Painting Time

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"Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" - 1912

Our lives are made up of individual moments, and it is those individual moments that many artist try to capture. There are, of course, many fine examples that succeed in doing just that. They give us a moment that seems to stretch out and go on forever. But imagine trying to portray the passage of time on a two-dimensional surface. How would you do it? It is all a matter of opinion, of course, but I believe that showing a physical body as it moves through that fourth dimension is one of the most interesting ways to paint.

Artists have been trying to express the idea of time in the plastic arts for thousands of years. In Oriental, Hindu, Egyptian, and even prehistoric artwork you will often see the same character(s) repeated over and over within the same piece, doing different things, living their life. In Medieval Europe this was also common. In addition, paintings were often placed next to each other creating a diptych (two panels) or triptych (three panels), often to show the passage of time. This helped church congregations understand the continuity of a story because more people could “read” these images than could read the words written in their bible.

"Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 1" - 1911

Personally though, I am mostly interested in how the early 2oth Century artists learned to show the passage of time, even in short little bits. Perhaps the most famous painting from that period emphasizing motion was Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”. You can see that this piece was very heavily influenced by Cubism. It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but Cubism was more about creating that eternal moment, but from multiple angles in space. Duchamp was more concerned about showing a physical body move through time. Perhaps it is the same thing really. In theory, space and time might be considered to be basically the same thing and define each other (spacetime!). But I’m no physicist, so…

The Italian Futurists took these visual ideas to a whole new level.  There were many concepts the Futurist was expressing with their artwork, but what always stood out for me was how they captured time. Even if it was only short snatches of time. A gesture. A walking figure. A fight. A war! So beautiful.

When I look at these paintings, I can almost see the early stages of animation. Even modern film, although very early in it’s evolution, if at all. I think the reverse was also true. Technology helped painters and artists see the world in new ways too. Just check out the chronophotograph to the right, taken in the late nineteenth century of a man in a motion suit, and compare it to “Nude Descending a Staircase”.

I can’t tell you what the point behind my post is today, other than these are things that I have been thinking about for the last little while. Really, these are some of the things I have been thinking about for years and exploring the art of the past help me understand.

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