Time-Lapse at St Stephen’s Green
by Frank Roger
The artist was working in intense concentration. He didn’t seem to notice me as I stood behind him, looking at the painting he was doing. To my surprise I saw a beautifully rendered medieval castle in an undulating landscape. How strange! This wasn’t what I expected from someone mounting his easel at one of the most picturesque spots in St. Stephen’s Green Park in Dublin, where I did my daily walk.
Maybe he just came here because it allowed him to work in tranquillity, and he didn’t need the inspiration the park offered, preferring to paint what he saw before his mind’s eye. He was clearly putting the finishing touches to the painting. I wanted to tell him I found his work absolutely admirable, but as he appeared so absorbed in his artistic endeavour I chose not to do anything that might disturb his concentration. I did make a picture of the painting, without asking permission, for the same reason.
The following day I saw the man again, at the very same spot. Surprisingly, the painting now looked less complete. I made a picture of it, and compared it with the one I took the day before. I had been right indeed: yesterday’s version offered an almost finished rendition of a castle, whereas today’s canvas lacked several details, apparently removed for some reason or other. I couldn’t quite grasp what the man was doing. Maybe it would become clear in due course.
The third day I went straight to the spot where I expected the man to be. He was present indeed, working in concentration as usual. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I looked at the canvas: the painting again offered fewer details than yesterday’s version, as if the artist was removing bits rather than adding some. Yet he appeared to be painting in a completely normal way. What was going on here? It almost looked as if he was doing a painting in reverse.
I made a picture of today’s version, and tried to get the man’s attention, as I really wanted to ask him a few questions. Either he was oblivious of my presence, or he was too absorbed in his work to hear me. Anyway, I didn’t get any answers from him.
Every day I went to examine the artist’s work in progress—or in this case, work in regress. Each time the painting I saw was indeed an earlier stage of what I had seen before: the castle was slowly disappearing, the background was now only roughly sketched, and so on. On every occasion I made a picture of the work, and at times I tried to get the artist’s attention, but always in vain. I was facing a mystery and saw no way how to solve it. I only had my series of photographs to prove I had stumbled onto something extraordinary here.
On the fourteenth day, the man had just started work on his painting. I could only see an outline, a few vague shapes on a white canvas, barely hinting at what the finished piece would look like. I wondered what the next day would bring. Nothing? What if the man wouldn’t be there?
I needn’t have worried. On the fifteenth day the artist was present at his fixed spot, staring at a blank canvas. I had come full circle, from a practically finished piece to the moment the first paint was about to be applied.
Nothing happened for a while. As I took a picture of the blank canvas, just to have a complete set of photographs, the artist turned around in surprise and asked me:
“Why did you do that? What’s the point of taking a picture of this?”
It was the first time in all those days that he had been aware of my presence and even established a form of contact.
For a moment I wasn’t sure what to say. Why not simply the truth then, I decided.
“I’ve taken a picture of your work every day for over two weeks now,” I said. “I must admit it’s something of a mystery to me.”
The man stared at me in amazement, and then said: “Can I see the pictures?”
“Of course,” I replied, and showed him the entire series.
“Fine,” he said. “Thank you. Now I know what I have to do. I was a bit short on inspiration, you see.”
He turned his attention to his canvas and began to work. I asked him a few more questions, but he didn’t seem to hear me. Either he chose to ignore me, or he was already absorbed in his art, as usual. It was clear he was going to do the painting he had seen in my pictures – his painting, the one he had “undone” over the previous weeks. After a while I left him, wondering what I would see the following day.
The next day the artist was nowhere to be seen. I checked every nook and cranny of St. Stephen’s Green, but he was not there. I didn’t expect to see him again anymore, and indeed I didn’t. The mystery I had come across was bound to remain unsolved. I would never find out if that man had done his painting in reverse, or if perhaps time ran differently for him than for the rest of us.
All I knew was that I was somehow responsible for it all, as I had shown my series of photographs to him when he didn’t have a clue yet what he would do.
I still look at those pictures every now and then—but I start with the blank canvas and end with the finished piece. It just feels more natural and doesn’t raise questions that will remain unanswered.
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Frank Roger was born in 1957 in Ghent, Belgium. His first story appeared in 1975. Since then his stories appear in an increasing number of languages in all sorts of magazines and anthologies, and since 2000, story collections are published, also in various languages. Apart from fiction, he also produces collages and graphic work in a surrealist and satirical tradition. They have appeared in various magazines and books. By now he has a few hundred short stories to his credit, published in more than 40 languages. Find out more at www.frankroger.be .