Posts Tagged ‘symbolism’

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The Rigors of Anna Akhmatova

June 11, 2011

Born into pre-revolutionary Russia, Anna Akhmatova lived through nearly every epoch of life within the Soviet Union. A poetess first published in her early teens, Akhmatova was well-known as a thinker and muse amongst the intelligentsia. However, while her ability was clear prior to the revolution, it was her role as witness that has made her legacy. Executions, imprisonment, abandonment, suicide, and slow death defined day-to-day living. Oppression of thought through spies and bugs were typical. And memory became the greatest tool of rebellion.

At one point in this history, for seventeen months Akhmatova waited outside a prison each day to bring food to her son, or to advocate for his release. Published in the St. Petersburg Journal in the New York Times is an account of the day she was recognized:

“One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

‘Can you describe this?’

And I said: ‘I can.’

“Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”

Central to this retelling is the ability of the poet to stand as a witness to the misuse of power and the horrors of reality.

Which leads to the question of how can poets be witnesses? The poetry throughout the ages has served different services. Whether to convey liturgical material, regional news, or to instruct, poetry has been a mode of communication steeped in tradition. In classical times, the poetic emphasis lay in form and craft—as seen in both epic works and smaller sonnets (Homer or Sapho). However, the closer one moves toward Modernism, the more the emphasis moves from transcendental romantic themes, toward symbolism—which argued that art should represent absolute truths which could only be described indirectly. Metaphor and the liberation of technique from tradition were both central to the Symbolism Manifesto.

Maturing into the beginning of the 20th century, Akhmatova came into the poetic world just as Symbolism was becoming popular in the western world. Even prior to the revolution, the divide between east and west was strong, and the poets of Russia headed in a different philosophical direction. Developed in 1910, Acmeism was a school of poetry, which focused on the Greek root for acme, “the best age of man.”

Acmeist poetry celebrated craft and rigorous form over the mysticism of imagery—permanence over transience. Choosing not to emigrate, Akhmatova was harshly censored and closely watched throughout the majority of her life. However, her classical diction and direct details revealed not only the factual authenticity, but represented the stark emotional grounds the country was traversing internally.

Here are two examples of her poetry:

Song of the Last Meeting

My heart was chilled and numb,

but my feet were light.

I fumbled the glove for my left hand

onto my right.

It seemed there were many steps,

I knew—there were only three.

Autumn, whispering in the maples,

kept urging: ‘Die with me!

I’m  cheated by joylessness,

changed by a destiny untrue.’

I answered: ‘My dear, my dear!

I too: I’ll die with you.’

The song of the last meeting.

I see that dark house again.

Only bedroom candles burning,

The yellow, indifferent, flame.

Shade

‘ What does a certain woman know

                               of the hour of her death?’  Mandelshtam

Tallest, most suave of us, why Memory,

forcing you to appear from the past, pass

down a train, swaying, to find me

clear profiled through the window-glass?

Angel or bird? How we debated!

The poet thought you translucent straw.

Through dark lashes, your eyes, Georgian,

looked out, with gentleness, on it all.

Shade, forgive. Blue skies, Flaubert,

insomnia, late-blooming lilac flower,

bring you, and the magnificence of the year,

nineteen-thirteen, to mind, and your

unclouded temperate afternoon, memory

difficult for me now—Oh, shade!

In these poems, we can clearly see how the emphasis in Acmeism of traditional form provides a container for the chaos that ensues within the lived world. Rhyme scheme, meter and verse counter the stress and harsh reality of the themes explored there in. Likewise, the use of realistic imagery creates a simple relationship with a reader. The identification of the audience with the author finds common ground in windows, homes, and flowers—possibly the only commonalities available between 21st century America and revolutionary Russia, they allow for some type of identification throughout time and cultural boundaries.

The rigors of Anna Akhmatova are confined to the strict structure of her poetry. The discipline that the Stalinist Soviet Union instituted on its people is paralleled in her craft. However, the themes and hidden memories bear witness to the tears that have fallen, vanished love, and loneliness of lost time.

anna

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The Symbolic Function of Color in the Art of Joan Miró

June 8, 2011

The symbolic vocabulary of color has many different languages. These languages allow the voyeur to understand their experience of art and the world within a variety of contexts. Color is a vocabulary of communication as well as a process of creating. It can be understood through techniques of degree, but also articulated as modes of emotion in the lexicon of psychology. The relationship between color and symbol is particularly strong in the work of Joan Miró.

The question of how to interpret art, literature, music, politics, and basically everything is one that has been postulated, revised, and argued for millennia. Strategies focusing on form, content, source, and context are all relevant and successful methods for extrapolating meaning from experience and creation. There is interpretation that happens on a personal level and works within the context of an individual’s unique world of perspective, and then there is interpretation that is formulated in an aesthetic vocabulary that interacts with critical conversations taking place within a larger community. Though different in their origin, both personal and critical processes begin from a point of engaged response. The piece of art must create a unique experience. How this experience is interpreted within a given context becomes the grand debate.

The discussion of art on a personal level is directly connected to the therapeutic arts and may often be a guided strategy. The inner world of the individual is projected onto an external object to reveal metaphors that are challenging the development or health of the psyche. Once externalized the collective symbology of the art may be researched, concretizing internal abstract concepts into a visual vocabulary. While this description is brief and reductionary, the process is intended to be organic and address both personal experiences and archetypal dynamics. Symbols contain both personal and collective meaning, or relevance.

In contrast, a critical or aesthetic discussion of art focuses on an understanding of that those participating in the conversation have an understanding of what has been said in the past, how it has been said, and why it was or is no longer relevant. Critical interpretation accesses jargon specific to the medium, within the realms of both technique and content. Symbolism that is found in archetypes, geometry, color, and numerology all play a role within formal interpretations. In his book, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary, Terry Bennett summarizes the principles of interpretation. These principles our listed below, however central to the action of interpretation is that the piece of art demands an interpretation and that feelings are the guide. Whether the feelings are understood as a collective or personal analytical process depends on the forum.

This relationship between feeling, interpretation, and symbolism is particularly visible in the art of Catalan artist Joan Miró. Born in 1893 Barcelona, Miró was a part of the surrealist and Spanish Civil War Parisian ex-patriot communities. However, while his work has often been interpreted as Surrealism, he resisted being defined as a Surrealist artist. His objective was to “assassinate art” or to break from the historical interpretation of what art is, or should be. Being labeled as a Surrealist would work would limit his ability to explore new territory, methods, and forms of expression.

While Miró resists categorical interpretation, throughout his work he asks questions. These questions take the form of color and technique and meditate on what the symbol has to say within a set amount of space. Specifically, Miró worked with strategies such as automatic drawing (where the hand is allowed to move freely as an extension of the unconscious), Surrealism (which philosophically strove to reveal authentic thought through juxtaposing unexpected symbols and forms), Expressionism (which applies emotional subjectivity to evoke moods or ideas), and Color Field Painting (that meditated on combinations, and or fields of color symbology). While each of these methods is accompanied and motivated by methods of critical thought, Miró’s resistance to one mode of exposition is consistent.

Which leads us to ask, just how does Miró want his body of art to be understood?

If we take away interpretation, what is left? Experience. What is the experience of viewing Miró’s art? Does this experience change? How can this experience remain active? How does one assassinate this historical concept of art? By striving to avoid classification, and by engaging the imagination.

Personnage EtoileFor example, what is the experience of viewing his 1978 painting “Personnage Etoile”? In English the title is translated as Star Person, or Star Character. On an abstract textured field of bright sky blue, minimalistic symbols work together and disjointedly to engage the imagination. Circle, star, curve, red, yellow, what is the message? Is the blue the color of the Madonna? Does it relate to Haitian Santeria, or is it inspired by the expansive Mediterranean beyond the walls of Miró’s studio? In his theory of Deconstruction, Derrida argues that the experience of deconstruction is as if, while following the inward curve of a fixed point toward a center, we suddenly find that the center has moved elsewhere. The spiral is destabilized and the interpretation is disoriented. Likewise, the experience of Miró’s “Personnage Etoile” provides just enough information to stimulate the process of interpretation, but the same stimulation resists conclusions and continues to evoke questions.

Through the interpretive resistance of Miró’s artwork we are better able to witness our own processes of interpretation for what they are, reflections and projections of who we are—internally and as a community. And what we find is that who we are is just as unresolved as the image that we meditate upon.

———————

Barrett’s Principles of Interpretation:

  • Artworks have “aboutness” and demand interpretation.
  • Interpretations are persuasive arguments.
  • Some interpretations are better than others.
  • Good interpretations of art tell about the critic.
  • Feelings are guides to interpretations.
  • There can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same work.
  • Interpretations are often based on a worldview.
  • Interpretations are not so much absolutely right, but more or less reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative.
  • Interpretations can be judged by coherence, correspondence, and inclusiveness.
  • An artwork is not necessarily about what the artist wanted it to be about.
  • A critic ought not to be the spokesperson for the artist.
  • Interpretations ought to present the work in its best rather than its weakest light.
  • The objects of interpretation are artworks, not artists.
  • All art is in part about the world in which it emerged.
  • All art is in part about other art.
  • No single interpretation is exhaustive of the meaning of an artwork.
  • The meanings of an artwork may be different from its significance to the viewer.
  • Interpretation is ultimately a communal endeavor, and the community is ultimately self-corrective.
  • Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and to continue on our own.

Barrett, T. (1994). Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company

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La Luz y El Campanero: Symbolism in 1925 Burgos, Spain

June 7, 2011

 “ In the fields with which we are concerned,

knowledge comes only in lightning flashes.

The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.”

[On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress]

Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project

The above photograph was taken from the bell tower in Burgos, Spain in 1925. This photo was included in a photo retrospective on Castilla Leon, published in the Spanish periodical El Pais, June 7, 2011 . In Spanish the bell tower is called el campenar and the bell-ringer is el campanero. Throughout Spain, bell towers are found in the central part of each town and city. While graphically striking, this photo also has strong symbolic meaning.

In the picture you see the inside of the bell tower. A man is actively ringing one of the bells and gazing into what is being illuminated beyond the interior walls of the tower. An additional bell makes up part of the window frame directly facing the photographer. Through this window the outline of the grand gothic cathedral of Burgos is clearly visible.

Traditionally, a tower is a symbol of hope and freedom. Throughout history, the tallest building within a community is also the most important. Originally, the church, or spiritual house, held this position. Then the government, or political power, strategically moved higher. Now, the economic skyscrapers reign from on high. One can easily imagine how hope and freedom has been executed and disillusioned by each institution. Ranging from existentialism, to corruption, and the sustainability challenges of consumerism that now define capitalism.

However, in this photograph, we find that the church is still the central tower within the community. Symbolically a tower represents high hopes and aspiration. It strives to connect the earthly with the heavens. The individual who is looking out from the tower prevails over the environment below with a sense of superiority. However, in this image, the environment within the tower is dirty and broken, the face of El Campanero is not turned downward, rather outward, suggesting an alternative reading. To hear a bell, which is certainly a signified by the picture, represents a warning, or a call to order. It can also be the beginning of something new, both literally and figuratively as a method of the unconscious to prepare for the future. Finally, the symbolism of seeing the outside of a church denotes sacredness and spiritual nourishment. The church is equated with the things you revere and your value system.

While the initial instinctual response to viewing this photograph is positive, understanding the symbolic relationships reinforces this impression. Inside the tower of hope and freedom and man rings the bells as a call of attention to the future. El Campanero does not look downward in superiority, rather his face is fully illuminated and looks outward, slightly smiling into the intensity of the light. The church in the background reinforces the overwhelming feeling of optimism. However, the hope that is being discovered in the sound, light, and squalor of the bell tower is directly juxtaposition with the distanced splendor of the church. In this image, the light that captivates the ringer of the bells asserts a greater authority.