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: “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.” (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias)
This letter was originally published as “The values of big and small” on December 15, 2009.
Have you considered joining our Premium Artist Listings? Share your work with thousands of readers. 100% of your listing fee contributes to the production of The Painter’s Keys. Thanks for your friendship.
“I swear if I had to do this over again, I would just do the paintings and never show them.” (Cy Twombly)
Join award-winning Plein air painter Sharon Rusch Shaver as she conducts her next exciting workshop in the south of France. Van Gogh’s bronze foot-steps dot sidewalks in the exact locations for his paintings in this beautiful city lined with rows of towering chestnut trees. Painting daily in your chosen medium: oil; watercolor; pastel; pen and ink artists as well as photographers will find plenty of inspiration in this city bathed in Mediterranean sunlight. Daily demonstrations and one-on-one help will be provided for those wanting to learn how to speed up and work quickly capturing that fleeting light and color in their paintings and with photos.
Chef prepared gourmet meals are served in the shade of the mulberry trees in the garden of this large comfortable country Farmhouse Maison only a few miles from the city where you will have a well-appointed ensuite room with views of the countryside for your stay. All-inclusive* 9 nights accommodation, transfers, meals, and instruction. Go to: Adventure-Artists.com
oil on canvas 30 x 52 inches
Hobos to Street People –
Traveling Museum Exhibit