Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Beauty of Small


Ingres' Bather at the Phillips Collection in Washington
How large do you think this painting is ?

    Recently I was chatting with a friend who was interested in buying my monotypes. As I explained about the works she interrupted and said, " but the thing is... they are small...".
"Why was the size a negative point ?" I asked myself (incidentally she did buy a small one when she came to have a look at them).
Small format in painting is probably one of the most misunderstood characteristics: is seen as less important, easier ; small works are much cheaper and often overlooked.
I have had beginner students arriving in class with the tiniest little canvas under the mistaken impression that "finishing" might be quicker and simpler, and struggling to understand that they were putting themselves in a far more difficult situation.

     Lat month I visited the Phillip's collection in Washington and found two real masterpieces I knew from books. I was taken aback by their size. The Ingres bather at the top of the post is in fact titled " Small Bather" and at 32x25 cm is about the size of an A4 sheet, Degas' "Melancholy", 19x24 cm, even smaller.

    The strength of these paintings is incredible. In Ingres the small canvas is dominated by the figure that appears monumental despite the diminutive size. It is in small works that the problem of scale can be really addressed.
Degas' painting is unusually dramatic compared to his normally collected women portraits, but the understatement of the little format lessens the anguish and contains emotion.

   I find that small works are particularly successful when they depict a large space, still life or a figure, rather than something "life size", like a tiny object that would fit neatly on the canvas ( when, a few years ago, many artists started selling "daily" paintings online often picturing single small objects, I felt they completely missed the point of small format, dangerously drifting towards trompe l'oeil). Of course a small work is never "a reduced version" of a large work, the painting process is intrinsically different.

Thomas Jones, A Wall in Naples, 11,4x16 cm
one of the most beautiful paintings in the National Gallery

Describing space in a small painting is an acrobatic exercise and needs a deft hand:  the amount of details in and around the small head paintings by Vermeer draw us in the cosy Dutch rooms where they live, while a thin simple strip of blue at the top of Thomas Jones' almost abstract Neapolitan wall is sufficient to suggest the clear daylight and large skies of the South of Italy.

Vermeer, Girl with a Red Hat, 22x18 cm

      Small format is extremely difficult and takes a long time. Little paintings draw the viewer very close and need absolute perfection to pass such a close scrutiny. Small compositional shifts might turn into disasters and "touch", the way paint is deposed on the surface, is paramount.  Paint doesn't necessarily need to be manipulated with small and controlled strokes, on the contrary it is often a free brushwork that makes these paintings stunning and keeps them clear of the boundaries with miniature.

La Rotonda Palmieri ( 12x 35cm) by Giovanni Fattori is considered one of the most important paintings of the Ottocento Italiano. Volumes, lights and darks are pitched to perfection.

     Even Grayson Perry, in the first of his Reith Lectures, briefly mentions the unfair treatment that small works get. An exceptional work in this size invariably beats a larger one. You would make a bee line for it from the other side of the room, it will fascinate and astonish you. Everything is measured and compressed, ideas and paint as dense as collapsed matter.
The reduced size, the fact that one can hold a little canvas in the hands adds to the captivating charm of the object, makes it ownable.
Small paintings are intimate, can be looked at by only one person at the time, involve you in a one to one relationship with the image, they are painted just for The Viewer, you. 


Katherine Tyrrell said...

Excellent post Ilaria. I only really started to get going on my art as I started to work on bigger formats and trying to go smaller again made me realise just how difficult it is to paint well within the constraints of a small format.

You left out the one which I think gets the most jawdrops - apart from the Vermeers - and that's Jan van Eycks 'Portrait of a Man in a Turban" - thought to be a self-portrait. It's 26 x 19 cm

jane said...

That's interesting Katherine (and a nice posting, of course, Ilaria) - having been forced to work small since i started painting in oils a few years ago I'm finding the prospect of bigger canvases quite scary.

Ilaria said...

Thank you Katherine and Jane. The Van Eyck is beautiful, I want to start a folder of excellent small works !

Dennis Spicer said...

Excellent post. Yes small is beautiful, and I like your comment regarding intimacy. A painter I very much like is Nicholas Granger Taylor who refers to his small nudes as cabinet paintings.