"Symbolism in Art"
by Cristiano Rimassa dei Giordani
There have been pivotal moments in the past, which have prompted notable changes in the history of Art or have changed its course forever. Even an untrained eye will notice the difference between stylistics of the High Middle Ages and Renaissance. Nevertheless, they are separated by only a century of time.
With regards to Modern Art, the occurrence which had the most notable influence and which has enormously influenced the present situation is the advent of PHOTOGRAPHY. The significance of this event seems to slip by us unnoticed and unobserved; yet, it is crucially determinant. Prior to the invention of the Camera, the "best" painter was the one who could most accurately reproduce reality. With this new advent, it became impossible for artists to compete with its technological superiority and visual veracity.
Turn of the century artists feared and despised the Camera and when, after a few years, color photography became possible, there was no further doubt that the direction of Contemporary Art had to be totally redirected and revised. Art was forced by circumstances to survive alongside this new invention forging a new purpose, which the camera could not provide...Art no longer strictly reproduced reality but INTERPRETED it.
The birth of Impressionism was immediately subsequent to the invention of the camera. The major part of parallel and later artistic movements tended, for the first time in Art History, to distance themselves from the reproduction of form.
There is a short step between the interpretation of reality and the creation on canvas of a new and unexisting reality. If this unexisting plateau could symbolize a hidden reality, which relates to our lives, it would evoke some concurrent feelings that belong to it. It is here that Symbolism materializes its reason for being. There are two kinds of Symbolism, which exist side by side: the emotive and the rational. Emotive Symbolism has always been readily discernible in Art. Everyone knows of the existence of "cold" colors such as green, blue, and violet; and of "warm" colors of red, yellow, orange etc. These colors, when used properly, simplify the game of creating parallel sentiments. This kind of Symbolism is appropriately branded as emotive as it is immediate, impulsive, and instinctive. One doesn't need to go through an intellectual process or have any cultural preparation to feel the weight and emotion of color.
Abstract Art, with its thousand of sub currents, delves into this emotive symbolism to produce a canvas, sometimes with questionable results. Hypothetically speaking, if we were seeking to reproduce less immediate feelings of joy or sorrow and we thought to reproduce a more complicated sentiment such as the fleeting of time compounded with a vague sensation of inevitability and bittersweet melancholy laced with a hint of magic, simple colors could not evoke such complex sentiments. They could lend only a supporting role by suggesting a tone or mood of color.
Only Rational Symbolism is capable of reflecting the sensation of time fleeting by choosing a symbol which human kind has learned in childhood or can draw from the bank of collective subconscious to transport this feeling. The choice could be limited to a few definite subjects: a grandfather clock, an hourglass, the Big Ben of London. The sentiment, in this instance, could be guided in different directions by the choice of subject: if we were to select Big Ben of London to suggest the fleeting of time, it would also assume characteristics of austerity and solemnity. Similarly, a grandfather clock would create a more familiar and domestic sensation while an hourglass could foster feelings of magic, exotic and antiquity.
The intrinsic difficulty with symbols is that they are often ambiguous and do not lend themselves to a singular interpretation, and misinterpreted could take the viewer off-track in receiving the intended message. For example, a merry-go-round could symbolize repetitiveness and periodicity to an alienating point useful therefore in evoking a negative symbol to depict an everyday alienating job. But in the alternative, it could be used to personify innocence and childhood; yet, used in a background could serve as a symbol for lost innocence.
The compartment of a European train could transport us to a recollection of a situation of past travel and discovery; concurrently reminding us of the fastidiousness and bother of sharing limited space with other individuals whose presence is disconcerting to us. To open the same compartment and enlarge to the maximum the prospective of the windows out looking a dangerous nocturnal setting with fluorescent eyes peering in at us, the same train becomes a friendly and hospitable place and the same traveling companions take on an aspect of complicity and sympathy in this background.
Not all objects necessarily carry the same weight of an intentional symbol. They might simply coexist in a painting for other reasons such as aesthetics, symmetry, or counter-weight to other subject. Often the viewer attempts to project interpretations, which are not existing which again could lead to a wrong turn in interpreting the original message.
Envision a moving van traveling around a desert highway, which encompasses an evening party seen from the rooftops of Rome. This could lend itself to a number of different interpretations. However, the painting depicts only the image in its truest and most bare sense. The moving van it's only itself, an opportune and logical container within which to present a contrast between California in its vastness, novelty and adventure, while Rome, so ancient, fascinating and cramped is limited in its actual living space, where everything has been already lived and catalogued.
But the phenomenon of individual interpretation is ultimately a venial sin. There are schools of artist, which justify their reason for being by the creations of subjects to be interpreted. There are paintings without titles or with titles bearing no relevance whatsoever to the subject or more simply, paintings without a subject. In this case, more than calling these paintings "art", it would be appropriate to identify such paintings as INTERIOR DECORATION, as the finality of such canvasses is no longer the transmission of sensations and sentiments, but is just an insertion of colors in an environment, which marries harmoniously in the room where they are to be displayed. Unfortunately, there is an enormous confusion all over the world between ART and INTERIOR DECORATION.
The choice of symbols together with the material execution is the artist main task. Everything is left to his/her sensibility and intelligence in order to create a context, which doesn't leave any marginal doubt, and the message is perceived with extreme clarity. Big Ben, previously discussed as a symbol of austere and severe fleeting of time could also been recognized as the nation of Great Britain. If a European reaction to the image of Big Ben is quite predictable, the perception of a habitant of Mongolia could be unexpected.
The universality of symbols and their continued validity over time and space is an enormous problem considering that a work of Art might be the last remaining traded good of our consumer society, a work of Art which not only refuses to age but acquires value as time passes. The artist's capacity to model a subject so that symbols, which are presently recognizable remain so over centuries in any part of the world to any given individual independent of the particular person's cultural bias, is a monumental task.
But, in the end, it is precisely this challenge, which renders the artistic process fascinating and exciting; and the more the captured sensation in the canvas is rare and unusual, the more the work of Art become remarkable and step closer to the "limbo" of the timeless masterpiece.