Time in Art

The Table by Andre Derain
The Table by Andre Derain

In last Friday’s ideas-letter (which you can view here), I shared a New Yorker article about Lonni Sue Johnson, an artist with amnesia. One question the article explored was how a person with complete hippocampal damage — and therefore with only a two-minute window of memory — experiences time. Her sister, Aline, hypothesized the following:

‘Imagine living in a narrow sliver of the present,’ Aline told me. ‘How could you get a sense of continuity?’ She went on, ‘I get the feeling that as she draws each line the pencil tip leaves a trace of that hand motion. It’s multimedia, it captures her: it involves sight, sound, feel, and movement, and her artistic expertise and all these things, and as she draws line after line on the page to get a grid she gains a sense of where her gestures have been, how long it’s taken. It has a rhythm to it.’

This was so interesting to me, because it looks specifically at the act of creating as happening in time and space, and this grounds Lonni Sue in reality. She is connected to the world through her pencil and paper, and through the rhythm she creates in drawing uniform grids on that paper. This discussion of time in art reminded me of a quote from another New Yorker article I shared, about the Warburg Institute. This quote is taken from a lecture Kenneth Clark gave on Warburg’s theory of “motives” in art:

‘Motives are states of mind which have taken visible shape,’ Clark explains. ‘They are thus very similar to the subject of a lyric poem or a piece of music; with this difference that the poem or musical composition can develop in time, whereas the visual motive has to compress all conflicting or amplifying associations into a single symbol. This intense concentration seems to explain why recurring motives are so few and so tenaciously held.’

This quote struck me when I read it because it explained the power of a great painting (or drawing or sculpture) as existing in its ability to express a whole story — with all its nuances, its “conflicting or amplifying associations” — in one picture, in one moment. It has to contain the past, present, and future of its subject in one timeless pose. It vibrates with this motion that it holds within itself. Like Keats’ urn, it expresses an eternal present, analogous maybe to the way God sees the world.

Two different perspectives on the role that time plays in art. Both worth pondering, and both helpful in digging up truth and seeing the world a bit differently than before.

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