What is the role of space and time in my painting?


When I decided to become an artist, I asked myself one of the most basic questions an artist could ask.  What makes one artist noteworthy, while other artists remain ordinary?  Is this distinction a matter of fashion or something more enduring? If what most say about the quality of art at any given moment is accepted, then fashion is the basis for determining the value of art. However history has shown that there have been many noteworthy artists that have had a substantial influence on the art world, while these very same artists during their own times were considered ordinary or worse. This second case of enduring noteworthiness in art is my goal.

I began by noticing that significant shift in pictorial space occurred in each of the major periods of history (Prehistoric, Ancient, Middle Ages, Modern Age). These shifts seemed to correspond to shifts in how these respective cultures viewed themselves and the world. Soon after noticing these spatial features, I began a historical investigation, which considered that the temporal qualities of painting are inseparable from the spatial qualities.  This was the beginning point of my artistic direction. I pursued the notion that spatial and temporal aspects of painting were fundamental to the meanings of paintings and that to significantly deal with these aspects would be a fruitful endeavor. This direction prompts the question, why are space and time important aspects of painting?

Space and time as fundamental to the human condition

The renowned philosopher, Emanuel Kant, introduces the notion of a priori in his work A Critique of Pure Reason in the section Transcendental Aesthetic.  He claims that for any person to understand anything whatsoever that person must first be able to be aware of time and space.  According to Kant, it is time and space that allows us to put into context all sensual data in a meaningful way.  The concept of a priori assumes the fundamental necessity of time and space as a presence in all forms of thinking and awareness including the creation of a work of art.

Martin Heidegger in Being and Time introduces the concept of fundamental ontology, in which he claims that we cannot transcend our existence. We are all born into a particular place, time and culture.  For him, our daily practical lives, as well as, our deepest beliefs and ideas are guided by interpretations founded on this situated existences.  To become aware of meanings of our lives is to affirm the temporality of our situated existence. For Heidegger, creating art is most authentic when the artist (or viewer) embraces the temporality of his or her being. 

Emanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger have their differences but both agree to the general supposition that space and time are fundamentally present in all meaningful human activity.

Spatial and Temporal Aspects of Painting in Western Culture in the modern age

A consensus of art historians has established Giotto di Bondone and Paul Cezanne as being among most influential painters in all of Western art. So what did they contribute to create substantially new understandings of space and time in painting?

Giotto di Bondone   ca. 1276 – 1337 The Father of Renaissance Art

Pervading the Middle Ages was a belief that the moral and physical world is governed by a monotheistic spiritual order of the universe.  Consequently, an attitude prevailed that spirituality was in many ways more important to them than the physical world.  The artists of these times focused on expressing this universal spirituality in their work. 

In general, pictorial canons of spatial and temporal qualities of this art were founded on abstractions of ornamentation of color and design that enhanced imagination and feelings of omnipresence spirituality. Conversely, artists at this same time deemphasized the appearance of the spatial and temporal aspects of the natural world.  The human form, when depicted, often was out of proportion, weightless, and without volume.  There was no time of day nor was there a recession of space from a particular point of view.

Giotto di Bondone has been credited as being the first artist to clearly leave this attitude of the Middle Ages and usher in the Italian Renaissance as the beginning of the Modern Age.  Giotto’s new vision was based on the humanist’s attitude that each person has the God given ability to create a better world in which they live through his or her personal, though limited, capacity for understanding.  To accomplish this humanistic approach to painting, Giotto created imagery that showed what it is like to experience the world from a personal point of view at a particular place and at a particular moment. For example, in Lamentation the imagined what it would look like if he actually witnessed Jesus Christ being lowered from the cross.  This highly dramatic scene shows the grief expressions on the faces and the bodily gestures of despair. In addition, these expressions are heightened by the presence of real people interacting in a real place in a moment of grief. Unlike his artist predecessors, he showed bodies on which the clothing draped and the light defining the volume of all things, even the rocks.  The figures are interacting as if on an actual stage where some figures in the foreground partially hid others in the background.  One has his back to the viewer.  This scene is not an abstraction of a transcendent realm , rather, it is perceived as humanely personal. This was revolutionary in its time.

A significant part of Giotto’s work laid the foundation for the creation of linear perspective as a tool for depicting deep and consistent pictorial space as seen at any given moment from a single point of view.  In particular, Filippo Brunelleschi in early 1400s perfected a system of linear perspective based on straight guidelines converging at a vanishing point. This straight-line linear perspective became a five hundred year tradition influencing nearly all aspects of western art.  Giotto’s insights regarding his spatial temporal orientation of the world as they apply to paintings are a monumental achievement because they have culturally transformed our understandings of the world and ourselves.

Paul Cezanne 1839 – 1906 The Father of Modern Art

Through the major movements in the modern world (Renaissance, Baroque and Romantic art), straight lined linear perspective was widely accepted as a required tool to be mastered by any worthy artist.  Edouard Manet, an Impressionist, in the 1860s, was the first to challenge these accepted norms.  His approach was to ignore deep consistently receding space in favor of a flat pictorial space.  (See Luncheon on the Grass or The Fifer).  However, the figures themselves in these paintings still retain a traditional three-dimensional voluminous appearance.  Later in the1870s, the Post-Impressionist painter, Paul Cezanne, creates images that fulfill Manet’s effort to establish a new kind of spatial integrity and continuity on the canvas.

Paul Cezanne borrowed from the impressionist’s color palette the idea that color does not belong to the object being painted but rather belongs both to the visual experience of what is being depicted and to the surface of the painting.   However, he altered the impressionistic approach of daubs of paint on canvas by creating patches of color as part of the spatial scheme devoted to mass and position.  In his hands, patches of color became planes of color and planes of color became intricate compositions in which color modulations achieved a feeling of space and depth.  In this way the traditional illusion of depth through the application of aerial and linear perspective was replaced.

Cezanne also created multiple points of views within same paintings as if he moved as he viewed the subjects of his painting. In his Still Life with Fruit Basket, the front of the fruit basket is seen from a front view, whereas, the contents of it is seen from a higher birds eye view.  Further, the view of the handle of this basket is shifted to the right.  There are numerous other shifts through time of the viewpoints, as well as, shifting, tilting and overlapping of planes within this painting.  Apparently, Cezanne worked by feelings and intuition that created abrupt spatial gaps in his images.  His work is fraught with tensions between the dynamic of movement and stability of a single point of view.  The consistent recession of pictorial space, as seen in traditional aerial and linear perspective, has been replace by a new kind of intuitive space and time that honors Manet’s intent to create flat pictorial images.

It has been attributed to Picasso as saying, “Cezanne is my one and only master”. Picasso along with Georges Braque created Cubism.  Cubistic composition is an extension of the very approach to painting that Cezanne used.  It is well known that multiple points of views, shifting, overlapping and tilting pictorial planes within paintings are the hallmark of cubistic compositions. This Cubistic space does not display a consistent and gradual recession of pictorial space, and in this way, tends to flatten the space with more attention to the surface of the paintings. It is also widely accepted that Picasso’s cubistic work laid the foundation and was a major inspiration for the modern art movement.  This new kind of pictorial time and space that was first created by Cezanne has had an enormous influence on modern art and is why he is often referred to as ‘the father of modern art’.

Curvilinear perspective as a synthesis of Giotto’s and Cezanne’s work.

Modern art became exceedingly formal as the pictorial space evolved into mostly abstract imagery based almost exclusively on design principles and design elements.  Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptualism and the like seem in some ways to share more of an allegiance to the abstraction of the Middle Ages than to the pictorial space that began the Modern Age with Giotto. 

Often, galleries show the bifurcation of the abstract imagery of the Modern and Postmodern art scene along side the traditional straight-line liner perspective established in the Renaissance.  None of these approaches has recently offered a significantly new understanding of spatial temporal aspects of painting. These works rely on the norms established by Giotto and Cezanne.

Curvilinear perspective seems to offer a way to establish such a new understanding of the relationship of spatial and temporal aspects of painting. Like a wide-angle lens or a fish eye lens, curvilinear perspective bends the pictorial space to include a wider view of a scene than can normally be seen with our peripheral vision. It does this by gradually transitioning multiple points of views as one scans a scene. The purpose of this approach is to create an image that allows a viewer to see in a consistent whole space a scene that surrounds the viewer.

Some aspects of curvilinear perspective retain the original humanistic impetus of Giotto and the Renaissance that depicts scenes as if seen from a particular point of view by a particular person.  It also continues the approach of creating consistent and gradual recession of pictorial space. Curvilinear perspective also retains some of the original impetus of Cezanne and the early Modern artist by combining multiple points of view through the temporally dynamic act of scanning a scene, while creating a static image on a surface.

Aspects of curvilinear perspective suggest that a significant and fundamentally new approach to creating temporal and spatial qualities in painting may occur as a synthesis of Renaissance and Modern Art.  This synthesis would include the hallmark of Renaissance imagery of consistent and gradual recession of pictorial space, as well as, the hallmark of early Modern art of multiple points of view occurring through time. M. C. Escher and Rackstraw Downes are two artists who have pursued this synthesis.

M. C. Escher  1898 – 1972
M.C. Escher created optical illusions by using representational logic to depict impossible worlds.  His lithograph High and Low shows the same scene from a bird’s eye view, while at the same moment showing this very same scene from a worm’s eye view.  This is accomplished by using curvilinear perspective in a spatially seamless composition. The result is a challenge to our spatial and temporal sensibilities. Up is down and down is up and our viewpoints shift accordingly.  Escher employs extreme curvilinear perspective logic to create an absurd world.


High and Low 1947   M. C. Escher


Rackstraw Downes
As impossible as Escher’s images seem, Rackstraw Downes paintings are as real as if you are standing in an actual world in the act of perceiving it. He actually paints on location, moving within that location as he works in order to show contoured horizons as perceived by him.   His painting Under the Westside Highway at 145th Street: The Bike Path, No. 1”  (2009) shows much more than the normal peripheral vision can include at any instant.  The viewer scans the road, fence and walkway from left to right.  Above, the overpass can be seen as well as the ground below.  This hyper realistic scene envelops the viewer by employing curvilinear composition as a perceptual act of scanning beyond an instantaneous moment of sight.


Mick Brandenberger 

My work is an addition to the two distinctly different approaches of Escher and Downes, as my curvilinear images lie somewhere between the impossible worlds of Escher and the real worlds of Downes.  I am guided by a deep need to imagine special places in which to immerse myself.  These imaginary worlds are intuitive creations rooted in my experiences of exotic places, as well as, my everyday environment. The purpose of curvilinear perspective is to encourage the viewer to feel as if he or she is actually immersed in these visionary realms   This is accomplished by allowing the viewer the ability to look up, down, left or right in my work, as if they are actually there.  In short, my images attempt to create panoramic gazes that invite the viewer to float through peaceful worlds in ways that could never have been done in the Renaissance or the Modern/ Post-Modern temporal and spatial approaches in painting.

Brandenberger  Cathedral Pass  2012