Miniature: The modern face of centuries-old art

Miniature: The modern face of centuries-old art

Zeynep Ardağ
November 16, 2017
  • Murat Palta, Kill Bill
  • Onur Hastürk's miniature art on Starbucks paper cups
  • Artists Murat Palta and Onur Hastürk
  • CANAN - 1 May (miniature, photography, and ink on special paper)
  • Photo by Asli Girgin
    CANAN combines miniature figure techniques with other mixed media art
  • Günseli Kato's work gave way to the modernization of the miniature art form

From the Uyghur Kingdom to the rule of Süleyman the Magnificent to today, Turkish artists have been using miniature to detail their world. The art form has changed with the times, and today’s artists are blending past and present to tell a story truly their own. 

Miniature has a long history in Turkey, travelling to Anatolia from the Uyghur Kingdom and later used by the Seljuks and the Ottomans to document everyday life. After the conquest of Tabriz, due to the Persian influence, heroic deed, animal fables, literary works and folk stories also began to be decorated with miniature. The golden age of Turkish miniature was during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent in the second half of the 16th century.

During the 18th century, Western influences began to shape all areas of culture, including art. Abdulcelil Levni, a miniature artist of the time, is considered a reformer who broke the rules of the traditional miniature by adding Western features and creating a unique style. As technology rapidly progressed during the 19th and 20th centuries with the introduction of the printing press and photography, miniature lost its prevalence as modern forms of record-keeping gained in popularity. 

Miniature all but disappeared until professor Süheyl Ünver revived it in the 1960s with his research on Turkish traditional arts. As education in Turkey followed Western curriculum, no universities had programs on traditional Turkish arts. To fill the gap, Ünver began to give informal seminars at the Cerrahpaşa Institute of Medical History and later workshops at Topkapı Palace. One of his students was Günseli Kato, who would later become one of the pioneers of modernizing miniature. 

Something in her soul urged her to search for the new, Kato told The Guide Istanbul. “Art should be radical, reformist,” she explained. “At one point making copies of the old Ottoman miniatures did not satisfy me anymore so I started working on a more modern style of miniature.” She began to draw miniatures of the Bosphorus waterfront mansions and her own home and gardens. 

In 1981, Kato went to Tokyo University on a scholarship and studied traditional Japanese painting, which was a period that would be highly influential in her art. While learning traditional Japanese art she also taught Turkish miniature; years later, a blend of the two cultures would become her signature style. Kato would bring the traditional and contemporary together by using elements of miniature art in large-scale sculptures, paintings, and other art forms, bridging time, cultures, and norms. 

According to Kato, to become a reformist in traditional discipline one has to look outside the books. “Miniature is a book art but you have to take it out from the book and apply it on the walls, gardens, large areas,” she said. “You have to use technology as well as new and different materials. You can do miniature as a video for instance. All you have to do is to follow its spirit and bring the soul of miniature to your artwork. The real creativity and the ingenuity is to be able to blend miniature with the techniques and art forms of the 21st century.”


Miniaturizing today's social context

Canan Şenol, better known under her artistic pseudonym CANAN, is one of the artists who create as Kato described. CANAN gained her reputation by blending miniatures of the Persian and Ottoman traditions with photography, video, needlework, and sculpture. 

As a student at Marmara University Faculty of Fine Arts, CANAN was influenced by Bauhaus school’s way of conceptual thinking, where use of different materials and objects aims to bring art into contact with everyday life. She became interested in miniature as a tool to criticize traditional viewpoints and in 2006 she decided to study miniature painting from Taner Alakuş at Mimar Sinan University’s Turkish Traditional Art Department. She wanted to do more, however, than make reproductions of old Ottoman miniatures. “Copying what already exists was not entirely what I wanted,” CANAN told The Guide Istanbul. “I believe that when producing artwork, regardless of whatever art form you are using, the artists should add their soul and emotions to the piece.”

As a socially-conscious artist interested in political issues, CANAN uses her miniatures to provide commentary on current events just as the Ottoman miniaturists documenting their era did. “While creating my works, I think about the subjects that are emotionally affecting my life at that period, and the best type of art form that matches with those emotions appears itself,” she told The Guide Istanbul. Over the years her visual language and choice of subjects changed from realistic to more symbolic, making myths and mythological figures main elements in her works.

In her latest exhibition, Behind Mount Qaf, on display at Arter until December 24, 2017, CANAN applied miniature figures on tulle with the techniques of cutting, stitching, sewing, and embroidering. In her spatial installation work Animal Kingdom, covered in brightly colored and sequined fabrics, animals, all of which are in traditional miniatures, fill the gallery space as modern connectors of the past and present, transferred from the pages of old books to today. 


The big screen, small-sized

Murat Palta made his career depicting scenes from Hollywood films in the form of traditional Ottoman miniature art. Star Wars, Kill Bill, Godfather, Inception, A Clockwork Orange, Pulp Fiction, Terminator 2, and Scarface are among the cult movies depicted in his miniatures. 

Although he studied graphic design and illustration at university, he was drawn to Turkish traditional miniatures. He got the idea of drawing Hollywood scenes in miniature form while watching Star Wars with his brother and joking, “What if Darth Vader were a Turkish commander?”

“I love cinema, which is a part of popular culture, and at the same time I love history and miniatures,” Palta told The Guide Istanbul. “Intermingling my two favorite art subjects was therefore a natural outcome.”

In 2012 he chose miniatures as the subject of his graduation thesis. His professors were hesitant at first, but Palta excelled. When he uploaded his works to, an online platform where artists share their works, it went viral. “I was aware that I had done very creative and good work, but to be honest, I was not expecting things would get to this point, and that I would receive so much attention,” Palta said. 

He continued in the years since with his theme, seeking new ideas and mediums. One of his latest works depicts a scene from the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark on a light box. “It was an experimental approach to see what I can do with different materials,” he explained. “At first I was not sure what the outcome would be, but it turned out to be great as the light box gave a more cinematographic feeling to my miniatures.”

He also went beyond Hollywood movies. In some of his works, he depicts scenes from popular books such as Metamorphosis, 1984, Don Quixote, Little Prince, and Harry Potter. There is no doubt that telling a contemporary story with a centuries-old art form is not easy. According to Palta, the biggest challenge is to figure out a way to draw the objects like cars, planes, and spaceships in a way that fits into the miniature aesthetic. 


A 21st century spin on 18th century art

Onur Hastürk is another next-generation artist whose works were displayed next to Palta’s at the Past Meets Present exhibit at Anna Laudel Contemporary in September and October 2017. In his art works, Hastürk chose scenes from Çelebi’s acclaimed work Surname depicting scenes from the circumcision festivities of the sultan’s sons and applied them to Starbucks coffee cups. In doing so, he brought the 200-year old story to life by putting it in the middle of today’s popular culture. 

Hastürk defines his work as questioning, of being neither traditional nor contemporary. “I have always been ‘the other’ for both sides. But I loved being ‘the other’ and not belonging to any genre because it gives you more freedom,” he said.

Although much of his education focused on traditional Turkish miniatures and illumination, Hastürk also closely follows Western artists. He noticed that even the most acclaimed Western painters were influenced by Eastern art forms. “I came across one Matisse painting in which he broke perspective rules and composed the scales of the figures just like in the miniatures,” Hastürk explained. “What is more, Picasso said Islamic calligraphy was the highest aesthetic level he aspired to reach. It was exciting to see the Western painters take their inspiration from Eastern arts," he continued. 

The influence between Eastern and Western artists has been a two-way street throughout history, and art worldwide will continue to change with the times as artists create new and creative means of expressing themselves. 

“Just like every century has its own art style, we have to create a unique style for the 21th century’s miniature,” Kato said. “The ones who do this are the artists who know and can blend both the traditional and contemporary arts. We cannot follow the past, but instead take what we can from it into the future."