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Gauguin's Chair, 1888

Gauguin's Chair, 1888
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Self-Portrait as an Artist, 1888

Self-Portrait as an Artist, 1888
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Signs of the times

A picture of an empty chair is more than simply an illustration of an unused piece of furniture. It is a poignant reminder of the person who used to sit on that chair, an image of something other than itself. Van Gogh knew about symbolism more than most.

Van Gogh was, however, not the first artist to recognise the power of symbolism. Pagans, for example, used the image of a decorated egg as a symbol of the renewal of spring or the rising sun. Eggs gave life and early civilisations believed that by decorating this symbol of life with more symbols of fertility and power their lives would be protected and enhanced.

The image was later adopted by Christians in the 13th century in the Easter egg, symbolising the resurrection – renewed life – of Christ.

Early symbols often revolve around other natural phenomena: animals, the ram is strength, for example; plants, vine for friendship and communion; and colours, white for purity and virginity.

Another powerful early symbol was the sun. Its fire embodying life on earth, this was interpreted in many symbols, such as the circle. From the Bronze Age, this represented the simple form of the sun and the complete cyclical universe. The swastika is based on a sun symbol, sometimes seen as closely related to the Maltese Cross.

In a different configuration, the star is a sun symbol, as is the triangle of air, fire and water or air, representing heavens, and earth in pagan times and the Holy Trinity in Christian traditions. The cross, in its simplest form, was seen as a life symbol, becoming merged in Christian tradition with Christ's crucifixion and the resurrection of the son of God.

Sending a message

All arts draw on symbolism to send a message to the reader, viewer or listener. Renaissance artist Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (1488-1576) created one of the most powerful, symbolic images in his Venus of Urbino – reclining erotically surrounded by grapes and a dog. However, there is still no agreement about what they mean.

Van Gogh was not the only Dutch artist to recognise the power of the symbol. Preparations for a Feast, by Antwerp artist Pieter Aertsen (1507-1575) contains a powerful religious message. It contrasts a sumptuous feast of food in the foreground, with a background table laid simply with bread and wine. The latter alludes to the Last Supper, eternal and spiritual, unlike the transient pleasures of the world.

Bedroom in Arles, 1888

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Bedroom in Arles, 1888
Oil on canvas, 72 x 90cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

click to enlarge

Some symbolism may no longer be familiar to a modern eye. A maid looking over a woman pianist's shoulder in The Music Lesson by Dutchman Jacob Ochtervelt (1634-1682), suggests the musician will become a maid to her future husband. A dog looking up from the floor in the same picture symbolises her future marital fidelity.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, a whole movement in literature and the visual arts grew up around symbolism, drawing on religious mysticism, particularly the erotic and decadent, to develop art instead of depiction. Its proponents, such as Gustave Moreau and Gustav Klimt emphasised the artist's subjective view rather than the objective.

More recently there could be few more potent symbolic works of art than Pablo Picasso's (1881-1973) harrowing Guernica (1937), painted in the wake of the Nazi-backed Fascist bombing of the town of that name during the Spanish Civil War. It shows contorted and crushed people and animals. To quote the artist: 'The bull is … brutality and darkness … the horse represents the people … the Guernica mural is symbolic … allegoric.'

Mind games

Why should symbols be so powerful? Symbols are important in our understanding of the mind, as theorised by psychoanalytical pioneers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Dreams and actions can hint at deeply felt concerns. The reverse is also true, as seen by Vienna-born art historian Ernst Gombrich, who died in 2001. He pinpointed the interplay of the mind and art in his seminal book, Art and Illusion:

'We can remain in control while we half-surrender to counterfeit coins, to symbols and substitutes. Our twin nature, poised between animality and rationality, finds expression in that twin world of symbolism with its willing suspension of disbelief.'

While external behaviour can be representative of our internal feelings, external stimuli can arouse unconscious, internal emotions. We recognise faces readily, because we are biologically predisposed to recognise them for our survival – to recognise friend and foe. The face becomes symbolic to us because it represents what we know about that person. Such is the power of these predispositions, that our minds will play tricks. Later in the same book, Gombrich adds:

'To our emotion, a window can be an eye and a jug can have a mouth; it is reason which insists on the difference between the narrower class of the real and the wider class of the metaphorical, the barrier between image and reality.'

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