The Role of Size in the Visual Arts
In 2021, a painting by Sacha Jafri was sold for $62 million at an auction in Dubai. Layered with extensive drips, splatters, whorls and various colours and shapes, The Journey of Humanity is currently certified as the largest canvas painting by the Guinness Book of World Records. Measuring the size of two football fields, the artwork is ranked among the most expensive pieces of art made by a living artist ever sold at auction.
Size refers to the physical dimensions of a work of art in relation to the viewer. Often, viewing an artwork of any size causes us to return to our basic understanding of visuality. Size can envelop us, isolate us, or shift our notions of the world, causing a vital interplay between art and audience. Size intrigues us, influencing the way we physically relate to a space or object. Size can encourage participation and evoke a subliminal experience, or it can insulate or focus our perception. From Michelangelo's sweeping fresco paintings in the Sistine Chapel to the intimacy of a palm-sized daguerreotype portrait, size is a key contributor to the experiential quality of an artwork as a whole. Size makes us reassess the space that we occupy, cultivating a sense of self-awareness, curiosity, disorientation or immersion.
Housed in Paris' Musée de l'Orangerie, Claude Monet's largest and most renowned renderings of water lilies are an impressive experience. If placed side-by-side, the curved canvases in the collection measure approximately 90 metres in total. In a similar vein, Mark Rothko intended for audiences to view his artworks up-close, so as to be enveloped by his sizable multiforms. On the other end of the spectrum, miniatures painted in 16th century Europe were constructed with portability in mind. Made small enough to be kept in a pocket or worn as a locket, miniatures also saw widespread use during the 17th and 18th centuries. Later, during wartime, soldiers carried small likenesses of loved ones in their helmets, pockets and cigarette cases as connection to home.
Size readily influences the artistic experiences manifested within audiences and environments. Easier to hang without the need for an excessive amount of room, it is usually medium-sized artworks that feature on the walls of the home, creating or adding to an aesthetic experience overall through a balance of practicality and design. In a generous gallery space, a large-scale artwork can reach an audience from a greater distance, creating impact and instilling a shared sense of connection within fellow viewers. In contrast, a small artwork can demand a more deliberate scrutiny, often persuading viewers to physically engage with the intimacy of a piece by moving closer to the artwork themselves.
Looking back through art history, the size of an artwork often hinges on several variables: available resources and time, intended display environment, artistic skill and trends, a patron's demands, and the artist's desired outcome. The size of an artwork influences the methodology of the artist too. For example, Jackson Pollock set sizable canvasses on the ground and relied on uninhibited gestural articulations to exploit the nature of paint, a hard prospect to achieve in miniature. Rosa Bonheur's The Horse Fair, with its generous scale, realistic style and vivid sense of movement is considered proto-cinematic today and Guernica by Pablo Picasso takes place over an expansive canvas as one of the most powerful indictments against war today - the size alone simulating an overwhelming wartime experience.
Another example of size is seen in The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Over the three large panels that make up the artwork, a drama unfolds as hundreds of small figures and objects spill over in an elaborate Where's Wally rendering of perilous temptation. However, large-scale paintings aren't the only way to create visual dynamism. Marked as the beginning of Impressionism, Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet measures 48 cm × 63 cm, The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali is 24 cm × 33 cm and the beloved Mona Lisa measures a mere 77 cm × 53 cm. Nevertheless, these intimate artworks, though small in scale, successfully attract thousands of viewings each year.
Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or on Instagram.