One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes, stood near the harbour. It was constructed by Chares of Lindos over an eight-year period starting in 292 BC. Felled by an earthquake after only 56 years, as a pile of bronze shards and stone rubble it commanded just as much attention (a thumb, it was said, was larger than a man). Sold for scrap 800 years later, it took 900 camels to carry the remnants away.
A monument to Greek power and in honour of Helios, it had become a metaphor for fallen gods and the decay of great civilizations. With the competitive and often warlike nature of mankind, it would seem there is a natural tendency to make things big at the expense of making them sensitive. Bluster is the greater part of power, and a strong sense of power is implied by size.
This may be changing. Is it possible that a more understated and gentler world may be upon us? Recently, a few of us were looking closely at the newly reattributed Portrait of a Man, a smallish canvas now certainly thought to be from the hand of Diego Velasquez. Probably another self-portrait, it shows a remarkable feeling for character and a penetration of personality. “A small gem,” said somebody. “That’s quality,” said another. If we were any closer our noses would be rubbing on it.
In another museum a giant wall-filling modernist canvas of Cy Twombly was being given a quick pass by visitors on their way to look at something else. I couldn’t help wondering if we’re witnessing a transition from big, blundering and blustering to a more sensitive and understated world. Is size now being understood for what it is? As the photorealist and sculptor Audrey Flack has noted, “If you can’t paint, paint big.”
Not that size can’t have quality. Look at the giant canvases of Velasquez. They’re often an assemblage of smaller gems. Integrated as a significant whole, sensitive to colour, light and nuance, an understated, decentralized self-portrait may be placed here and there with care.
PS: “It’s better to have a small diamond than a large piece of glass.” (A new bride)
Esoterica: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Big and small
Is it simply a matter of size?
by Russ Williams
Having recently seen some Cy Twombly work (much of which was NOT giant wall-filling work) in a museum with works of other artists also, I might guess that Twombly was being given a quick pass for reasons other than size. Do a google image search for Diego Velasquez and for Cy Twombly and see which images hold your attention for longer. For many people, modern abstract stuff that (rightly or wrongly) falls into the stereotype of “it looks like my kid could have done it” is not going to hold the attention as long as a realistic intricate painting.
by Sara Genn, Santorini, Greece
Considering your use of the words “understated” and “sensitive” to describe quality paintings, and then your mention of Twombly, I thought you might like more time to appreciate his paintings and their use of paucity, scale, palette and markings to convey quietly heroic messages. Twombly’s often personal and spiritual titles reference works of music, poetry and drama. In the Rothko chapel in Houston, Texas (just down the road from Houston’s Cy Twombly Gallery–both places funded by the same collector) the heart-stopping canvases average 132 inches x 180 inches. Velasquez’s comparable Las Meninas (125.2 inches x 108.7 inches), a portrait of the Spanish court, could easily be described as “big, blundering, and blustering.”
“I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however… is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!” (Mark Rothko, circa 1949)
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Bigger is better in China
by Elizabeth Briel, Hong Kong
Modesty is in vogue in many western countries these days, but once the good times get rolling again I’m not sure how long that’ll last. The bigger-is-better mentality is living large in China.
Do any search for Chinese art — especially in the ‘cultural’ capital of Beijing — and you’ll see towering works of art that are made in huge studios. Large studios and scale give ‘face’ to the artist, and eventually to the owner. These works are made by highly-trained artists whose technique puts many western art students to shame. One is physically impressed when faced with these works in a way impossible with those made on a smaller scale. There is a pragmatic awareness of the worldwide art market there that might be of value to western artists who would like to earn a living with their talents.
A recent post I wrote from Chengdu, western China, in much more humble surroundings than what one sees in Beijing, but made in studios much larger than my current space in Sydney.
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Seeing the big picture
by Deb Lacativa, GA, USA
I have been tussling with the issue of size for a while now. It’s especially problematic with my medium, stitched textiles. At little more than arms length, stitching, either machine or by hand, is mostly lost. I’ve come to recognize that no matter what size the piece, the design has to be created for our hunter’s eye — something to be seen from across the field, across the glade, across the room. There must be an organization of shapes and colors that will draw the viewer in for a close look. Only then can they be charmed or captivated by details such as brush work, or stitching.
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Age of Aquarius
by Noble Bledsoe Pezim, Lisbon, Portugal
The tendency to grandiose is the sinecure of the big aggressive nations who run on bluster and ego. These bully boys carry a gun and think strength is morality. Yes, there is a correlation between posturing and big art. Is it not time to look toward our feet at the small beauty we were given, and love and cherish before it is too late? As a collector of fine art (when I go to London) I look for delicacy and sensitivity in the small and gemlike. I may be out of step but also I may be in tune with the Age of Aquarius, the new gentler societies, and besides, they go into the smaller and smaller spaces which we of the overcrowded planet must endure. While small does not guarantee quality, it’s okay with me.
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No small stuff here
by Eleanor Steffen, Woodstock, NY, USA
I am truly dismayed at the small and narrow vision Robert has concerning painting size. I run quickly past the never-ending landscapes and still lives in their dainty 11 by 14 frames to study the larger explorations and visions of painters like Cy Twombly. There is a tremendous emotional difference between a 10 inch swath of red versus a ten ft. swab. I am 73 and have often been advised to paint smaller for practical reasons. When I do I feel like I am making a sweet craft, like knitting, but I always return to the challenge of saying my vision on a larger format. I am comfortable doing my figurative work and meeting the challenge of a 4 by six foot canvas. DAINTY, I AINTY and proud of it.
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Big is beautiful
by Lindell Stacy-Horton, Oregon, USA
I love working big. My favorite size canvas has become four feet by five feet, about as comfortably a size that can fit in my truck, or hang on walls in ordinary places, like homes even small ones. I am drawn to bright colors, so I put them in my work. Lately I have been exploring abstract, and find many challenges to not represent anything, you know? I seem to spend too much time trying to do something nobody else is doing or has ever done. So I figure, why not just paint what I personally want to see, even if it’s flowers, the sea, rivers, rocks and trees. Everywhere there appear faces. They come unbidden onto the canvas, to the point where I have decided to give them prominence. Since only a few things are selling, I do not care if anybody else likes what I do, I am doing it only for the joy I find in it. I am not amused, nor have I ever been, by the works of the Modernists from the 1960’s, but I have never held SIZE to be at fault. I love the freedom large canvases and brushes give. Look at the paintings of Hung Liu, from six years or so ago, the portraits of the Emperor’s Court. They are large, filled with incredible wonder, and I can’t stop looking at them for all the detail, yet the loose and free technique she was employing at the time. Big can be beautiful. I’ve seen so much small garbage, it is frightening. (Sam, please include a Hung Lui painting)
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Big and red
by Larry Moore, Orlando, FL, USA
The saying I’ve heard is this: If you can’t make it good make it big and if you can’t make it big make it red. It may be the financial excesses of the ’80s-’90s that have ended have also taken with them to a certain degree the excesses in art of large scale artifice and only the surface appearances of intelligence. Where I was thinking traditional painting must surely have peaked by now, it may be that these times will foster an even greater appreciation for quality realist painting over large absurd vats of Vaseline and rooms filled with piles of salt with broken mirror. At the very least, it’s more understandable.
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Small is the new big
by Nikki Soppelsa, Berea, OH, USA
I do photomontage/collage and enjoy working small, but not as small as an ATC (not yet!) which are enormously popular. I prefer small, the challenge of it and also a sense of privacy about it. The question is… Is 4″ x 6″ a composition that seems simple enough at a glance, but is complex depending on how deeply you’re willing to look at it? A favorite quote of mine by Thoreau, “It is not what you look at, but what you see,” seems to apply to all the hours of my days and to my work.
The miracle of small
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
I’m with you on this, and what comes to mind are two wonderful special effects shots in fairly recent films. They present the proof of the assertion that smaller can be better.
In the first, Jurassic Park, there’s that lovely sequence where Dr. Grant and company see the dinosaurs for the first time. Two of the shots are of a lake, with brachiosaurs wading across. But at the edge of the lake is a herd of hadrosaurs (parasaurolophi, for the purist), tiny in the shot. They seemed utterly alive to me, and when one moved his head as a horse would, my eyes bugged out. I was in that moment, in a way I don’t often experience in a theatre.
The second example is from the 2002 remake of The Time Machine. Aside from the score by Klaus Badelt and effects, this was a wide miss. One shot, however, showed the time machine traveling forward, within the laboratory. ‘Way in the background were shelves of plants, growing, dying, growing, dying. They were also very small in the shot, and the emotional impact was startling.
As I thought about it, I realized that the scale of these very watchable bits of the picture were so small that they required my active focus, and hence, participation. Being little and distant, they drew me right into the shot, where I had no choice but to be “present” and affected. If ever less were more, it was here.
Perhaps it is a good idea, from time to time, to go back to the tiny details of things, the delicious ornamentation that we sometimes miss, immersed in the “big picture.” Great and small, each offers its own delights.
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