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  • Sylvia Weve:The Perfection of Simplicity
  • Ted van Lieshout (bio)
    Translated by Emma Rault

When I graduated from art school in 1980 and embarked on the arduous process of finding my way as an illustrator, I did so with painstakingly precise drawings for publications such as NRC Handelsblad (a Dutch daily newspaper). I'd get two commissions a month at most. Each drawing would earn me 150 guilders [about $175 by today's standards]. I'd spend at least two full days working on them, because of the endless shading involved, and I was beginning to dislike drawing more with every passing day. Truth be told, I knew the moment I graduated art school that I'd picked the wrong profession. Though I liked some of the limitations imposed by illustration work, at the same time I felt trapped and straitjacketed. Drawing the same figure in the same way over and over and again made me feel like I was stuck on repeat.

Until the Kiel came along. It featured poems that were kind of like the things I was scribbling in secret, and drawings by a woman who did what I'd believed to be impossible. This Sylvia Weve didn't make illustrations—she simply handed in her sketches! The sheer audacity! I thought it was amazing, and I thought: that's what I need to be doing. Why torture myself with intricate detail or endless shading, when I could be happily sketching away, letting my pen dance wildly across the page? I cut Sylvia's drawings out of the Volkskrant and in a hop, skip, and jump I transformed my style, embracing my newfound freedom.

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So what is it that's so great about Sylvia's work—what motivated me to cut it out of the paper and save it between the pages of a tattered book? It's the perfection of simplicity, and the confidence. It doesn't matter whether or not that simplicity is really the result of one perfectly placed stroke of the pen—what matters is what the drawing looks like. When you look at this portrait, you'll see that it consists of just a few lines, and they're each of them exactly right. You can't say: this line here should have been a little more to the left or a little less slanted. It's a perfect portrait, partly because those—superfluous—details that might have ruined it have been left out. In a sense, it's abstraction, because no human face consists of just a few [End Page 69] lines, and yet it isn't abstract, because it's a portrait of a woman in whom we can recognize dozens of women.

Karel Eykman wrote about his favorite drawing of Sylvia's: "Her drawings aren't finicky or 'precise,' nor are they virtuosic or 'dazzling.' More than anything, she's bold and gutsy. That's what makes her work so personal. Plenty of people have tried to copy her… But you can see right away whether it's a real Sylvia or a rip-off. And no-one can pinpoint why that is."

Joke Bellemans tried, in 1999, to put Sylvia's work into words. She wrote: "Her drawings look off-the-cuff. And yet she does lots of sketches before she's satisfied. To retain the spontaneous character, she never does a 'tidy' final version of a drawing once she's reasonably happy with it. She'll glue bits of paper on top of the parts she doesn't like and then draw improvements on those, or she'll use white paint to cover up the less felicitous parts. As a result, the original drawings often look like patchwork. Over the years, she's become more and more skilled, and she doesn't need to use this cutand-paste approach as often. She has the TV on when she's working because she can't stand silence."

In 1993, Sylvia illustrated my book Toen oma weg was (When Grandma Was Gone). What's striking about the drawings Sylvia made for When Grandma Was Gone is how tender they are. No fluid...


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