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Thinking about Sculpture 2: Size matters

The oldest piece of figurative sculpture found to date was this recently discovered in Germany and thought to be about 36000 years old.

Really amazing but for me not really something that rings my aesthetic chimes. When it comes to human representation I can tolerate abstraction but prefer a near human size right up to the outrageously huge. For instance, I was suitably impressed by the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok. At 46 metres long and 15 metres high you can’t quite stuff it in your pocket the way you might a Degas dancer.

But is size simply a choice of the sculptor or was there a cognitive leap at sometime to make something the same size as the real thing? After all, the oldest works are all small.

Oddly enough this reminded me of the Woody Allen passage from his The Discovery and Use of the Fake Ink Blot:

The first ink blots, it was learned, were crude, constructed to eleven feet in diameter, and fooled nobody.
However, with the discovery of the concept of smaller sizes by a Swiss physicist, who proved that an object of a particular size could be reduced in size simply by “making it smaller”, the fake ink blot came into its own.

There are alternative possibilities for the ancient figurines.

1. Ease of execution: in general the larger the work the more detail is required.

2. Amount of available time: perhaps early society was too utilitarian to allow much time to be wasted on art.

3. Amount of available materials: perhaps larger works were seen as diverting important resources.

It is intriguing to consider the state of mind of the old artisans. Assuming they could tell that distant things were far away and not just small they would have intended these as representative and not specifically miniature versions. Or did they, and I don’t really think this, think that they were creating parts of a small world?

And to come at it from entirely a different tack: we think of it as natural of making a human figure life size but it would seem quite radical to make a statue of a large building or a mountain life size.

(Coming soon, musings on the weight of sculpture and the use of perspective.)

Previous post: Modern sculpture can give the wrong impression

9 comments on “Thinking about Sculpture 2: Size matters

  1. Well weren’t those small pieces made for religious/ritual purposes? I mean, what I remember of the Wellendorf Venus (or whatever her name was — can’t recall) — a tiny caricature of a female deity — it was a charm or amulet or thing to aid in childbirth. Seems to me the top pieces were of that nature. I.e. not really sculptures. Or only incidentally — they were seen as functional — kind of like pottery. The Buddha, similarly — the size is not supposed to be related to the art – as it is, say, with Michelangelo or Rodin. Not sure this matters —

    Loved the quote from Woody Allen! Thank you!

  2. Thanks for the kind words.
    Re the nomenclature, sculpture seems to be defined as the result of a process rather than intention or size. It does mean that this leads to the situation of being so vague as to make it difficult to make any definitive statements about it. I know that the Venus of Hohle Fels, though small and possibly also an amulet is considered to be a sculpture.

    • Well pottery is considered art, right? The thing is though – then when you are dealing with functionality as well as aesthetics you need to consider what characteristic of the piece conforms to which — that is, is it small for aesthetic (artistic) reasons, or because the shaman or midwife or whomever needed to hold it in her hand while assisting at the birth. I think that is why painting is always thought of as just ‘art’ because it rarely fills any other purpose except to be looked at.

      • Sasha,

        I think that is a really good point you made. I was going to quibble re the purpose sentence because a lot of painting does serve as very direct communication (communion, inspiration, argument, propaganda) but I do like your argument for the need of it to be portable…perhaps a painting analogy could be made for lockets. Your comment reminded me of Russell Crowe in Gladiator carrying about his carved gods in a bag.

      • I think icons might be an example of how painting is functional as the amulets or figures are. But yeah — I guess a lot of art serves more than one purpose.

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