The announcement of the winner of Nikon’s ‘Small World’ photomicrography competition last month reminded us of the beauty to be found in the (very) small components that make up our world. The company has been running this competition annually for over thirty years, and the high caliber of the entries over the years has made its publication of each new year’s photographs an eagerly anticipated event. This year’s memorable images included a flowering plant anther, an anglerfish ovary and a rusted old coin. The special thing about these and all the other images is that they belong to the field of photomicrography – that is, photographs taken through a microscope. In general, it is a way for scientists to do something a bit different and act as artists (not an unusual occurrence, see our past post on the relationship between Art and Science) but it also gives professional photographers, like Charles Krebs, the chance to take pictures which are outside their previous experience.
Much of the appeal of photomicrography – apart from the sheer beauty of the images – comes from the insight it gives us into a world usually too small for us to be able to appreciate, or even really acknowledge. There is another form of art which has been gaining popularity in recent years whose charm comes from the opposite effect – its ability to take figures or symbols with which we are familiar, and present them to us on a scale that means they could fit into the palm of a hand. It’s called miniature art.
Miniature art is an art form which dates back centuries. Medieval manuscripts often included delicate, detailed illustrations called ‘illuminations’ because they often included gold or silver leaf which seemed to ‘light up’ the page (‘illumination’ comes from the Latin verb ‘illuminare’, which literally means ‘to light up’). Sometimes the drawings would take up a page, illustrating the story being told or the description being given. More often, though, they would be the border around a page of carefully penned writing, or the image decorating the first letter on the page would be one which showed a biblical story or a scene from medieval life. In these cases, the actual space devoted to the picture would be small, although hours of painstaking work went into ensuring that the tiny details were just right. You can see examples of these in art museums as part of permanent collections or as temporary exhibitions – for example, the original of the beautiful image below appeared in the Nasher Museum’s ‘Sacred Beauty’ exhibition this year.
With the invention of the printing press, the nature of publication changed dramatically and forever, and this phase of miniature art came to an end. It was quickly followed, however, by a passion for ‘miniatures’ – portraits painted on a small scale which could be placed on a wall, put in a pocket, or even worn as an ornament. Again, precision and a delicate touch were vital skills in creating these works.
More recently, of course, photography has become able to fill the place of portrait miniatures. The art form continues, however, having evolved once again. Organizations such as the Miniature Art Society of Florida, Inc, which has over 400 members, encourage artists to experiment with creating fine art on a small scale. The themes and styles have branched out far beyond portraits, meaning that pieces from figurative to abstract and from impressionistic to expressionistic can all find a home in the miniature world. The only restriction is on size. Miniature artists say that they find a unique kind of satisfaction in their micro-art. The concentration and control required are different from that used in creating larger scale works, and the creation of a work of art in miniature gives a different sort of fulfillment. Like the rest of the contemporary art world, though, prices vary considerably, from perhaps $400 to $10,000 for a high quality miniature.
Some go even further. Willard Wigan is an artist who creates sculptures which can only be properly seen through a microscope. His Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon really does fit on the head of a pin, while his Statue of Liberty was made from a single speck of gold. He does this by viewing his materials through a microscope, and carving only between heartbeats, to minimize the tremors from his pulse. Yet each piece is rendered with the intricate details you would expect from an artist working to a more normal scale. Others produce similarly minuscule work by using the tools of nanotechnology to extend their control of matter to to the molecular level.
It’s a field which seems to be constantly developing, making it an exciting one in the continually moving international art world, but one of which all too few people are aware. Have you had any experiences with miniature art? Do you see it as something entirely separate from art on a larger scale, or connected to the wider art world? Would you consider photomicrography? Let us know in the comments!
- 05/11/2013 - 05/31/2013
Stephen Tobin: the natural instincts of nature – a solo exhibition
- 05/11/2013 - 05/31/2013
Exhibition: Out From Down Under & Beyond; The Odyssey of Color
- 05/11/2013 - 05/31/2013