How Monet Expressed Our Relationship with Time and Space During COVID

Claude Monet (1840–1946), founder of the Impressionist movement

It is of no question that the pandemic has changed our relationship with both time and space. We fill time with the daily activities, and we typically occupy space with whatever object that is of use. The movement of time and our interaction with the space around us, however, seem strange during the pandemic — it is disorienting and bizarre. And as I reflect on how I interact with time and space, I am reminded of Monet and the Impressionist movement. As I gaze and wonder again at Monet’s paintings, it would seem that Monet would have a lot to say about our relationship with time and space during COVID. The Impressionist movement has captured the urgency yet suspended nature of time and the unique quality of space as perceived by the beholder.

Impressionists painted their works always with a sense of urgency, conscious of the fleeting nature of time. Every second and every minute, the light changes, people’s movement differs, and the object never the same. They paint with haste, capturing what has been revealed to them by the moment. In a historical context, the impressionist movement also coincided with the start of the mechanical clock’s ubiquitousness. It was a point in history when everyone quantified time.

Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare paintings

In Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare paintings, we can feel the presence and prevalence of time in people’s lives. As the beauty of light goes through the trains’ thick fogs, the busyness of the station and the importance of time are ever more palpable.

Also, in Monet’s paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, we could feel Monet’s urgency to paint the moment. We could sense both the demand to capture the dance of light as it strikes the Cathedral and the serenity of the moment that he saw. Monet captured the light on the Cathedral as time is fleeting but also as something that is suspended in time — it moves yet frozen.

During the pandemic, we feel this strangeness of time — when it is both prevalent yet suspended. Our days are still filled, if not more filled, with activities and things to do. We jump from one Zoom meeting to the next, attend online classes, or juggle our work with our domestic activities. There still does not seem to be enough time. Time seems to demand urgency. Yet even though our days are filled, it seems strange that it is as if nothing happened at all when we look back on our day. It feels like time just went by and not as slow when we are conscious of it at the moment. The present-day seems long, but the year was short. Like one of Monet’s paintings, time seems so prevalent in the mundane; time feels long and filled with activities, but it also feels short, like the year never happened. It is as if we were suspended in time, still waiting for the summer of 2020 to come.

The impressionists also expressed how we interact with the space around us. One apparent deviation of the Impressionists from their predecessors is to paint objects, not as how they are but how they appear to be. With the advent of new dyes, they experimented with vibrant colors and painted objects based on how the painter perceives them. Monet’s waterlilies, like most Impressionist art, exhibits this characteristic. Monet’s waterlilies are not paintings of how his garden is, but rather how he perceives it. He perceives it as vibrant in color, moving yet still, horizontal yet vertical, beautiful in the mundane.

During COVID, our relationship with space has also changed, along with our perception of its importance in our lives. We long for the spaces outside, whether it be the park, the office building, or the local café. We perceive these spaces no longer just with their function but also with a certain nostalgia. We no longer look at these spaces just as how they are, but with longing and a sense of strangeness. It is as if these spaces were a part of us yet separated from us. While Monet was probably more interested in how he perceived light and its interaction with space, there is no doubt that his paintings cast the strangeness we feel with the space around us. The architectures are not just for function but actual spaces we long for and have meaning for us. Our perception has changed how these objects appear to us.

Monet’s Sunrise

With this strange experience with time and space during the pandemic, will anything change post-pandemic? Life, like a painting, is an interaction with time and space. I think we would forever remember this part of the painting in our lives, and it would undoubtedly impact our societies. But I don’t think our interaction with time and space will move to a “new normal,” post-pandemic. Human persons have terrible memories. We’ll go back to our pre-pandemic rhythm, to an old flow of time and space. But we’ll never forget the time when our relationship with time and space was like that of the paintings of Monet.

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