Tropes Exemplified in Works of Art 6: Hyperbole

by Mark Staff Brandl

This week, I am continuing my short series of fine artworks exemplifying major tropes. This is the sixth entry.

The list of major tropes I am referring to I published on this website a while ago, “A List of the Most Important Tropes and Their Definitions”; here is the link:

As I said in the first five parts, over the next several weeks, I will take each trope from the list and link it to a major work of art. This will include artworks from a large variety of time periods and in many different media, if I am successful. Generally, I will be looking for artworks that embody the trope under consideration within their formal elements, clearly showing a trope in visual use. This week, Number 6:


A trope using exaggeration to reinforce the actual expression: “I am so hungry I could eat a horse.”

In visual art throughout history, — especially in sculpture, and installation — hyperbole is virtually part of the standard language, a day-to-day tool of expression. Think of the sheer size of Michelangelo’s David. This carries much of the sculpture’s impact and meaning, especially its political import as a symbol of the republic and a challenge to “giant” despots like the papacy. Additionally, the figures over-large head and hands are formal, as is often taught in art schools, but metaphoric as well. (Link)

Hyperbole is nowadays often carried too far. It appears sometimes, if I may wax hyperbolic about hyperbole, that every second “gesture” installation consists simply of the academically-approved trope of repetition: a room filled with purchased, identical buckets, or the like. A consumer version of Duchamp derived from Warhol’s Marilyns (Link) and Kaprow’s Yard of 1961 (Link).

Undeniably, hyperbole, like irony (our next article’s subject), is one of the most abused tropes of late, in Postmodernism most of all.

I choose two works to show the strength and weakness of hyperbole. Excuse my overly hasty discussions, but I believe one could write an entire book about this subject and I wish to limit this article to an evocative suggestion.

First, Jackson Pollock’s 1950 Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, (Link), and a Link with viewers to show the scale better.

Second, Jeff Koons’s 1992/1997 Puppy. (Link).

The Pollock. An amazing and groundbreaking work for reasons I need not go in to, as they are so well known. Important to its success, and to most of the artist’s great paintings, is the scale. It is a large enamel on canvas work, 105 x 207 in. (266.7 x 525.8 cm). Very large for its time, in fact — a form of hyperbole. The drips can be seen as a sort of exaggeratedly fast mark-making, another hyperbole.

When viewing the work in photos, it is impossible to get anywhere near the effect of the actual work; this is also a potential hyperbole of circumstance, as you are required to physically go to the work, see it face-to-face, to appreciate it. When doing that, Autumn Rhythm has a very unique phenomenological effect. Like many painterly paintings of the past, from Rubens to Manet, it fragments into intriguing details of paint handling upon close viewing, while fusing into a harmonious whole from a distance. What is exceptional in Pollock’s work to me is that one is drawn most strongly into coming close and enveloping oneself in the painting, more than seeing it from a distance. I love the journey. Seeing it from afar, slowly approaching and watching it fall into pieces. However, this closeness yields a fresh depth! There is a layering of drip-strata, each generally having been allowed to dry before another was added, with areas of background showing between the strokes, something one hardly senses from afar. This furnishes a surprising appearance of atmosphere; the paintings breath in a way hardly any other Abstract Expressionist works do. It feels like a light and air filled space into which one could plunge. This would be impossible without the exaggerated scale and the exaggerated form of paint application: hyperbole used masterfully to achieve the central metaphor of action-as-nature in Pollock’s work.

The Koons. According to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, Puppy is 43 foot (12.4 metre) tall, and a representation of a West Highland White Terrier puppy. It is made of a variety of flowers in pots on a steel substructure. It is bigger than big, which is emphasized by the internalized image we all have of the sort of kitschy original tchotchke on which it is based: a physical hyperbole. It was certainly purchased at a huge price, as are all of Koons works: a social and class hyperbole. It’s upkeep is immense. Each year, Peter Brant, an owner of a somewhat smaller version of the piece, pays between $75,000 and $100,000 into maintaining the sculpture. It requires “ten men working for twelve days each spring to groom the 43-foot tall topiary’s stainless steel skeleton, 25 tons of soil, internal irrigation system and more than 70,000 flowering plants,” according to T Magazine: a conspicuous consumption hyperbole. And so on. Puppy has nothing of the surprising elegance of Koons’s inspired stainless steel Rabbit, which is a mere 41 x 19 x 12 inches (104.1 x 48.3 x 30.5 cm). (Link). In fact. I see nothing BUT hyperbole in Rabbit. Hyperbole that has destroyed any potential meaning.

Hyperbole, in short, can indeed be well-used visually, but is a dangerous trope that can easily slide into simple ostentation. Much like the trope in our next article.

Next time: Irony