An article in today’s Guardian by poet Lydia Towsey opens: ‘Botticelli’s painting of the Birth of Venus was the first female nude painted and exhibited life size.’
The rest of the article – about body image and eating disorders and the way being the subject of portraiture can help recovery from them – has a lot more in it to consider, but it was the phrase ‘life size’ that captured my immediate attention.
I had already commented a few posts ago about the difference in viewing size (and therefore of impact/effect) between pictures presented here online and those printed – A4, with borders for handling – and sent to the OCA; a fellow student commented that she was wondering what the pictures would look like as A3 prints. Bate (p.74) opens his discussion of the face – the first of his four ‘elements of a portrait’ – by considering the cinematic closeup and the way it is used ‘to satisfy the spectator’s visual pleasure in seeing a star on screen close-up’ (his italics). And of course the close-up face itself does not react or move back when confronted by the viewer’s gaze – the experience is only comparable to that moment when you lean in to kiss someone, maybe for the first time, and they do not withdraw from your scrutiny…
Smaller than A4 (and most of the pictures we see of people are smaller) the effect of a portrait is different – we look at a photo, not at a person; A4-sized, a portrait formatted photograph of a head is about life-size and we seem to be looking at them. A life-size, full length picture (like Venus) clothed or unclothed, is like meeting someone. The picture has presence.
And then there are Thomas Ruff’s monumental (when displayed in a gallery) 1986 series of Portraits where the face – framed like a passport photograph and as expressionless – is reproduced on a similar scale to the head of an ancient Egyptian statue of Rameses. It is impossible to experience a real life person’s face close enough for it to feel that large and to hold even part of it in focus, let alone be able to stare long and hard at the whole thing. There is a definite element of – for want of a better word – the sublime.
I have never been to the Ufizi Gallery, so I have never seen Botticelli’s Venus larger than poster-sized (A1? A0?). The idea that Venus is life-size is incredible in itself; the idea that she is the first life-size female nude is staggering. The painting is some 500 years old; before that, paintings were doing something different for their pre-Renaissance viewers (tell religious stories, perhaps or maybe to act as iconic objects of devotion); since then we have been able to look and to stare and seem to be in control of images of people that seem to be their traces, but we are still a long way off from becoming used to seeing people’s pictures sized in a way that makes them feel more real, more proximate somehow, than their smaller equivalents.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this (or indeed if it is going somewhere at all) but I shall carry on pondering and see if there’s some way to incorporate this half-insight into what it is I’m doing during this module, somehow. Size isn’t everything, I suppose, but it does affect how something is perceived…
- Towsey, L. (2017) The Venus in me. Guardian (G2) p14. 30.08.17 (Link Accessed, 30.08.17)
- Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. 1st Edition. London: Bloomsbury