What Time Is It?: Stories about Painting, Shadows and the Sun
JBE Books, Paris, 2023
112 pp., illus. 21 col. Trade, $25.00 / £20.00
Shadows in art are often a short-cut for poetry and vagueness, mood and empathic feelings. In the best case, they help install a cozy feeling of lyric warmth and depth. In the worst case, they are the starting point of what Ad Reinhardt and all those committed to sharpness and precision so strongly opposed when in “Painting is special,” he stated: “Clarity, completeness, quintessence, quiet. No noise, no schmutz, no schmerz, no fauve schwärmerei.” Granted, Reinhardt was a defender and practitioner of abstract art, famous for his all-black paintings. But what he was standing for can also be applied to figurative art, as superbly shown by writer and multimedia artist Franck Leibovici in this funny, stunning as well as highly inspirational publication.
Taking as its starting point an observation once made by David Hockney: “What is the purpose of the shadow in a painting, if not to indicate the time?”, Leibovici analyzes the shadows represented in 20 masterpieces of classic, figurative art, from the Renaissance till the post-impressionist period (and one final example of non-Western painting: Kawase Hasui’s 1947 Moonlit night, Miyajima), to read them not as mood-markers or stylistic ornamentation, but as exact time-markers. Thus, we learn for instance that in Raphael’s Madonna in the meadow it is 12:18, while in Leonardo’s Annunciation it is 12:30 and in Auguste Renoir’s The grands boulevards 11:33.
The simple question of asking what time it is in a painting is rarely asked, and it may seem futile in comparison with the properly aesthetic questions raised by art with a capital A. Yet asking simple questions that are generally neglected opens countless other and definitely non-futile new questions that make the temporal study of a painting something else than just a play or a joke, even if the ludic dimension of Leibovici’s should not be ignored, for it contributes to the critical perspective of his resolutely anti-antiquarian take on painting. It is certainly fun to know that Georges Seurat’s A Sunday afternoon on la Grande Jatte represents a slice of time that can be identified as 2:00 PM. It is already more serious to realize that this knowledge reshapes our way of looking at this painting, since 2:00 PM would mean picnic time, but nobody is actually picnicking, and perhaps this tells us something on who is represented and who is not and why. The aim of Leibovici is not always to give the final answers to this type of questions, but to raise them, inviting the reader to challenge conventional ways of reading pictures.
The first question is of course to ask how it is actually possible to determine the time as represented in paintings, and this is where Leibovici’s method touches open the larger debate on arts and science. Inferring the time from a painted shadow as practiced by the author is not guess-work or interpretive speculation, but the result of an astonishing, that is astonishingly simple and perfectly accessible toolkit, given the fact that Leibovici uses software accessible to all (Google Street View, suncalc.org) as well as “osint” (open-source intelligence) in his attempt to radically enlarge the metadata of images. In addition, he not only refers to these technical and cognitive instruments, his book also includes all the elements of his reflection (reproductions of the artworks, diagrammatic analyses of the paintings, screenshots from Google Street View and Suncalc), thus allowing the reader to critically evaluate and challenge or remediate his results. In all cases, however, whether one agrees with Leibovici’s conclusions, the very decision to time-stamp a painting is an invitation to reopen the discussion on visual metadata, a key debate in digital culture of today and tomorrow. Leibovici does more than offering a refreshing and often very surprising rereading of figurative art, his method (for this is really a method, which moreover everybody can learn very easily and expand to other fields and levels) transforms what we may be looking for when watching an image or looking for an image on the internet or elsewhere.
This art-historical and visual dimension is however only the first level of what is at stake in this book. Leibovici shows that we can all become art historians, but he is also an artist and researcher extremely sensitive to the social and political impact of networked action and communication. It is vital to stress that this book points to our current underuse of the digital tools that are at our disposal. Leibovici demonstrates the possibility of making new and different uses of them. He also establishes that the results of these less conventional uses are sometimes more thought-provoking than those of the well-established forms of digitally enhanced connoisseur scholarship. Finally, and this is perhaps the most important part of the author’s argumentation, he highlights the impossibility of maintaining the boundaries between scholarship and creation, human and machine, individual and network, and professional and amateur. In this sense, this truly erudite publication is also perfectly liberating for so-called nonspecialists: if everyone is an artist, as Joseph Beuys once famously claimed, it is now time to argue with Leibovici that everyone can also became a scholar.
What Time Is It? is a highly readable and beautifully designed book, which should not come as a surprise to readers familiar with the production of the Paris-based but internationally working publisher, JBE. One can only hope that this attractive publication will draw new attention to other work by the author as well as foster new thinking on the way in which this book really functions as a book and as part of an important catalog of works in print that find new ways of making books in the digital age.