Art History’s Most Fascinating Calendars

An edition of Koloman Moser’s “Frommel’s Calendar” (c. 1912) at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (© Museum Associates/LACMA)

New Year’s Day may signify the end of a much-needed holiday break, the receipt of invites to ultimately disappointing parties, and the requisite declaration of resolutions destined for failure, but the holiday persists as a symbol of hope, renewal, and the promise of a fresh start for many. And for those of us who prefer paper agendas to smartphones, the date also means inaugurating a brand-new calendar. 

Throughout history, artists and craftsmen have imagined and reimagined the ubiquitous time tracker, creating innovative designs to help their viewers keep an eye on the passing days. Below, we’ve compiled a few of art history’s most fascinating calendars, from 18th-century Japanese prints with cleverly disguised dates to a practical metal adornment first worn in 16th-century Europe. 

In 1700s Japan, people relied on a lunar rather than solar calendar. That meant that the number of days in each month changed from year to year, with some containing 30 days and others only 29. For a brief period in the latter half of the 18th century, the government allowed only a few publishers to legally produce calendars, but wealthy patrons still wanted them, and artists found a work-around. Creators made vibrant time-telling prints called egoyomi, which subtly told their viewers how many days were in each month. This discreet type of calendar proliferated the usage of multi-color block prints, ultimately playing a role in the evolution of Japanese printmaking. 

In a 1765 work by Komatsuya Hyakki, the artist depicts the numbers of the 30-day months on the emperor’s sleeve and those of the shorter months on the clothing of his deceased consort Lady Li, who appears to the ruler in a vision. Another clever egoyomi shows a storyteller explaining a type of celestial tracking device, the depiction of which comprises a disk that rotates to reveal a spinning calendar.

In South America, the ancient Inca used khipus, also known as quipus, to notea variety of data points, such as tax records and labor input. The systems — comprising knots tied in secessions of string — are still being decoded, but researchers know that the objects were used for narrative storytelling in addition to recordkeeping. In one instance, a khipu was thought to have represented a calendar year, as initially recorded by a Jesuit scholar in the early 1600s.

A 1450–1532 Incan khupi (courtesy National Museum of the American Indian)

On the other side of the world, women in 18th- and 19th-century France were wearing chatelaines — a practical ornament that would be attached to the hip and carried items the wearer might need throughout the day, such as notebooks, pencils, watches, and even tweezers. A version at the Metropolitan Museum of Art includes a calendar with the days of the week etched in gold and the date on a rotating sheet of enamel. In another highly ornamented calendar, luxury goods company Asprey created a gilt bronze and malachite mechanism — again displaying only the days of the week and the date — for the 1851 exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace. Around 14,000 exhibitors showcased goods ranging from pistols to fake teeth.

The notion of planning days on a grid laid out in months, weeks, then days — an ubiquitous system in our everyday lives — is thought to have originated in the United States in 1773, when Philadelphia-based publisher Robert Aitken created what he claimed was the first planner. At the same time, Americans were using almanacs to predict weather and note when to care for their crops, among other practical uses. Versions of the printed materials included poems and music, and more specialized iterations used the form to disseminate information on social issues, as seen in Abolitionists’ 19th-century “Anti-Slavery Almanacs.” 

Centuries earlier in Medieval Europe, wealthy patrons saw calendars inside Books of Hours described as “Medieval bestsellers.” The manuscripts served as prayer books and featured richly colored illuminations that a patron could custom-order, often showing the activities associated with each season. The books frequently opened with a calendar listing religious holidays, then subsequent pages delved into the most important days of each month. A mid-15th century folio from a Book of Hours created in France lists April’s religious feasts and includes images of the taurus zodiac sign and a woman holding a flower.

In more recent art history, the Viennese Secession and the Art Nouveau movements provided a seemingly endless supply of colorfully printed calendars, with richly colored pages placing the artistic style — defined by swirling curved lines — on full display. Perhaps the best known is the 1899 “Frommes Kalender” by Koloman Moser, one of the founding members of the Vienna Secession movement. The illustration served as the front page of a calendar by the eponymous company. Moser’s subject holds an hourglass and launches a cold and steadied stare toward a subject beyond the confines of the lithograph. The work has been interpreted as a visual representation of the anxieties experienced by the rapidly industrializing turn-of-the-century Viennese society, which would soon collapse with the outbreak of World War I.

Iconic works of modern and contemporary art history employ clocks as a symbol of  the passage of time, as in  Salvador Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” (1931) and Felix Gonzalez Torres’s “Untitled (Perfect Lovers)” (1991). But artist On Kawara employed the calendar motif for nearly 50 years in his series of date paintings titled Today. Kawara created one meticulously crafted work per day from 1966 to 2014 and imposed guidelines on himself — each work was one of eight sizes and one of three colors. A 2015 Guggenheim exhibition featuring the series also showed calendar pages in which Kawara highlighted the years of his life; as Hyperallergic contributor Peter Malone wrote in his review of the exhibition, it gave “an ironic sense of both the importance and the unimportance of the artist’s work in the greater scheme of things.”

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