Colossal drawings, prints and paintings make it clear that ‘size matters’ ★★★★ ☆

The enormous size of the (art) works on display at the exhibition XXL paper did not always serve an artistic purpose, but is often a delight to the eye.

Rutger Pontzen

There are lots of great works of art. Michelangelo’s muscles paint in the attic of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Claes Oldenburg’s oversized trowel, picks and baseball bat. Antony Gormley’s squatting (or pooping?) Giant on Houtribdijk near Lelystad.

The question is only whether size always has an artistic origin: whether ‘size matters’ is born solely from stylistic motifs. Not necessarily, so late the exhibition XXL paper – Big, bigger, biggest! and Rijksmuseum. On the contrary. The majority of the 27 drawings, graphics and paintings on paper in the museum’s collection have no artistic pretensions at all, but they are large. Cursed big.

It’s a refreshing sight.

One of the most beautiful examples is the 16 meter long, thirty-sheet etching of Frederik Hendrik’s funeral procession from 1651. It looks as if the long procession, on the way between Binnenhof in The Hague and the royal vault in Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, appears in its entirety, had to depicted. Including all the hundreds of mourners, in long gloomy coats and with flags fluttering. A procession that ran for miles dictating the length of the row of etchings that, as a sales catalog from 1671 proclaimed the print, had been printed ‘on the largest paper’. Though, not big enough: because the whole procession could not get on it, it disappears on one side, during a sport of honor, in the distance.


Stadholder Frederik Hendriks funeral in The Hague in 1647 (detail), Pieter Nolpe, after Pieter Jansz. Post, 1647-1651, erasure, 20 cm x 1650 cm.Statue Rijksmuseum

Or take the intriguing, narrow, 5-meter-high plane of the coast of Japan from the beginning of the 20th century. The purpose of the drawing determined the shape and length of this ‘cyanotype’: the construction of the railway line between Toyama and Naoetsu, on the west coast of Japan. The 130-kilometer-long railway connection required contractors and supervisors to prepare a meticulous construction drawing that could be rolled up into parts. But when rolled out, the drawing is a delight to the eye because of its blue glow, the itchy white lines, and topographical indications.

Pragmatism as a guiding principle for what a drawing should look like: One cannot imagine in advance that the result can also provide an aesthetic pleasure. Which is so.

Titian’s 2.2 meter wide woodcut naturally confirms his fame as an artistic greatness. Titian is said to have been known for his graphics rather than his paintings. Surprising, but not undeserved. The swirling lines in the landscape are powerful and rhythmic and as modern as in Vincent van Gogh’s later drawings.

One can say that the turbulent sea of ​​streaks in Titian’s woodcut justifies the size of 12 sheets of paper. But the exhibition XXL paper also shows that size in itself is an artistic factor. The meter-high ‘cartons’, the working drawings for the glass mosaic windows in Haarlem St. Bavokerk, gives you an overwhelming sense of grandeur that would not surprise you from the chairs in the building itself.

Dimensions as an independent factor of importance, perhaps the ‘Habsburg House family tree’ dating from 1535, testify most to this. It took 7 meters of paper to illustrate Charles V’s rich family history. The size alone shows the importance that the Roman-German king and emperor, lord of Holland, king of Spain and archduke of Austria wanted to attach to himself. For every subject at a moment a reason to tremble at his power. Charles had only been a little Charles drawn on a small A4 sheet.

Cyclorama (detail), attributed to Heinrich Heyl and the Borgmann brothers, approx.  1850. Image Rijksmuseum

Cyclorama (detail), attributed to Heinrich Heyl and the Borgmann brothers, approx. 1850Statue Rijksmuseum

Giant Cyclorama

Of course the exhibition XXL paper also artistic contributions, such as in the hand-painted ‘giant cyclorama’ attributed to Heinrich Heyl and the Borgmann brothers. The no less than 23 meter long roll of paper shows an exotic landscape, supposedly somewhere in Switzerland, Austria and Italy, yet invented rather than with any sense of reality. Pictured in hallucinatory Kodachrome colors. With small pastoral scenes of figures in traditional costume, walking on country roads or making music on a boat.

For a long time, it was unclear what this giga performance was for anything. Rolled up in the Rijksmuseum depot, it was listed as ‘space wallpaper’. But once it was spread out, it turned out to be a moving panorama of no less than 1.5 kilometers (of which 23 meters are now shown). It was commissioned by German entrepreneur Ferdinand Reichardt. The painted frieze was to be wound on two wheels by an inventive mechanism, like Torah scrolls; as in Leydsche Courant announced on October 17, 1853 at exactly 8 o’clock, [met] music played by Mr Fastré, pianist by HM the King of the Netherlands’.

XXL Paper – Big, Bigger, Biggest!

Visual art

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Until 4/9.

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