Burning Bush, The Mountaintops after the Deluge, Ebb in the Winter) or oil on canvas (("The little prince coming back the sky", "A corner in the Jerusalem Forest"). Mentioned beneath each miniature is where and when it was exhibited.

I dedicated a special gallery to the miniatures and did not include them in the gallery of "The Group Exhibition" first, because there are too many, and secondly, because they are different from my large oil paintings. The difference is not only the format and the media but also because the majority of the pieces exhibited through the "Israel Miniature Art Society" revolved around a specific subject. Although there is a measure of artistic liberty, the miniature is nevertheless obliged to relate to the subject of the exhibition. As a result, my miniatures more emphatically carry an external reality than do my large paintings. The subjects of my miniatures are always the subjects which are of interest to me; scenery, plants, trees, sunrises, sunsets – all that touches nature as well as the environment which surrounds us.

According to the rules of the Association of Miniatures in Israel, the measurements of the miniatures must not exceed 9x9 cm. and the final size of the miniature including the frame has a maximum of 15x15 cm. It should be noted that these rules are not international and different countries allow for different sizes. Small paintings, except for a painting whose subject is miniature to begin with, cannot exceed a sixth of its normal size.

This means that the size of a miniature of a portrait for example, can not be bigger than 5 cm. The final measurement of a miniature (including the passepartout and the frame) changes according to the rules of each Association. There are  international exhibitions which do not limit the final measurements and thereby force the artist to consider the external size and adapt accordingly.
The Association in Israel attempts to follow the World Federation rules regarding miniatures and as a result, the measurements have changed over the years. For example, until 2004 a miniature (in Israel) was considered 10x10 cm and its final measurements could not exceed 20x20 cm. As stated, the sizes have changed. When the picture is larger, it is not considered a miniature but rather a “small picture” or “petit format”.

More about the subject

 What is Miniature Art?
 or,  How I Came to Paint the Inherently Small


A few years ago, on one of my visits to the Jerusalem Artists House, I was struck –  while roaming around one of the rooms – by a display of small paintings, produced by members of the Israeli Miniature Art Society. While looking at these paintings I discovered something both riveting and overwhelming, not unlike observing a Lilliputian army or a dolls’ house. A thorough scrutiny of these works made me wonder whether they were intended as book illustrations, the way some of them actually looked, or whether these were independent paintings. Their tiny size required a different mode of inspection, unlike the back and forth movement of the observer employed in the case of ordinary paintings. I consequently had to examine all of them at very close range, and this intimate and thorough inspection inevitably influenced my own point of view and my attitude toward these tiny pictures. They stopped being ‘sized down’ paintings and became instead a subject in their own right. This visit motivated me to undertake a thorough study of the nature of miniature paintings and of their place in contemporary art. At the time it did not yet occur to me that one day I, too, would become a miniaturist.

A TYPOLOGY OF MINIATURES
The dictionary defines “miniature” as a “small picture”, usually a portrait, painted in colors in a manuscript and meant to illustrate the text. Such illustrations are called “illuminations”. The term "miniature" originated with the custom to decorate the initial letters of a manuscript with illuminations made in a red lead paint called “minium” The claim that the word “miniature” is derived from the word “minute” is therefore a false etymology. Following the Renaissance, miniatures were painted on parchment or ivory, were framed, and could be worn around the neck as pendants. The term “miniature” covers several kinds of art with a variety of functions:

1. Illuminating an initial letter in a book. In the illustrated manuscripts of the twelfth century one encounters initial letters decorated with twisted and complex human and animal forms. The shapes of these figures were determined by the shape of the letter itself, with the illuminated letter meant just to decorate the page.

2. Illustrating a book. Miniatures served initially as decoration and as an aid to the reader. Painters have therefore sought to produce universally understandable miniatures which portrayed mainly Biblical stories, but also various contemporary events and scenes of everyday life. A well known, fairly early group of typical miniatures, produced by the Limbourg brothers in Burgundy around 1410, illustrates the book Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry. The book contains 12 miniatures, each of them occupying a full page, representing the 12 months of the year and the changes of the seasons. In all probability, these miniatures were painted using a magnifying glass.
 
However, miniature painting as book illustrations was not an invention of the West, but a custom used already in ancient Egypt to illustrate the Book of the Dead on papyrus. It is found not only in Europe but in the Near and Far East, e.g., in Persian and Indian miniatures. A prominent place in Moslem manuscripts, as in Western ones, is occupied by illuminations of initial letters. These miniatures are not necessarily minuscule and their placement on the page is variable and interesting to follow from one page to the next. The Persian miniatures represent human and animal figures as well as plants, and are usually drawn in very fine detail. As in European miniatures, they too, sometimes illustrate various activities such as a deer hunt. In Persian manuscripts, one can find very small miniatures (10 x 8.5 cm) surrounded by a caption above and below, with the rest of the page left blank, and even tiny miniatures (6 x 7 cm) placed on part of a page without any accompanying writing. This kind of illustration is common in Indian miniatures as well.

One should note that the book illustration technique employed in the thirteenth century is totally different from the contemporary technique used in printed books: not only did the artist both write and illustrate every single copy, often using a brush which had a very small number of bristles, but the illustrations were often the most prominent feature of the book. Nowadays, illustration for its own sake is mostly encountered in children’s books.

Can a miniature be found in every book containing illustrations? Not exactly. What is typical of miniatures, regardless of their exact size, is the great care taken to provide an exact portrayal of the smallest details. Thus, a miniature drawing of a human figure would include not only the dress, but also the pattern of any embroidery or ornaments worn by this figure. Book illustrations are considered miniatures if decorative details are found. In the Middle Ages, for example, full pages are devoted to decorative letters, rich in details. These, too, are considered miniatures.
 
3. Miniature portraits. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries one encounters miniature portraits meant primarily for the decoration of clothes. Some were painted on a tiny page, while others were painted on a round or elliptic object, and meant to be worn around the neck. Most of these miniatures contain a single human figure and were part of the courting game: each partner gave the other a pendant with his or her own image on it. On looking at this pendant one realizes that the artists sought to beautify their objects, not unlike contemporary photographers. It might have been the only way to present the image of the chosen one in the course of the betrothal process.
 
This particular type of miniature painting started to spread in the sixteenth century with the German artist Hans Holbein (1497-1543), who served as a portrait painter in the court of England’s Henry the Eighth. Most of these miniatures are drawn in oil paints and are very small, seldom exceeding 5 x 5 cm. They are possibly the earliest known examples of western miniature portraits.

Miniature portraits drawn in manuscript style were widespread in Europe and very popular in sixteenth and seventeenth century in Italy. Some prominent examples are the portraits by the Florentine Bronzino (1503-1572) and his associates, who drew them on medallions using oil paints, and those attributed to the Venetian Tintoretto (1518-1594). As of the sixteenth century, the art of miniatures also spread to the Low Countries, where Holbein’s miniatures were very influential. To this was added in the first half of the seventeenth century the influence of the portraits drawn by the Flemish van Dyck (1599 - 1641) who was also active in England.

In sixteenth century in France, some painters focused on producing miniature portraits on medallions, while others illustrated manuscripts.

The British painter Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), born a few years after Holbein’s death, was markedly influenced by the latter’s style. But, unlike Holbein, Hilliard specialized exclusively in miniature painting and was consequently appointed as the “Royal Miniatures Painter” of Queen Elizabeth I. To him, miniature painting, “limning” in his terms, was separate and distinct from the standard art of painting, and his subjects consisted mainly of portraits, both of major figures like Queen Elizabeth I, King James and Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, and of lesser figures. Hilliard was particular about copying reality in the most precise manner, and in his portraits one can distinguish, for example, the details of fine lace, which, under the magnifying glass, looks perfectly real. In his portrait of Queen Elizabeth, his artistic skill can be seen not only in the way he paints the lace, but also in his exact representation of the royal crown and jewelry.  Most of Hilliard’s miniatures are today on permanent display in London’s Victoria and Albert museum.

The flourishing of the art of miniature portraits in the western world is part of the heyday of portrait painting in general. At the very same time artists were commissioned, normally by royalty and nobles, to create both large scale and miniature works of art. The monumental works were meant to increase the patron’s prestige and immortalize him, while the miniature ones served mostly as jewelry.

With the invention of the camera and other technological developments, the attraction of miniature portraits began to fade in the West, but this technique persisted in India, where miniature portraits were drawn on ivory. The miniatures were then inserted into a gilt frame, covered in glass, glued to a piece of velvet and put into an album that would close like a box. The Indian maharajas, who were proud of the royal titles conferred on them by the British, used to present their miniature portraits as a keepsake to the British viceroy. In conclusion one could say that such classical miniatures occupy a middle position between painting and jewelry.

TECHNIQUES OF INDEPENDENT MINIATURE PAINTING
Sixteenth century miniature artists used only two kinds of surfaces: parchment glued to playing cards and ivory. With technical improvements in the seventeenth century, miniature portraits began to be created on enamel as well. In order to produce such tiny pictures, artists have always had to use an extremely fine brush with few bristles, sometimes even a single one. Because the brush is so delicate one needs to use the smoothest possible surface, without any uneven spots, and materials of this kind were quite rare. Contemporary miniaturists, on the other hand, have at their disposal a very wide range of materials to paint on: smooth chromo paper whose texture resembles playing cards, various kinds of fabric, formica, copper, plywood and ivorine, which is the synthetic substitute for ivory. Ivorine is inexpensive, very smooth and has the color of ivory. On it one can draw extremely precise pictures. The variety of paints currently available is also much wider than the watercolors and tempera of previous centuries. In the sixteenth century the techniques of miniature painting were a secret handed down from father to son or from master to disciple. Nowadays all methods are universally accessible and many artists are interested in spreading their techniques through explanatory books or classes. The methods of contemporary miniaturists are also very different and vary from one artist to the next.

CONTEMPORARY MINIATURE ART                    
 My surprise encounter with the exhibition of contemporary small paintings gave rise to a series of questions. First of all, are all small paintings miniatures? Miniatures, for the simple observer, is an attempt to portray a reduced, precise image of  reality, almost devoid of artistic interpretation. This is not entirely true – medieval miniatures were often figments of imagination and many Islamic miniatures are purely decorative. What is more, one can see in them the artist's interpretation of his surrounding reality. It can be assumed that during the Renaissance, observers were amazed at the ability of the artist to precisely copy the form in front of him. We are able nowadays to imitate reality in a miniaturized way by other colorful means such as photography and computer simulation. So what is the role of the artist in this kind of copying process? Is a mere faithful and precise reduction of reality worthwhile? And would such a photo-like painting be of interest to the contemporary observer? Quite possibly, the very reduction of reality and the examination of its preciseness under the magnifying glass, which impressed past observers so greatly, will have less appeal to observers who are exposed daily to splendid photo portraits of all sizes. Moreover: many of the current adherents of miniature art focus on the artist’s expressive ability and the understanding of abstract art, which need not copy reality at all.

It is possible that contemporary observers will regard the classical miniature, which provides a strikingly faithful reduced human image, as at best a sophisticated miniaturized replication of reality, which could hardly be called a work of art. In other words, miniatures will turn into artifacts, and the observers will appreciate their producers primarily for their technical ability to paint tiny, strikingly precise pictures, without regarding these producers as artists with creative capabilities. On the other hand, we should recall that painting as a whole did not disappear with the invention of the camera: it just changed its nature. In a similar vein, miniature art may also change unrecognizably, for example transform itself into “abstract miniatures.”  Such a term may not sound strange to our contemporaries who are used to abstract painting, but makes one wonder whether such an object could still be considered a miniature, since the very term, as it is understood today, implies a reduction of a larger, pre-existent object  In other words, the term “abstract miniature” thus sounds paradoxical and may have no place in an artistic vocabulary. It is necessary to mention that some contemporary artists produce only miniatures, while others produce paintings of any size.

My visit to the exhibition raised further questions in my mind: can one convey emotion, mood or movement in a miniature painting as effectively as in a normal sized one, and what does the observer of a miniature experience? Won’t he feel sorry that the beautiful picture is not bigger? There is no denying the significance of a picture’s size. Some painters, such as Jackson Pollock, try to make it impossible for the observer to take their picture in at a glance, thereby forcing him to “enter into it”, and have an additional experience, that of total fusion with the picture surrounding him on all sides. The significance of size is as important in photography and video art.

I addressed my questions to the president of the Israel Miniature Art Society, and asked him what its members considered as miniature. It turned out that a small painting—with the exception of the painting of a tiny object such as an ant—is considered miniature only if it is no bigger than one sixth of the object’s actual size. A miniature portrait is thus no taller than 5 cm. Computer drawings are not considered miniatures. The artist must leave a margin around the picture to indicate that the small picture is not a segment taken from a bigger one. The president did not specify any restrictions about dimensions and the use of standard tools of the trade, so that a rigorous, precise copying of reality is not a necessary condition for considering a work as miniature.

The maximum size of a miniature  varies from one country to another, but not only does the size of the painted area change according to the rules of the different societies but also the maximum size of the frame: Most national associations of artists of miniatures have regulations concerning the maximum overall size of miniatures including picture, passé-partout, frame and mount if any, and in the United States, for example, it is the total size which determines whether something constitutes a miniature.

A study of web-sites pertaining to miniatures around the world proved beyond a doubt that the art of the miniature has not died out. Many miniatures are still portraits, but the range of subjects has expanded and may contain landscapes, seascapes or images of a fruit, flower or animal. There are miniaturist associations all over the world, the best known being those of Britain and Australia. The revival of miniature painting was led by the British Royal Society of Miniatures, founded in 1896, and it is the first association whose members are dedicated exclusively to miniature painting. The Hilliard Society is another British association of this kind. The World Federation of Miniatures is located in Australia (founded in 1985), and its regulations state explicitly that the definition of miniature varies from one association to the other.

In many countries there are also galleries specializing in miniature art and organizing international exhibitions. On the other hand, miniatures are not permanently displayed in most museums and can be viewed there only during special exhibitions or in private collections which are not open to the public. But all miniaturist associations organize annual exhibitions and therefore, this is the best way to see this special kind of art.
In 1999 I joined The Israel Miniature Art Society and took part in an international exhibition of miniatures at the Gabriel House, at Tzemach near the Sea of Galillee, where most works on display were painted using the standard techniques of painting on paper. This made me wonder how such an exhibition would look in other countries, and what would be the contribution to this field of the twentieth century, so rich in sophisticated color photographs, computerized graphics and scanners. The whole field was for me at this point still a novelty, and I had not yet discovered the range of possibilities available for miniature painting in the modern world.

My participation in an international exhibition in France provided me with a wealth of information in this regard. It was the annual exhibition organized by the French association for miniatures (Société des Artistes en Miniature et Arts Précieux de France – S.A.M.A.P). The exhibition consisted of miniatures and little pictures (“petit format”) and took place at the Château de Bernicourt in Douai in northern France, near Lille.

This was a most rewarding experience, as the exhibition offered a whole panoply of styles and techniques. Some of the participants painted with watercolors on paper or ivorine, while others used gouache, or oil paint on canvas, silk or paper. The miniatures from each country were presented together, and this enabled the visitor to distinguish the common ground shared by several countries but also to find out what separated them, as well as to locate individual styles and points of view. On the one hand, there were extremely realistic British miniatures, some of them looking as if they were painted three centuries ago, and on the other hand, an oil on paper landscape painting by a young Bangladeshi artist in an impressionist style bordering on the abstract.

The British were distinguished by their brilliant technique, and most of them offered portraits on medallions or paper, made in the classical tradition of Elizabethan miniature painting. These paintings were reminiscent of miniature “studio photographs”, with hardly any individual touches discernible, as if the artist had eliminated his own feelings and ideas for the sake of a perfect portrait. Some miniatures even looked as if they were copied from photographs, while others were expressly copied from famous paintings, such as a Constable landscape. The guest of honor at the exhibition was Michael Bartlett, vice-president of the British Royal Society of Miniatures (R.M.S), whose own works included miniatures of splendidly dressed British officers, drawn with amazing precision. He told me he was drawing on ivorine, using watercolors for the human figures and pastels for the background.  The uniforms were copied from seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings, while the faces were those of his friends.

The Russians showed paintings on ivorine, and their miniatures also included tiny portraits as well as familiar landscapes and tiny ivory statues of wild animals.

The French also enjoyed copying the works of past artists. One example was an impressive portrait of a young woman, which was an exact copy of a well-known Gainsborough portrait. There was also a tendency to paint realistic-looking gilded elliptical pendants of figures, many of which were not precise photographs. My attention was drawn to a series of pictures done in a pointillistic technique, like that of George Seurat (1859-1891); the whole picture consisted of distinct dots of color, made by the very fine tip of a delicate brush. The French also exhibited works which were fairly original in both subject and technique, such as an owl in gouache coated with lacquer, drawn on a fingernail sized pebble.

The Belgian miniatures resembled in their conservative style those of the British and French, and most of them consisted of stunningly precise landscapes that recalled, to some degree, tourist postcards

Most American miniatures were drawn in oil, and there were also tiny miniature plates with minute pictures of fish or birds drawn on them.

Among the Israeli works there were some brilliantly colored and completely abstract minute pictures.

In sum, one could say that the number of abstract paintings was relatively very small. The link to the past tradition was most pronounced in the portraits. Some copied portraits from past centuries; other painted famous contemporaries, like Gerard Depardieu or Coco Chanel, while others were of anonymous or imaginary individuals, and were called “A Girl with a Tape-Recorder” or “A Boy with a Model Engine.”

The exhibition proved that while photography may facilitate the artist’s work, mastery of the fine brush is still a must. Many of the miniatures are anchored in contemporary art, so that some of them are similar to regular paintings bordering on the realistic, while other artists prefer to express themselves in completely abstract terms. I also concluded that one cannot evaluate miniatures nowadays solely according to past criteria, which celebrated the perfect match of details between the miniature portrait and its object As in all contemporary art, the miniaturist, too, needs originality, an ability to convey his unique personal vision, artistic sincerity and deep feelings. Overcoming the constraints of the limited size of the miniature grows in importance as the picture gets smaller. And finally, miniatures are part and parcel of the contemporary art world, and should not be regarded as a mere product of a skillful craftsman.

Liat Polotsky

From the catalog of the exhibition "To Love the Inherently Small"
published in August 2010, Aripash Publication
ISBN 978-965-7281-09-3
 


 

 

 



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