Thursday, May 05, 2011

The magic of the ‘Monumental’: Large expressions- Part 1

While studying from books, I had seen Claude Monet‘s ‘Water lilies’ several times. But a few years back at NY MoMA, when I had an opportunity of looking at this great impressionist’s masterful work, I was completely amazed. Monet’s complex brush work, his signature style of handling light and shadows, the sheer monumental size of the painting, everything put together created a magical atmosphere. This post is about one of these elements which contributed to the astonishing experience I had while looking at Monet’s water lilies - the physical size of the painting.   

In art, I don’t think ‘anything that is important has to be monumental’, but some of the very important works are indeed monumental, much larger than imagination. I feel that size has also played a very big role in establishing them (artists or their paintings) as important. 

Flipping through the history of art pages, we can see that the decision making on the physical attributes of a painting rested on various factors, often ‘requirements’. For instance celebration of triumphs or royal portraiture (example ‘Las Meninas’ by by Diego Velázquez) demanded impressive proportions. Similar hefty expectations were made from art for religious purposes (example: ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’ by El Greco), architectural needs (frescos, example ‘The School of Athens’ by Raphael) or for propaganda making (example: The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David).

Then came the great masters like Georges Seurat, Claude Monet who painted on very large sized canvases. Large size painting now became more of the artist’s own decision. In modern history, we see that some of the artists were flexible in their choice of the painting size and based it on the context of the work. For example Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, it is undisputable that the subject which was Picasso’s universal remark about war needed its monumental size. While Picasso painted on various sizes, his contemporary Paul Klee remained loyal to his iconic small sized works. And I absolutely don’t need to mention that whatever the size of Klee’s paintings he holds a very important place in the history of art!

In post WWII era, we had abstract expressionism and its European contemporary movement called Tachisme. Artists perhaps started enjoying supreme freedom of expression in the broadest sense, which reflected in their work and its size too. Painters like Rothko, Newman, Karel Appel, Jean Miotte are some of the artists whose large canvases are greatly celebrated by the art world. 

We cannot move on without mentioning the modern masters Cy Twombly, Chuck Close, Zhang Daqian and Gerhard Richter who are well known for their large expressions. 

This post was just about the large scale in paintings and not about large scale art in general (for example Richard Serra or Jeff Koons). In part 2, I will discuss some contemporary art stars who are admired for their monumental paintings. See you then!

  My  sincere thanks to all the people who have captured and posted online, these fantastic views of various art exhibitions. Without these pictures it would have been very difficult to convey the idea of the scale.  


William Cook said...

Hi Debu--What a great post! Looking forward to part 2. Wm

Anonymous said...

Bonjour Debu, très,très bon article. C'est au motif ou à ce qui motive que revient l'exigence dans la taille de l'oeuvre; bien des oeuvres,aujourd'hui, gigantesques seulement par la taille, ne sont que remplissages comme le sont ces gros pavés dans les romans modernes, les bestsellers commandés par des éditeurs mais dont l'histoire tiendrait sur une page :-) j'avais l'intention d'écrire sur ce sujet sur un blog :-)

Debu Barve said...

Dear Wm,
Thank you!

Dear Thig,
Thank you! It is an interesting analogy that you have used. Yes, it is a complex world where a number of factors are at play that lead to decisions around art. And as you mentioned the patterns do repeat!

Vrush said...

Hi Debu,

What a wonderful post!!! Nice Analysis and as usual the apt photos make it easy to understand.

Narayan Pillai said...

Great post Debu. These are huge works..I wonder where and how did they paint such huge canvases. It would be interesting to read part 2.

Lynn said...

Thank you for another interesting and thoughtful post. I look forward to part 2.

Debu Barve said...

Vrush, Lynn,

Thank you so much for your comments!


Thank you! Yes, indeed they are quite large works!:)

Part 2 is on the way friends.:)

Anonymous said...

Straight to the point en goed geschreven! Waarom kan niet iedereen anders zijn als deze?

Debu Barve said...


Thank you for visiting my blog and comment.Please provide your name/blog name next time when you visit the blog. Thanks again.

bicocacolors said...

an amazing post!!!
bravo Debu!!!

Debu Barve said...


Thank you.:)

Nomi Lubin said...

A topic I think about a lot. There is no denying the monumentality of a great large painting. And I do think certain things can only be accomplished on a large scale.

But I also love when the smallest pieces have monumentality.

Sophie Munns said...

So interesting to consider this Debu.
There have been times when I have been completely stunned to find myself before a major work that is so transporting.
And yet also I have been from time to time surprised to notice a small work with the presence of a much larger work... makes you wonder.
Wonderful post,

Debu Barve said...

Dear Sophie, Thanks. Yes, absolutely, this is exactly what I have been experiencing for years. In fact, I can clearly trace back my phases of art appreciation from ‘anything large is great’ to ‘anything large is just an art stunt’ and then eventually ‘art can be great or stunt and it has nothing to do with the scale’ :)
This understanding has really helped me in my own process as a painter.

Debu Barve said...

Dear Nomi, I completely agree with you. ‘Monumentality’ has several connotations in art and physical monumentality is one of it. In fact, earlier I was so much convinced about my own understanding of scale and used to consider any large scale work as ‘gimmick’. ;) I was wrong, and this understanding came handy while making an unbiased opinion about paintings later.

onkar said...

very nice post sir...!!

Debu Barve said...

Thanks Onkar

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