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Symbolism in art

Recently I watched a programme called Decoding Turner in which a mechanical engineer and his wife advanced a theory that in Turner’s famous The Fighting Temeraire, on the prow of the vessel was concealed a picture of Napoleon.

The art historian Andrew Graham Dixon peered at the picture and thought there might be something to this – other art historians were less convinced.

My knowledge of this picture was more that, at best, Turner may only have witnessed the vessel go past him: others think he may not not have seen it at all.

It was painted in his familiar yellow hue.

Turner liked yellow so much that he was known by his fellow art students at the Royal Academy (he was admitted aged 14) as “Pass-the-mustard” Turner.

The programme did set me thinking about symbolism in art.

A cat is symbolic of sensuality (as in Manet’s Olympia); a dog, loyalty; an opened casket of jewels, promiscuity.

I am a huge admirer of Edward Hopper.

His attitude to anyone passing judgment on his pictures was “Make of them what you will”.

Thus, if I had ever met him, I would have advanced my theory with extreme caution.

Nobody painted the bleakness of humanity better as in Nighthawks but in that picture (of lonely diners in a night café) there are two metal objects affixed to the wall.

In most of his pictures as with three petrol tanks in an isolated garage there is in my mind a juxtaposition of immovable objects and rootless humans.

Thomas Gainsborough, as in Mr and Mrs Andrews, was another who liked to work symbolism into his work.

Gainsborough made his fame and fortune by society portraiture but he thought he was better than that and was a landscapist equal to John Constable. Study Mr and Mrs Andrews carefully – and in particular the haughty wife – and you can see contempt.

Another dual portrait which tells a story is that of Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark by David Hockney (not forgetting Percy the cat).

The couple are separated and soon would be, the shoeless Ossie Clark is turning his bare foot in the carpet.

My point is that the picture tells you everything you need to know without any symbolism.

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About Alice Mansfield

A graduate of the Slade, Alice has painted and written about art all her life. With her children now having now grown up and departed the nest, she recently took up sculpture. More Posts