It is difficult to find a painting or sculpture in which there would be no symbols, that is, hidden meanings. Yes, symbolism is a very common phenomenon in art.
The artists depicted a lily flower next to Saint Mary, as a symbol of her purity. We see such a flower in the 14th century altarpiece “Annunciation” by Simone Martini (see above).
Eagle and lightning are symbols of Zeus. And if in a mythological picture we find these two objects next to a male figure, then we can say for sure who is in front of us.
But does a tulip in a still life always mean something other than just being a tulip? And the spider? And the eagle with the lily?
Let’s figure it out.
Symbolism in works of the Old Masters and in Contemporary Art
Let’s consider one of the 17th century Dutch still life paintings.
The round edge of the marble plinth protrudes from the dark background. A wide, low glass bottle with a bouquet of garden and wildflowers stands on it. In addition to flowers, we also see several snails, a spider, a butterfly and other animals.
The image is almost photographic. At the same time, the master carefully thought out the composition. The picture is dominated by rounded shapes: the edge of the plinth and the bottle, flowers and snails.
The color scheme of the master is also verified. For example, the yellow color of a sunflower at the very top is balanced by a scattering of ocher spikelets and honeysuckle flowers throughout the bouquet. All this makes the picture very aesthetic.
In addition to its picturesque qualities, the picture contains many symbols.
John Calvin, a Protestant reformer, was convinced that there is always a hidden meaning in everyday things, and there should be a moral lesson in every image.
This is one of the reasons why Dutch artists filled their paintings with many symbols. Thus, they satisfied the needs of the public.
So, flowers are a symbol of transience. Therefore, Jan de Heem also depicted partially wilted flowers at the bottom of the bouquet. Thus, the master further emphasizes the transience of time.
The bright tulip flower is a symbol of extravagance. Indeed, in 17th century Holland it was believed that growing tulips was an extremely troublesome and costly business.
But at the same time, we see wildflowers in the bouquet, which were associated with modesty and spiritual purity. And the snail, by the way, is a symbol of a sinful soul.
And here it can be interpreted as follows: it is important for a sinful soul (a snail) in a vain life not to forget about modesty. And only then the immortal soul (butterfly) can go to heaven. After all, it was the butterfly that sat on the sunflower, the symbol of the Creator. This means that such a soul will literally be next to God.
Jan de Heem successfully combined aesthetics and symbolism: that is why he was one of the most popular still life painters in Holland in the 17th century.
But symbolism is also present in contemporary art.
Let’s take a look at “Maman” by Louise Bourgeois (1999).
Here is a huge spider 9 meters high. Its body is like a steel cage, balancing on slender and long legs.
Inside the body is a mesh sec with 17 marble eggs. Definitely it is a female spider.
For many people, the sculpture causes tension and fear, because a huge spider is a symbol of a threatening predator in Western culture.
But in contemporary art, the role of the artist has changed. Jan de Heem, as a Dutch artist, endowed the objects of his paintings with generally recognized symbolism. In our time, the symbol can be individual.
Louise Bourgeois saw spiders as protective and hardworking creatures. According to Bourgeois, such was her mother. In addition, she was a restorer of antique tapestries. So the profession of a mother is easy to associate with the ability of spiders to weave a web.
Bourgeois said: “The spider is an ode to my mother …”, emphasizing the positive meaning of this symbol.
Although she can put a different meaning in this image because of its duality. After all, a spider is a predatory creature capable of paralyzing a victim with its poison.
Perhaps Louise Bourgeois indirectly implied that the influence of the mother on the child is enormous. She can surround with care and love. And it can cause serious psychological trauma even by not loving her child.
So, both the art of past centuries and modern art are full of symbols. To interpret such works, the viewer needs preparation.
In the first case with de Heem’s work, it is important for the viewer to know the generally accepted symbolism of those times.
In the case of the Maman sculpture, it is important to know the artist’s personal perception of the object.
However, in the history of art, we can highlight the moment when the same representatives of flora and fauna began to be depicted with a completely different purpose.
When symbolism faded into the background
In 1840, William Turner created his work “Rain, Steam and Speed”.
There is a large space in front of us. The shapes are almost indistinguishable. The artist did not use lines, but created space with wide and chaotic strokes. On the left you can barely see a stone bridge, a group of people on the bank, a plowman in a field on the right side, and on the river a boat with two passengers.
The clearest object in the picture is the train, which rushes across the iron bridge towards the viewer. We understand that it is moving because of the built perspective and the fact that the back of the train is more blurry than the front. The train seems to burst into the foreground of the painting.
Just a few years have passed since the launch of the first passenger train. This speed was new to humans. And the artist decided to convey the feeling of such a trip.
He himself rode such a train without a roof. Everything blurred before his eyes, thick smoke, steam and moisture blanketed him. That is, Turner tried to convey the impression with color and special paint application.
There are no symbols here. Dr. Steven Zucker commented that “the painting is about the act of painting itself”. That is, the special application of paint on the flat surface of the canvas was more important for the artist than the transfer of some hidden meaning to the viewer. Turner himself wrote: “I do not paint so that people understand me. I paint to show what a particular scene looks like.” Turner’s painting is two-thirds atmospheric, according to the same Dr. Zucker. But still there was a place for symbolism in it.
In front of the train … a hare is running! And it is a symbol of speed.
Thus, the artist subtly touches on the theme of the confrontation between man and nature. After all, the hare will inevitably die in this fight. Yes, he runs fast, but the train will catch up with him …
Contemporaries found Turner’s later work far from greatness. But some artists of the next generation saw his paintings as groundbreaking.
Claude Monet realized that Turner paid attention not to form, but to light. It is light that can change color and even shape. Monet has developed this innovative idea in his works.
He once said: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, … here a streak of yellow.”
This principle of working is especially easy to follow in his series, for example, in his Poplars.
We see three slender trees, the tops of which are “cut off” by a frame. At the bottom, along the entire space, there is a strip of coastal grass. Part of the river is visible. In the background there is also a row of poplars with smoky crowns.
The artist was in the boat when he painted this picture. Before us is a part of the world, which at that moment the artist saw in front of him. No symbolism. They are just trees. Just a river. Just heaven.
Monet was only interested in how light forms objects and in what color it paints them. This is fleeting because in 10 minutes the sun will move across the sky. Then the specific light effect will disappear, being replaced by completely different colors.
Therefore, the artist created several paintings with the same poplars to capture different lighting effects.
Yes, the trees definitely do not contain any hidden meaning here. For Monet, as for Turner, it was “… the act of painting itself” (Dr. Zucker).
In conclusion, it is important to note that symbolism has always played a large role in art. You can find many examples of landscapes, still lifes, and sculptures filled with all kinds of symbols.
But at the same time, there are examples when the artist allowed himself to experiment only with color, form and technique, avoiding any symbolism.
But this does not mean that such works are easier to understand and are intended for a quick look. Monet pushes us to perceive the world around us “here and now”, finding strength and even a miracle in the inessential.
Let’s take a little quiz.
1. Which Flowers are endowed with symbolism?
2. Which Mirror is endowed with symbolism?
If you answered both questions “on the right”, then you can already easily read the presence of symbols in a work of art.
Explanations to the answers
In the first task before you were the works of Pierre Auguste Renoir and Jan Brueghel the Elder.
We see flowers collected in one field on the painting of Renoir. They ended up in one vase solely for the artist to capture their beauty.
Jan Bruegel the Elder (not to be confused with his father Pieter Brueghel the Elder) has a mix of wild and garden flowers in the bouquet. Moreover, they are collected in different seasons. Even exotic plants are among them. That is, in real life you cannot put them together in one bouquet (at least it was unrealistic in the 17th century).
Yes, this is a fictional bouquet. The artist painted each flower separately from life. Together they never stood in the same vase. So they are collected to convey a specific message.
In the second task, you saw the works of Valentin Serov and Auguste Tolmush.
Already from the name it is clear that in the painting of the French artist Tolmush, the mirror is symbolic and denotes vanity. Moreover, the lady is kissing her reflection so unambiguously.
Serov needs a mirror only to build a composition. Its frame participates in the storyboard. In one “frame” the woman’s body is depicted as if we are looking at her from the same level. But the head is already shown, as if we are looking at it from the bottom up. This makes the look more complex and majestic. Also, the mirror reflects the far upper corner of the room, which makes the space deeper.
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