24 October 2005

On Size and if it Matters

An American Sculptor named Donald Judd once said, "If something new is to look important it has to look like something that has become important, which takes time." Judd's statement, initially published in 1984, seems to ring true. I've chosen an example that spans a couple millennia. Thousands and thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians started making obelisks. There are a lot of them still around today. They are scattered all over--Paris, Rome, London, either because they were taken by those who attacked Egypt over the years or because Egypt started giving them away as presents.

This is the obelisk the Egyptians gave Louis Phillip in 1836. It stands in Place de la Concorde in Paris. There's one in the Vatican too, directly in front of St. Peter's. That obelisk was likely brought from Egypt during Rome's days of empire, and was put in its present location in the 1500s. Anyway by the time the US decided to memorialize George Washington, the standard was set. Paris had obelisks. Rome had obelisks. And now, America would have one too. In 1848, construction began on Washington's monument, an obelisk after the Egyptian tradition--but BIG.

The garden variety Egyptian obelisk stands about 25 meters tall. Not the Washington Monument though. It outshines these little babies by a good 145 meters. Ok, we get the point.

America does overstatement really well, I think. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Maybe so. The official reason for Egypt's gift of an obelisk to the US in 1880 was for helping out with the Suez Canal. But I think they probably felt a bit sorry for us too.


Matthew said...

I find it worth nothing that the Romans were known for swiping Greek artistry and greatly increasing the size to make it Roman. Quite similar to the approach with the Washington Monument.

Jonas said...

Could it be possible that these obelisks are falic and as time goes on they will get larger each country trying to have the largest obelisk?

cris said...

Hmmm... The Egyptians are the ones whose Pharaohs erected gigantic burial tombs for themselves, right? If they felt sorry for us, I'd bet it wasn't because we were overly grandiose, but because by 1880, we'd spent over a million dollars and nearly 40 years of work, and the monument still wasn't completed. (Of course, unlike with the pyramids, neither slaves nor aliens from outer space were involved in building the Washington Monument!)

It's actually pretty interesting that Mills (the original designer) didn't intend for the monument to be an obelisk at all. His original design was of an even larger Greek column with a colonnade, but years down the road, that design was abandoned for a more elegant obelisk in traditional Egyptian proportions. By the time it was finished (in like 1885-1890?), it was the tallest building in the world. [This concludes the regurgitation of everything I learned on my visit to the Washington Monument last year while visiting Adelphi.]

Americans are pretty wild about things that are “bigger and better.” Of course, so were the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Each of those societies built their monuments (religious and secular) as large as their technology allowed-for. It was a show of wealth and skill. We’ve gone in a different direction recently where making electronics smaller is a sign of wealth and skill, and minimalism is trendy.

PS - Like your new blog. :)

Matthew said...

Romans implemented gigantism with virtually every art rip-off they adopted. It wasn't confined to obelisks. Also, as Cris points out, the Egyptian art and architecture naturally makes use of larger proportions, particularly in tombs.