Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river

(Jorge Luis Borges)

Surprisingly, we only have one word for “time”. Of the two Greek words - “Chronos” which signifies the sequential time and “Kairos” meaning the right or opportune moment - our language and civilisation has embraced Chronos: chronology, chronic, chronometer, anachronism – are terms we use when referring to time related concepts. We have fewer ideas of, or means to describe the qualitative aspect of time. Literature, photography, film – have dealt with both aspects, obscurely or explicitly: A la recherche du temps perdu, Back to the Future, etc. Architecture and music are an expression of the flow of time, the rythmus. Painting, restricted as it is by the two dimensional limits of the canvas, has embraced Kairos. For centuries it focused on capturing a significant moment in time. Paradoxically, the freezing of this moment also suggests movement, because we know that whatever we see on the canvas will change while we blink.

Standing Still

Early renaissance painters, commissioned to paint flattering portraits of their sponsors, deliberately portrayed their subjects as frozen in time, eternal. In the New Testament scenes, so ubiquitous during the Renaissance, all the characters are arranged as if posing for the picture. Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, even their dog, painted by Jan van Eyck in 1434, look as if they haven’t moved for a long time and have no intention of doing so anytime soon. By contrast, the kitchen maid in Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, is captured in a fleeting moment during her busy working day. She is concentrating on the act of pouring milk from a jar into an earthenware container, probably making bread pudding. We watch her knowing that this action is ephemeral, that there is a limited amount of milk to be poured and in a moment she will move briskly and efficiently onto the next stage of her task.

On the other side of the world, Katsushika Hokusai also captured a fleeting moment in his famous woodblock print Under the Wave off Kanawaga, known as The Great Wave. The wave is at its peak and has started to curl downwards. You can feel the tension, caused by a lack of movement in a split second that separates the rise from the fall; there is drama in every line, in every shade of blue. In the words of Theo Van Gogh, “These waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it”. Time stood still.

Painting the Flow of Time

Over the years, painters used a number of time signifiers: there is, of course, the clock and the hourglass, but also the half-burned candle, the skull that reminds the viewers that we are all mortals and therefore have limited time, the sun and the earth turning around it. Durer’s engraving Melancholia features several such symbols (alongside some whose meaning we have not yet deciphered). The sequence of night and day, the reassuring repetition of the seasons gave painters the opportunity to contemplate the passage of time while exploring light and colour. It is not unusual to muse over a parallel of our lives with slices of the day “(the twilight years”, for example) or the four seasons.

Odilon Redon’s large decorative panels for the Abbey de Frondfroide , finished in 1911, are titled Day and Night and reflect two periods of the artist’s work. Day is a celebration of sunshine, flowers and bright colour; Night, featuring dark trees and several figures silhouetted against a mysterious golden and grey sky, looks back upon Redon’s “noirs” period.

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? asked Gauguin in this 1897 painting. The title of the work is painted in the top right hand corner, and there are no question marks, so this is more a statement than a query. Reading from right to left, as the artist indicated we should, the picture provides the answer: starting with the infant lying on the ground (birth), then the woman in the foreground, holding an apple – Eve, Genesis, the original sin – this is what we are. At the left of the painting, an old woman contemplates the after-life. Gauguin considered this to be his masterpiece; it is painted on sackcloth in bright colours, and it is populated with many figures and symbols. “We come from time and we return to time” - it appears to say. This enigmatic painting reflects Gauguin’s efforts to make sense of his own life and it is even more poignant knowing that he attempted suicide shortly after the work was finished.

“I am trying to do the impossible” wrote Monet to his wife in 1893. He was painting the façade of Rouen Cathedral, trying to capture the light on the surface and the effect of shadows in the deep recesses. Working from morning until the evening, Monet painted about thirty canvases of the same subject, at different times of the day and year. The result was “a symphonic splendour” (Clemenceau), maybe achieving the impossible. It is “the work of a man … pursuing every nuance of elusive effects, such as no other artist that I can see has captured” (Pissarro). The sensation of Gothic emerges through the carefully worked–up impasto, losing the detail, enhancing the poetic element.

Dreams and Memory

The Persistence of Memory is one of Salvador Dalí’s most recognizable works, subject of many posters, postcards and copies. The surrealist masterpiece features a large humanoid creature with deformed nose and long eyelashes, who appears to be asleep. A soft watch is partially covering it, like a blanket. Another watch is hanging on the branch of a dead tree, a third is melting on nearby table. Next to it, an orange clock is covered in ants, like a rotting fruit. Time, the devourer of all things. (Ovid). The canvas is surprisingly small, only 24 cm x 33 cm. The melting watches feature again in Dalí’s The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, completed in 1954.

The concept of dream is integral to the surrealists and in both paintings the landscape is dreamlike. The perception of time is different when we sleep, so it can just as well be measured by melting watches. The Persistence may be Dalí’s way of illustrating how irrelevant and arbitrary our perception and obsession with time and timepieces could be. Some critics attempted to interpret The Persistence by reference to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the concept of time as relative and complex, the space/time curvature. In this context, our primitive way of measuring time becomes obsolete, melting away, losing the power to control us. Dalí himself rejected the connection, suggesting that the melting clocks are in fact the surrealist perception of Camembert melting in the sun.