Time and Art – 2

In my earlier post on Time and Art I mentioned artist William Kentridge’s exhibition called ‘The Refusal of Time’ which partly relates to a refusal of the European sense of order imposed by time zones. Yesterday I was reading a slim volume called Does Māori Art History Matter? (Victoria University of Wellington, 2014). By Deidre Brown, Ngarino Ellis and Jonathan Mane-Wheoki it was originally a lecture delivered in November 2013, which I attended; and it is part of a bigger project on a Maori art history.[1] This also raises questions about European notions of time (among other things).

The authors mention an event that occurred in the north of New Zealand in 1808 when a visiting European ship’s captain, James Ceroni (or Ceronci) had a watch that attracted interest from the local Maori people. They named it an ‘atua’ or deity, and to their horror, Ceroni dropped it into the harbour. The ship’s sudden departure that night was taken as evidence of Ceroni’s malicious intent – a view further reinforced by the epidemic that soon swept through the community leaving many dead (p. 15). Next year, Ceroni returned and he dropped a second watch overboard [Two accidents, or deliberate? If deliberate, I wonder what his motives were?] Three months after that, in December 1809, the ship Boyd came looking for timber, and partly in revenge for the earlier misfortunes (and for ill-treatment of a Maori chief’s son who had sailed on the Boyd), around 70 crew and passengers were killed and the ship was subsequently destroyed.


Late 18th century watch, from Whangaroa website.

This ‘burning of the Boyd’, ‘Boyd massacre’, ‘Boyd incident’ is reasonably well known in New Zealand history, but I don’t think the story of the watch is. For example, it isn’t mentioned on this NZ history website here.  However, a more specific Google search does find entries about it, such as this account from 1914 (so it must be taken with the usual warnings about racist writing of that time).

And this is about Whangaroa Harbour where the incidents occurred and, as well as lovely photos, if you scroll down to ‘History’ you will find a brief telling of the story.

But back to the book. The authors go on to say that one of the greatest impediments in developing a story for Maori art is the fixation on time sequences, or chronology as a way of recording and measuring ‘development’ (p. 18). They argue that Maori art evolved and changed over time, not necessarily getting ‘better’, but rather just changing to suit the circumstances (p. 19).

I think that’s true of art anywhere – I don’t agree with the idea that the art of one period, say the Renaissance, is said to be ‘better’ than the art which preceded it (the Gothic, for instance), because, for example they ‘rediscovered perspective’. This was brought home to me most clearly when I studied Byzantine and Medieval art – often seen as a debasement of the Classical ideals which preceded it. Certainly, it’s different but they were facing different circumstances and had different ideas of what was important.

Baptism Ravenna

Here a personification of the River Jordan (a river god) from the Classical tradition meets the Baptism of Christ from the emerging Christian iconography. I took this photo at the Arian Baptistery (built 493-526) in Ravenna on my art tour of Northern Italy last year. Even though the tour’s focus was Renaissance-court art, how could we not go to Ravenna to see the wonderful Byzantine-era mosaics?

Still, I think it is difficult to get away from time periods. In art history a lot (sometimes, too much) is made of who influenced who, but that only makes sense in a linear timeframe. And that gets me on to ‘timelines’ of art or artists, such as these ones:

Barr Timelines  Timeline Aus art Timelines 2 Cartographies [2]

I know they are simplifications, but they visually appeal to me. So, yes, I admit I’m completely bound by European notions of time. But I look forward to seeing what comes out of the Maori art history project.


[1] Called ‘Toi Te Mana: A History of Indigenous Art from Aotearoa New Zealand’ it is a three-year funded project beginning in 2013. Jonathan Mane-Wheoki died in 2014 and the book is dedicated to him.

[2] Sydney Ure Smith (ed), Present Day Art in Australia, Ure Smith Publication, 1949; David Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, Princeton Architectural Press, 2010. The other two images come from the Rosenberg & Grafton book – Alfred Barr, Cubism and Abstract Art, cover of an exhibition catalogue, MOMA, 1936, and Eric Newton, Chart of Art History, from European Painting and Sculpture, Harmondsworth, 1941.


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