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  • Rutwik Deshpande

Symbolism In Art

The cardinal rule of storytelling is- show, not tell. So, instead of using words on a page or dialogue in a film- symbolism is a tool which is used to communicate things visually.

Symbolism refers to visual cues which are used to express various concepts. These symbols can take the form of animate and inanimate things. They range from objects to colours, or from food to animals. But across different communities, there are certain common symbols which evoke a similar feeling in us.

Let's try to understand the history of these symbols, what they are, and how we perceive them.

Symbolism dates back to the Mayan and Egyptian civilizations- where the former adopted the jaguar as a symbol of ferocity and valour, while the latter used the scrab beetle to symbolize transformation and resurrection. During the Renaissance period in the medieval times, when only a few people were literate- art movements relied heavily on symbols to convey deeper meaning to the masses. During this period, symbols were inspired from religion, nature and society.

Later in the 19th century, Symbolism itself emerged as an art movement. The movement made use of muted colours, dark angels and grotesque figures. Modern art movements such as Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism embraced symbology as well. All popular painters from Leonardo Da Vinci and Vincent Van Gogh to Frida Kahlo and Pablo Picasso have all used symbolism in their works to set the tone of the times, and to emphasize certain details in their paintings.

Even in the early days of the camera, photographers used to make their subjects hold books or swords to make them appear intelligent or brave respectively. The portrait of a young Napoleon Bonaparte- on a horse, or with his hand tucked inside his sleeve- comes to mind as well.

But Symbolism in Photography is not a one-way street. Instead of a photographer using symbols to create events, sometimes events in photos create powerful symbols which outlast not only the photographer, but the event itself.

In this context, there are multiple symbols used in Modern Photography. These include:

  • Colours

Different colours carry a different visual meaning. A colour like red represents love and anger, while one like yellow denotes joy and lightheartedness. Green stands for nature, while purple is often tied to royalty. Which colour you choose in your photos represents what kind of mood you want to set, or the effect that you want to create on your audience.

  • Flowers

Flowers definitely add beauty to the frame in your photos. But all flowers don't necessarily convey the same message. Floriography, popularly known as the language of flowers, refers to the meaning that has been ascribed to flowers since thousands of years. While a rose represents love, a lavender represents purity and healing. Similarly, while chrysanthemums stand for optimism, lilies are commonly associated with mourning. So, that's why you might see roses, daisies and orchids at weddings; and lilies and chrysanthemums at funerals.

  • Fruits and Flowers

Like flowers, fruits and vegetables also signal a passage of time, and convey different meanings. An apple has a biblical reputation of being the forbidden fruit, whereas a lemon represents difficulties or obstacles, as popularized by the phrase. In visual arts, pears act as a symbol of marital faith; whereas pumpkins are associated with Halloween as well as well-being.

  • Animals

Different animals add different energies to your pictures. Cats add a layer of mysteriousness and sharpness to your pictures, while dogs portray loyalty and friendship. On the other hand, horses represent victory and war, while birds signify freedom and liberation.

  • Objects

Having the presence of certain objects in your pictures establishes an unspoken connection between the photographer and the viewer. Having elements like clocks, gives the viewer a dimension of time and creates urgency. Instruments trigger your auditory senses, while pictures of food activate your olfactory senses. Mirrors are an object which creates a theme of self-reflection and doubt.

Over time, symbolism has been used very creatively in visual formats as well. In filmmaking for example, a lot of directors are known for giving the audience subtle clues about what is going to happen in the movie via the use of this technique.

In Francis Ford Copolla’s The Godfather for instance, whenever someone is going to die, we see an orange in the frame. Similarly, in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, before the death of any character, we see an ‘X’ in the frame.

In what was presumably the combination of a financial and artistic decision, every shot in the movie Fight Club, has a Starbucks cup in it. By doing this, David Fincher laid emphasis on the overarching point- about capitalism and corporations selling us stuff we don’t need- that the movie was trying to make.

All in all, symbolism plays an extremely important role in any form of visual art. It not only communicates the subtext to the viewer, but also sets the tone and affects your biases.

So, the next time you see an image look out for the symbolism that the artist has tried to incorporate; and if you’re an artist yourself- don’t miss out on using this amazing tool!


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