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Thursday, March 3, 2016

It's About Time

Frangrila Flower time lapse photograph
When we talk about something being three-dimensional, we are usually speaking in terms of either illusion or reality. If it's illusional, it's rendered on a two-dimensional surface having length and width and giving the appearance of depth. If we're speaking of reality, as with a sculptural item, then the art object actually has three dimensions, length, width, and depth. What we don't often realized is that such work also has a fourth dimension--time. Without that most important element in its design the object simply wouldn't exist. When an artwork is, for some reason destroyed, it's first two or three dimensions cease to exist. Only the fourth dimension remains as fragments, ashes, gases, whatever. It's no longer a work of art, but in that man can neither create nor destroy matter, only change its form, as when an ice sculpture melts into water, then the remnants continues to exist in the fourth dimension--time.
Portrait with watch, 1560, probably of Cosimo de Medici I, Duke of Florence,
probably by the Renaissance master Maso de San Friano.
Su Song Astronomical Clock
11th century, Kaifeng, China
This fourth dimension has fascinated artists for centuries, probably since they first began to measure time...however crudely, as with the Su Song Astronomical Clock (left) dating from the 11th-century. More recently, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence has been tryin to date, and authenticate a circa 1560s portrait of a wealthy Florentine holding what may be one of the earliest pocket watches (above). Moreover, as artists have tackled the topic of time in their works, the one most common element to be found is our only known instrument for measuring time--the clock. Undoubtedly, the most famous such painting attacking the concept of time is Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory (below) painted in 1931. Indeed, time, especially since Dali, has been one of the most persistent subjects to be found in Surrealist Art. Time is both real and surreal. Real, as measured by various timepieces, and surreal as in dreams and memories. Each of us has a surreal time machine in our heads allowing us to travel back in time during both our waking and sleeping moments.

The Persistence of Memory, 1931, Salvador Dali
Though the fourth dimension has always been an element in all art, until the early years of the 20th century, it was mostly a static element, an absolutely essential factor but one which contributed little to the message conveyed by the art. The smile on the face of the Mona Lisa never changed, though in reality, it was probably momentary. Michelangelo's David is depicting in frozen contemplation of the giant Goliath, not in actually slaying him. Then with the advent of motion pictures, The Great Train Robbery depicted a crime in progress. D.W. Griffith moved on to depicting an entire war. In more recent generations, photographers and computer geeks have made it possible for still photos to suddenly come to life as with the time lapse animated gif at the top. Visually, having learned to speed it up and slow it down, we no longer see time in quite the same way as before.

Dance to the Music of Time, 1638, Nicholas Poussin
Until the modern era, artists had to be satisfied with illuminating the concept of time, as with Nicholas Poussin's Dance to the Music of Time (above), from 1638. Poussin could only work with the symbols of time. His four dancers represent the four stages of life constantly revolving around Man: Wealth, Pleasure, Industry and Poverty. There is a strong grip between the hands of Pleasure and Wealth, as Poverty desperately grasps for the hand of Wealth. Industry, Poverty and Pleasure all looking towards Wealth while she meets the gaze of Father Time. He plays the music for the dancers symbolizing the element of death which is always present in life. The little boy on the right watches the hourglass signaling the passing of time while the boy blowing bubbles on the left suggests the brevity of human life. It's no accident that we combine the two words "life" and "time" to created a single whole--a lifetime.

Cole's allegorical history approach to time.
Other artists such as Thomas Cole have taken a broader, philosophic look at time as seen in his five paintings making up his Course of Empire series (above). He paints the same landscape view as if looking out the window of a time machine traveling from the past toward the future yet ending far in the past. His view is at first brutally Savage, then comfortingly Pastoral, followed by the optimistic Consummation of mankind's yearning for wealth, culture, and prosperity. Then Cole suddenly takes on a pessimistic outlook as seen in his Destruction and Desolation. Cole could not depict time itself, but he did manage to depict its effects upon human existence.
Starry Night, 1889, Vincent, van Gogh
Tempus Pecunia Est,
(Time is Money), 
2010, Richard Harpum
Vincent van Gogh, in giving us his Starry Night (above), from 1889, tries to explore the momentary passing of time, though by today's standards, as lovely as the painting may be, he failed miserably in that effort. His stars glimmer, his swirls of paint suggests he'd like them to move across the sky, though he apparently had little understanding of the rotation of the earth in pursuing the painted illusion. My own efforts in dealing with the fourth dimension have taken a symbolic track, usually in the form of still-lifes such as It's About Time (below). Another artist, Richard Harpum, combines the still-life with both Surrealism and symbolic elements in his Tempus Pecunia Est (Time is Money, left), dating from 2010. Being a portrait artists, my strongest interest in time has to do with it's effects it has upon the human face. As a Junior in college back in 1971, I tackled the aging process starting with the face of a one-year-old boy, then tracing the effects of time for the next sixty-four years (bottom). I called it How to Grow a Man in Sixty-four Easy Lessons.
Copyright, Jim Lane
It's About Time, 1981, Jim Lane
Copyright, Jim Lane
How to Grow a Man, 1971, Jim Lane

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