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Like the giant obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey, those interested in culture of any kind often enjoy being bludgeoned into submission by the sheer size and scope of a work of art, and finding as much meaning in it as they possibly can. Works like Richard Wagner’s fifteen-hour opera Der Ring des Nibelungen, or Proust’s seven-volume novel A la recherche du temps perdu inspire unflinching devotion from their fans, but it’s unlikely you’ve ever met someone who’s made it to the end of either.

When it comes to the visual art, however, the stakes are different; gallery works of whatever size can be viewed from whatever perspective—and for however long—a visitor wants to spend with them. According to one study, the average gallery-goer spends 29 seconds looking at a work of art, with the researchers noting that “in looking at art, people often relate what they’re seeing to their own lives.” 

But, in providing more to see on an immediately visceral level, do large scale works really offer the viewer more than smaller pieces?

Maximalism - is more more?

Pablo Picasso’s most famous work is arguably “Guernica”, a searing protest to the suffering inflicted by the Nazis on rural Basque country during the Spanish Civil War. However, “Guernica” is also one of the best known examples of a painting on a huge scale, spanning nearly 8 metres across by 3.5. Indeed, “Guernica” could arguably be considered an early proponent of maximalism, both in terms of how big an artist’s canvas could be, and what an artist could fit onto it.

Maximalist art may not be as revolutionary as minimalist art—after all, painters have been incorporating multiple scenes and details within one painting for centuries. However, its origins as an art movement were decidedly in response to minimalism: postmodern subject matter, bold colours, and overblown, vivid imagery.

One recent exhibition defined maximalism as an artistic response to the art industry’s “tendency to over-simplify”; one of its artists, Kaari Upson, started a still-ongoing series of works called “The Larry Project” in 2007, creating an imagined life inventory for a fictional character. Much like the Wagner opera, Upson’s sheer dedication to focussing on a project over such a long span of time immediately impresses the viewer through its scale. 

Rachel Whiteread’s maximal minimalism

Turner Prize-winner Rachel Whiteread’s current retrospective at Tate Britain emphasises how an artist can do a little with a lot of space, and express a great deal of emotion in the process. Her works such as “Untitled (Stairs)” and “Water Tower” have been hailed for their “spellbinding quietude”, and the Tate points out the importance of “negative space” in her work.

The most notable example of this is Whiteread’s 1993 sculpture “House”, which elicited huge controversy before it was demolished after eighty days. Erected at Wennington Green in East London, “House” represented a “physical manifestation of imposed absence”—a big ask of a blank grey, liquid concrete sculpture, cast from the interior of a house. However, it was also something of a public imposition, an unignorable reminder of government demolition and the perils of regeneration.

Much like Kazimir Malevich’s imposing “Black Square”, described by the New Yorker as “the most frightening painting known to man,”  “House” itself didn’t say much. It didn’t need to, because its critics—those both for or against it—assigned their own meanings and significance, and had the conversation on its behalf. The criticism of “House” rendered the sculpture as awe-inspiring as the work itself.

Small art making big statements

Much of the focus at the recent Imperial War Museum exhibit, Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11, wasn’t on major artists such as Grayson Perry or Ai Weiwei, but the relatively unheralded Jitish Kallat. His work, “Circadian Rhyme”, was a tiny moment of what could pass for levity amongst the exhibition’s more looming, ominous pieces, comprising a line of miniature figures being frisked as in an airport.

Contemporary miniature art is just as rich with meaning and detail as the largest-scale works, not just for its subject matter (and, indeed, much of it has a political slant), but the effort taken to create it. As miniature artist Dante Brebner puts it, “by focusing smaller and blocking out the imagined dead weight of the world around us, we can manage to take in even more information.”

Even some of the art world’s biggest names are downsizing; Jake and Dinos Chapman use the almost twee scale of miniature sculpture to address some of our era’s most pressing social issues. The brothers’ “miniaturised ‘hellscapes’”, which manipulate toy figurines to represent horrific scenes of war and apocalypse, are arguably no less grizzly and profound than “Guernica” in their outlook on war. By minimising the size of the atrocities their works convey, they speak to what they call the “compassion fatigue” of rolling news cycles.

In the current political climate, artists’ messages need to be bigger than ever, but ultimately, it would seem that their canvases don’t need to match.

Size Matters: Does size matter when it comes to art?
Digital Mag

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