The Marvel of Minuteness

Brassai, Sculptures Involontaires

“Billet d’autobus roulé “symétriquement”, forme très rare d’automatisme morphologique avec germes évidents de stéréotypie.”
Brassaï, detail from Sculptures Involontaires, 1933.

I’m thinking about changes in scale as an instance of the marvellous at the moment, so here are some (patchy) notes:

  • In 1936, the English collector and art patron Edward James wrote an essay entitled The Marvel of Minuteness, published in the Surrealist journal Minotaure. He analyses portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Hans Holbein, focussing on their attention to detail, their “almost maniac precision,” which, according to James, gives them a surreal, hallucinatory quality. The opening paragraph is worth quoting:

    […] there is something miraculous about minuteness and precise intricacy, something mysterious about a spider-like wealth of detail, something awe-inspiring which overwhelms us with the simultaneous conception of our own greatness and our own littleness. So felt King David of Israel when he looked at the stars, and so again do we when we lie in the long grass as children to observe the insect world where, even before hearing of Fabre, we know with intrigue and presentiment how intensely complex must be the lives and customs of that diversity of peoples, from the ants and ladybirds down to those curious flies and rare beetles whose names even adult persons seem to be specialists to have learned.

    (This might finally explain my fascination with Sir David Attenboroughs 2005 BBC natural history series Life in the Undergrowth, exploring the lives of invertebrates. Of all his programmes, it’s by far my favourite…)

  • Two weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit in a book shop in Toronto. I had come across it earlier this year and made a vague mental note to read it some time soon, but I think what eventually convinced me to buy it was its small size, its compactness.
  • Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century collectors of curiosities were attracted to minuscule objects: see for example the famous cherry stone in Dresden’s Green Vault which, when viewed through a magnifying glass, reveals 185 carved faces.
  • There’s also a 11 x 13 mm fruit stone on display at David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology: “the front is carved with a Flemish landscape in which is seated a bearded man wearing a biretta, a long tunic of classical character, and thick-soled shoes; he is seated with a viol held between his knees while he tunes one of the strings. In the distance are representations of animals, including a lion, a bear, an elephant ridden by a monkey, a boar, a dog, a donkey, a stag, a camel, a horse, a bull, a bird, a goat a lynx, and a group of rabbits: the latter under a branch on which sit an owl, another bird and a squirrel. On the back is shown an unusually grim Crucifixion, with a soldier on horseback, Longinus piercing Christ’s side with a lance, the cross is surmounted by a titulus inscribed INRI.” (see MJT website)
  • The Surrealists’ interest in Karl Blossfeldt photographs of magnified plant parts.
  • Went to see an interesting little exhibition at Cube Manchester with R. last week: The World is my Imagination. Media-Model-Miniature. It’s about shifts in scale and “model worlds which replicate physical and imaginary spaces, while reflecting existences and habitats, personal memories and longing.”
  • See Susan Stewart’s fabulous book On Longing. Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection.

One thought on “The Marvel of Minuteness

  1. On Bullshit is excellent, funny, the punchline in the last paragraph especially so. I think my favourite little book has to be Camus’ The Outsider (or The Stranger as Americans call it) and everything Borges. Both proof that size isn’t everything.

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