Quest on Time and Space in Art

From observing the positions of celestial objects to improve calendars to trying to revealing the possible law of time and space in the universe, the human has never stopped exploring the philosophy of time and space from various different fields. In the art realm, no matter the linear perspective in Renaissance or the flatness of abstract expressionism, artists also devoted themselves into the exploration of a proper way to represent space under certain conditions and within certain timeframes.

When we look at time and space in the Modern period, the impressionism firstly stands out because of its feature of using colors to capture natural lights and shadows. Impressionists didn’t blend color smoothly, leaving the obvious tracks of strokes. They were rejected by the Académie’s Salon but eventually had their own Salon (Salon des Refusés). They focused no more on the historical events but preferred to depict temporary life and natural landscapes. Instead of focusing on details, they were better at capturing the momentary effects of lights to creating an overall visual effect. Monet’s series of paintings usually depict different lights on the same object at different times of a day or year. Especially his painting series of the West Façade of the Rouen Cathedral shows how the change of time conditions would exert an impact on the given space. A revolution of painting techniques has been ignited by impressionists, meanwhile, the topic time and space has been renovated.


Rouen Cathedral (Monet series)  There are more ( )

Instead of leaving an obvious track of strokes on the canvas like Impressionism, Surrealists depicts scenes with more elaborated photographic precision. However, different from Realists, Surrealists never just depict a normal scenario or still life from daily life: they are obsessed with illogical scenes and desire to emphasize the strong contradiction between the dream and reality. Those features of surrealism are no exception of the social context: the cruel reality due to the first and second World War created the unnerving atmosphere, which was contradictory to people’s longing for peace.

Source: Wikipedia.

The Persistence of Memory (

A very famous piece of surrealism is Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Hanging a soft melting clock on the tree and laying watches on the beach, Dali used “the exactitude of realist painting techniques” to depict a strange dream-like scene that can happen in reality. Although Dali said The Persistence of Memory is not inspired by Einstein’s theory of relativity, four clocks with blurry shapes might still hint at the perception of time in surrealism. Whether time has a specific shape, how would time look like if it were projected on a two-dimensional surface, in what conditions will time and space be warped when looking at the melting clocks, people will have such questions bursting out. Different from Monet’s artwork, Dali’s painting skills in The Persistence of Memory are not used to capture the natural light in order to reflect the fleeting time. Instead, his “exactitude of realist painting techniques” are used to represent the blurriness of boundary in the dream and the hollowness and loneliness in mind, following the quest on the time and space.

Monet and Dali are artists of different genres that are born in different time and space, but they both have explored the time and space in some of their artworks. Although different genres of art have different features and there might be seemingly gap and deviation between different genres, time and space have been the universal concern. The frame or the suit of time and space will still be the topic of many artworks, literature or scientific researches in different time and space in the future.


Art History Education Videos “Impressionism: Overview”

Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1859: The Modern Public and Photography” and ” The Painter of Modern Life” (pp.19-27).

Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,”

Wikipedia “Surrealism”

Wikipedia “Rouen Cathedral (Monet series)

Wikipedia “The Persistence of Memory”