Orsolya Karafiáth: It is on your shelf – visibly thoroughly read and with plenty of markings – the book called The Life of the Saints. You have said once that as long as there are saints you paint them. But you don’t paint everyone. On what basis do you make your selection?
Isaak Silard: Whoever comes in a dream, or which I receive as a dream, that is the saint I paint. Dreams can be influenced. If, for instance, I read about the life of a peculiar saint before falling asleep, it is highly probable that I’ll dream about him. But it is not a hundred per cent. I have two types of dreams. In one type there is an action, in which I myself participate. In this case, I am in the dream, everything is happening to me. One of my water-lily paintings appeared to me in a way like I was lying underneath the water, and the water-lilies were floating above me. In the other, the picture hangs somewhere in a house, on one of the walls, and I watch this finished picture. That is why I don’t have any picture hung on the walls where I live, because it would disturb me. I have recurring dreams as well. In one of those it’s like fingers coming and trying to catch me or touch me. These fingers are several feet long, and I am small. It is also alarming when a person is still alive and I see them in my dream as dead. What could this all mean? I don’t try to resolve them. I might as well understand. After the resolution there are no more pictures, I believe.
O.K.: We can also see a gun in some of the pictures. It’s strange.
I.S.: There were many saint martyrs. Most of them were executed. Whether it was done through arrows, decapitation, breaking on the wheel, tossing the victim into an iron cage or a hot cauldron, this is insignificant from this aspect. It does not matter what kind of weapon I depict: the point is that it should cause death.
O.K.: Your saints have regular features and perfect bodies. I don’t think that in reality they could all have participated in beauty contests…
I.S.: We cannot possibly know whether they were beautiful or not, maybe they were. A saint, by being a saint, is excluded from society, and becomes a superior creature, by which it is also presumed that everything in them is perfect. My depictions should not be imagined as copies of contemporary photos; they probably don’t suit that. By being as they are, they are more acceptable, perhaps as models. And my converting intention comes in at this point too: this way, perhaps the viewers feel more inclined to get to know the saints. Saints are symbols to me. They are power, fear, hope, horror and tranquility. They are existing, who existed, and still continue to exist in me, with me. We are full of misconceptions about them, and this is what somehow I would like to deprive their real being of. Probably God has some intention with me and them, since he gives me these pictures. Thus can these pictures be considered as means of evangelization, but it is not my task to evangelize with them.
O.K.: You, as a reformist…
I.S.: In the reformist church, too, there are saints, we believe and profess the fellowship of the saints, except that we do not have separate saint worship. I paint the saints of universal Christianity, the ancient saints. Their numbers are constantly changing in the Catholic Church with the pope keeps canonizing saints up to this day, in the Greek-orthodox church there is no canonization of saints. And the fact that I depict them as breathing, eating, drinking people living with desires? No matter how we look at it, even the saints were people, just like Jesus was also a human being. There are churches that preach that Jesus, for example, had no sexual life, but it is unnecessary to make such presumptions. If I accept that he was a man, who said, to cap it all, that “I assumed all human” then there is nothing to be ashamed of. Those, who are sexless, are the angels. We should not confuse them with the saints.
O.K.: For you, names are also important. I have not even heard about many of them.
I.S.: The educational nature is important here as well. I paint the ones with pleasure that are not really well known, the ones that are forgotten. Saint John is basic for everyone, but for instance Pope Saint Marcellinus is not known to many. The receiver has to work as well: if they are interested who is portrayed in the picture, perhaps they run a search.
O.K.: You also have round pictures – here it is as if the frame replaces the halo.
I.S.: This is a new thing. By the way, everything has a halo in my pictures, even plants and animals, because everything has an aura, which we either see or do not see, but it is there. It differs in the colors, lights, shapes; there are some with rectangular, amorphous or body-shaped auras. Round depiction is just a question of habit. For example, in the Orthodox Church there is a canon about how to paint saints.
O.K.: You paint on huge canvases.
I.S.: I don’t think they are big, these are actually small, but I cannot make any bigger because they would not fit in my studio.
O.K.: Your colors are stunning. Perhaps that is the strongest impression when I look at one of your paintings. The whole thing is expressive, the powerful blue, gold, red.
I.S.: I don’t hatch, and there is no shading in my pictures. What color there is in my pictures, I try to paint as a uniform surface. I don’t shade, but, of course, I use mixed colors. Gold can substitute anything, because that is its function, also in the churches. Red is the color of martyrdom, lily-white is of innocence. I don’t decide which one is going to be the dominating color. It is only decided that there will be a sky-color and an earth-color. Meanwhile, I have left the horizon out, it is lost somewhere. Sometimes blood is not red, and there are some trees with blue leaves. I don’t think about the colors. But it is always conscious that one picture consists of several colors, and, if possible, I don’t mix in shades. One of my friends says the reason for the way my colors are is the war trauma, but I don’t believe so. I only partly experienced the war in Yugoslavia, and, in retrospect, it is quite amusing and interesting. Back then it was not so, when I had to go to a hearing in order to be allowed to travel, but it is sure that it does not happen often in life. I was 13 when the Serbs marched in to our neighborhood, but they arrived later to our house. A fundamental, strong memory is that we had to pack. Mother wrapped in all the glass and porcelain, and we took everything to the basement. The good thing in it all was that we could furnish the basement, bringing down carpets and furniture. The most beautiful was as the UN troops were later expected, with flowers. During the war you had to become an adult. Another beautiful memory of mine is when, after signing the peace, I held religious service in a bombed church. I talked about Our Father, and that you must not hate your enemy. The believers sat in front of me on beach chairs, the door was an opening cut out by a bomb, but the tower already had a new roof… What definitely had an impact on me when it comes to using shapes and colors is folklore, more specifically embroidery. In my large flower pictures this influence is very obvious. I am not an Anna Lesznai, I cannot do embroideries, but my grandmother did, and I was standing next to her, watching and learning how to use colors. I listened when she said: “This color here is not good, because it does not go in.” She mixed the colors, did not make it black and white like a good reformed in our area, and she saw immediately which color jumps off the picture. By the way this is typical in any area, even Anna Lesznai was warned: “This color is not good here, Máli, it kicks the child out of my belly.” I loved my grandmother’s embroideries, already as a child I had my “museum” where the exhibits were whatever I found at my grandmother’s.
O.K.: Do you work quickly? I can see the masses of framed canvases with a silhouette drawn on it by charcoal, unpainted. There are plenty of such canvases in your studio.
I.S.: It is said that I paint quickly. The charcoal drawing is done very quickly, and then you only have to work with it, to paint it. Ever since it is not me creating the pictures, only painting them, the canvas has become better, perhaps calmer. A painter does not have to intervene in everything. A picture is interesting as long as I draw it. By the way, I make no sketches. But I often write down my dreams. So the sketches for my pictures are words. And I am constantly lagging behind my dreams.
Interviewer: Orsolya Karafiáth, 2009