Small Art as an Opportunity For Greatness

DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON's portentous pronouncements suggest a grandiose, rather than a small and particular, view of the world. And yet it was the great Dr. Johnson who enunciated the following: ``There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.'' Like much of the good doctor's observations, this declaration seems to carry the weightiness of truth largely because it sounds so irrefutable.

But wouldn't Johnson have found William Blake's notion of seeing ``a world in a grain of sand'' somewhat fanciful - going a bit too far? And what, for that matter, would he have thought of Walt Whitman's belief that ``a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,/ And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,/ And the tree toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest....''

I'm not at all sure that Johnson, for all his capacity to make a small idea seem big, wasn't really in agreement with the old philosopher Imlac. Imlac wrote: ``The business of a poet ... is to examine, not the individual, but the species; ... he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades of the verdure of the forest.'' Such particular things, presumably, are too odd, too insignificant for Imlac's ideal poet.

Imlac and Johnson would not have made much of that three-line form of poetry developed in Japan in the Edo period, the haiku. Has universal experience ever been expressed in littler packaging? Take, for instance, this one by Kobayashi Issa:

With bland serenity

Gazing at the far hills:

A tiny frog.

A mere 11 words over almost before you take breath. The haiku demands a double-take: It's so short it forces the reader to pay vivid attention - to read it over again, this time making certain that not a shade or mood or image is missed. Instead of being insignificant because it is so little, the haiku works the other way around: Its very brevity makes every single word, every nuance, carry the strongest possible meaning for readers.

This particular example shows how smallness of poetic form allows the poet on the one hand to lavish concern on the smallest of creatures - and on the other to link it with the vastness of the hills. It is like a picture which can encompass the nearest of minutiae and the farthest immensity within a few square inches.

Smallness in the arts - poetry, music, painting - is sometimes given a bad name. The work of an artist like Paul Klee, at least partly because of its intimate scale, has given rise to such doubts. If it isn't big, how can it be taken absolutely seriously? Smallness takes painting, doesn't it, into the dubious realms of domesticity, personal possession, private devotion?

In the 1950s and '60s there was a tendency among the more original American painters to enlarge their paintings so that they could no longer be described as ``easel paintings'' - they were more mural-sized. There were complex intuitive reasons for this, among them the idea that a small painting could too easily become the possession of one wealthy individual. It was felt that art should not be proprietary, but that it should be more public, more available for everyone. At the same time there was certainly a sense of the heroic at play, a need to make art important, larger than just human size.

This largeness in American art has set a compelling standard for ``serious'' artists ever since: They think in terms of display in museums and galleries rather than houses or apartments. David Salle or Anselm Keifer today work on a large scale no less than Jackson Pollock or Barnett Newman used to.

Artists who have opted for smallness are the exception rather than the rule, but the reasons they have found inches more suited to their vision than feet or yards are well worth consideration.

The Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, with his quiet and subtly moving still lifes, for many years demonstrated how small size could be a distinct advantage. Like the haiku, the smallness of his paintings makes the viewer concentrate: Every tremble of his brush, every nuance of tone, everything to do with minute spacings and touchings, matters in ways that would likely have been dispersed and lost in a larger format.

Morandi also perceived the life that tingles around the contours of ordinary objects and invested his paintings and etchings with a uniqueness that is more intense because of the commonness, and smallness, of his subject matter. He saw to it that art's long fascination with its own magical capacity to transform the usual into the unusual, but without resort to grandiose schemes, continued in utter seriousness in his own 20th century art.

The American Joseph Cornell, with his small box-constructions in which little and valued objects are contained and transmuted into memories and affections, is another notable artist of the small. These works might be said to be actually about personal possession - which they show to be just as much a valid aspect of art as its more public showpieces.

SOME people object to small art because it is too easily holdable - like a fine pot, so obviously the outcome of an alchemy of both hand and eye. And yet in painting just as much as in, for instance, a lieder by Schubert or a microcosmic piano piece by Bartok, its smallness can be special in quite another way.

All this has nothing to do with miniaturism. It has a great deal to do with a sense of scale. Not the mechanical scaling up or down that architects use, the placing of a stick figure to indicate the size of a tower block. A painter's - or composer's - sense of scale is a much more intuitive thing. It has to do with rightness - rightness of context, rightness of brush mark, rightness of loud and soft, tenderness or vigor. It is a recognition that smallness need not be restricting, but is a context for imagination.

The great creased mound of sleeping hillside or vast inner recesses of a flower or shell or desert-bleached skull that one encounters in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings, instantly strike the viewer as enormously enlarged. In fact they are as likely to have been painted on canvases of about 9 by 7 inches as on canvases measuring 30 by 40 inches. O'Keeffe rarely made paintings larger than 48 inches high or wide - ``easel''paintings all of them.

There is no particular virtue - with apologies to Dr. Johnson - in smallness for its own sake. But Rembrandt could make an etched portrait as sympathetically human and moving in the space of three or four centimeters as any large portrait he did in oil paint. And Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau can span a range of heartfelt emotion, from fiery passion to chill despair, when he sings Schubert's brief songs - averaging three minutes each - in the ``Winterreise'' cycle.

Smallness in the right hands can investigate largesse - and because it doesn't draw obvious attention to its own size, it makes ``greatness'' a thing of the imagination and intuitive feeling rather than a thing measurable by wall-space filled or time taken. Smallness is an opportunity for an artist not to simply promote ``the great.'' And that can make for real greatness.

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