Symbols in art

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Symbols in art

Arts & Activities,  Sept, 2006  by Colleen Carroll
In the Egyptian picture language known as hieroglyphics, the profile of a standing man with arms reaching upward symbolizes praise and welcome. With this image in mind, we welcome you to another year of the Clip & Save Art Prints series with a fascinating theme, "Symbols in Art."

Egyptian Hieroglyphics are just one example of this year's theme; one that is at once rich, mysterious and, in many cases, deeply complex. Volumes have been written on the topic, which can be overwhelming in its depth and breadth. To make it less intimidating and more accessible, let's start at the beginning by examining what a symbol actually is.

Put most basically, symbols are something used to represent something else. Symbols can represent ideas, concepts, beliefs, doctrines and feelings. Symbols can have powerful meaning and evoke strong emotion, such as the crucifix in Christianity or the Star of David in Judaism.

Symbols can be political, such as nation's flag, or inspirational, like the five interconnecting circles that represent the spirit of the Olympic Games. Symbols can be personal, such as a coat of arms representing a family. Some symbols transcend individual nations, faiths and ethnicities, such as the olive branch or dove as symbols of peace.

Symbols may have profound meaning for some, yet no meaning for others. For a symbol to have significance, its meaning must be known to the viewer. Take, for example, the Chinese symbol for yin and yang. To those who understand its origins as a philosophical explanation of the workings of the universe, it is a symbol that represents a concrete idea. To those who know nothing of the symbol's origins in Chinese philosophy, it's merely a circular design with opposing colors and shapes.

For a symbol to have meaning, it's important to understand what it represents. This is an important point to remember as we teach students about the ways in which artists incorporate symbols into their work. Why does an artist include a particular symbol in the work, and for what purpose? Because symbolism can be quite abstract, especially for young learners, understanding a symbol's context within history will take some of the mystery out of this often perplexing subject.

Symbolism is humankind s oldest form of visual communication Artists have incorporated symbols into their work since man first began to delve into the world of visual expression. Long before the advent of written language, man used symbols to convey what he did and did not understand of the world.

As early as 25,000 B.C., Stone Age artists carved female figures with swollen abdomens and breasts as symbols of life and fertility. Cave artists working in what is now France and Spain, whose work dates from 15,000-10,000 B.C., painted abstract symbols on cave walls along with representations of animals. Although archeologists don't know the meanings of these images, it's clear these prehistoric artists were incorporating symbols and symbolic content into their visual language. Evidence of prehistoric art that includes symbolic representations was not confined to present day Europe. Cave art has been found on the continents of North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia.

To this day, people are still using realistic and abstract symbols to represent myriad human thoughts and emotions. Graffiti artists, though often maligned for their defacement of public property, are contemporary examples of this early human need to create a symbol language of visual representation.

ANCIENT SYMBOLS The use of symbols in art can be found in nearly every culture and historical period. Hieroglyphics were embedded into every aspect of ancient Egyptian art: tombs, paintings, statuary and decorative arts. The ankh, a hieroglyphic pictograph representing life, holds its symbolic meaning to this day. The ancient Greek civilization is famous for its use of symbols in art. Greek gods and goddesses, such as Athena (goddess of war and wisdom), Hermes (god of merchants and messenger of Zeus) and Zeus (god of the sky and ruler of Olympus) appear throughout Greek art with their representative symbols: Athena with the owl and olive tree, Hermes with his winged boots, and Zeus with his thunderbolt.

The ancient Romans appropriated and renamed many of the Greek's mythological figures, yet in most cases, their representative symbols remained the same. For example, Dionysus, god of wine in Greek mythology, becomes Bacchus in Roman myth. The name changed, yet the symbolic grapes and vines that represent him in Greek art also appear in Roman art, providing a clear link between the two civilizations.

WESTERN/EUROPEAN SYMBOLS Medieval art relies heavily on symbols and iconography. The iconography found in early Christian art, or its set of symbolic forms, would include the crucifix, the apple, snakes, haloes, flowers, fruit, hearts, orbs and crowns--to list just a small handful of early Christian symbols. The large, circular rose windows characteristic of Gothic cathedrals were more than just a beautiful architectural element: their circular shape and light-emitting stained-glass represented the eye of God.

The Late-Gothic painter Jan van Eyck used a device called "disguised symbolism" in his Wedding Portrait (1434), also known as the Arnolfini Wedding. Every object in the room, such as the mirror, the little dog, the shoes or the single burning candle, holds symbolic meaning.

Renaissance artists in both Italy and Northern Europe borrowed symbolism from both the ancient world and the medieval period. Three works that will appear in this year's series illustrate this point. In Primavera (1478), by Sandro Botticelli, the Roman goddess Venus is surrounded by allegorical symbols of love, fertility and spring's renewal: Amor (the Roman version of Cupid) aims his arrow at the Three Graces, Flora strews flowers and a garden's trees hang heavy with fruit.

German artist Albrecht Durer packed many of his works with symbols that related to the subject. In Melancholia I (1514), Durer placed at least eight symbols of Melancholy in his master print, such as a sphere, a ruler and scales. According to popular belief of the time, people of Melancholic temperament were prone to possess intellectual and creative gifts and inclined to experience depression; here Melancholy, represented as a winged woman, sits among objects and tools that symbolize her endeavors.
Symbols appear in artistic periods and movements after the Renaissance as well, such as those found in Dutch still-life paintings of the Baroque period, the allegorical paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolist movement of the late 19th century. The works of such 20th century artists as Marc Chagall, Jasper Johns and Jim Dine often use symbols in or as its subject matter.

EASTERN SYMBOLS The use of symbols in art is not exclusive to Western artists. In a Korean scroll that will appear in this year's series, forest animals frolic across a pristine countryside, each being a symbol of immortality. Buddha sculptures are symbolic of peace and spiritual force.

In Indian art, each component of the dancing Shiva holds symbolic significance, including creation, destruction, grace and liberation. And, in Japanese Zen gardens, what appear to be serene arrangements of sand, rock and mounds of moss are actually symbols for water, mountains and islands. It would be a difficult hunt, indeed, to find a culture on the planet that has not at some time used the language of symbols in their works of art.
Arts & Activities information for teachers:

With this year's selection of art prints, students will travel to ancient Egypt and the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, the lost city of Pompeii, Medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy and Germany, 19th-century Korea and on through the latter part of 20th-century America. The works of Durer, van Eyck, Botticelli, Archimbaldo, Chagall and Gilbert Atencio (20th century Native American painter) will showcase how artists throughout history have utilized symbols as part of their personal iconography.

As you can see, Symbols in Art is a topic of great scope. This introduction barely scrapes the tip of the iceberg. We hope you enjoy learning about this remarkable body of knowledge alongside your students and discovering even more works of art rich in symbolic content.

USING THE ART PRINTS WITH YOUR ART STUDENTS The single most important thing a teacher can do with the prints is display them on the classroom wall and direct student attention to them. Students might be asked questions about the meanings of the images, with answers derived from the accompanying notes. After some preparatory thought, teachers can also encourage students to participate in discussions about the artworks and help them become more confident when defending their opinions in public.

To help achieve these goals, teachers are encouraged to laminate the reproductions to extend their life. This is especially important if students are to handle the prints. Other teachers may prefer to mat the prints for wall display and place photocopies of the notes beside them for students to read. Alternatively, the 10 monthly prints may be used to form a nucleus of images featuring symbols, to which students may add other prints and, in so doing, extend their knowledge and appreciation of the art topic.

Colleen Carroll is a freelance curriculum writer and the author of the 12-volume children's book series, "How Artists See" (Abbeville Kids).

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