Signs, Symbols, Icons, and Indexes: How to Understand and Appreciate Art Analysis

Artwork: Pieter Claesz “Vintas with Skull, Violin, and Jewels.” A “Vintas” is a symbolic work of art showing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death. Best-known are vanitas still lifes, a common genre in Low countries of the 16th and 17th centuries; they have also been created at other times and in other media and genres.

The purpose of this article is to encourage the reader to further explore and uncover the hidden meaning found within works of art as well as in acts of staged violence in crime scene investigations.

“All art is about signs and symbols.”

Representational art is a symbol for the object, places, or people being represented.

Abstract art can be a symbol of an idea or feeling in the artist or viewer or it can be a symbol, idea, or feeling in the viewer. (Surrealism is often depicted in abstract form using abstract symbols often occurring in dream states).

There is a relatively new field of academic study called semiotics which is the study of signs. Psychoanalysts and the field of psychoanalysis are interested in studying signs is important to understanding language. Can you guess why?

Signs are basically everything. You have a visual depiction. You have street signs. You even have body language. It makes a difference whether your arms are closed and folded in front of the body or if they are extended out openly away from the body. Both representations in body language will be interpreted in very different ways.

Everything really works in art; we can look at particular symbols but also things like color and line and these too can be symbols or signs of something else.

The recognized founder of semiotics was Ferdinand de Saussure. He considered calling all these things; colors, lines, objects a “sign” rather than a symbol. He had a problem with calling these things a symbol. Everything we identify in a work of art is signs and signifiers and what they refer to is the signified.

For works of art that means that everything in the painting, sculpture, or print can be read as a sign, or signifier, or something else. So, in art, we analyze color, line, object and they may appear to us to be symbols or obvious signs.

In the psychology of color and line; warm colors signify happiness and downward curving lines are signifiers of sadness.

Sharp angular geometric lines when depicting human bodies might be an indication of violence and conflict whereas smooth curved lines of a female torso are more indictive of agreeableness and continuity. In terms of semiotic language compare the two different works of art below.

Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)
This is a simple sketch of “Mother and Child.” Artist unknown.

In the painting by Pablo Picasso, Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), we can interpret the lines of the breast as a pointed sharp object which we might interpret as being violent and intrusive even hostile. This is just the upper right portion of the painting. The full painting is, in fact, much larger with more women depicted in the composition. Now if we consider the sketch of the “Mother and Child,” in this drawing of the curve linear lines are smooth and cohesive, and where we might go on further to imagine that the breasts of the mother if the artist chose to depict them in this image, would be soft, round and rather robust. This image might be interpreted as signifying inclusive warmth and the nourishment needed for life, based on the way the lines are drawn in the sketch.

Vincent van Gogh. Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889)

In the color analysis of Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889), on the color wheel van Gogh chose colors that complement each other. His blue cap is set on top of an orange background and his green jacket is set against the red background. Here, the interpretation of the color scheme is contentment and simplicity and as being in the company of simple folks. And this could be verified by the letters he wrote to his brother indicating that things were becoming calmer in his life. The bandaged ear on the other hand is a symbol or sign as to how he is not so simple or normal.

So the color background in the art could be a signifier of what is really going on with the painting or what’s really going on inside the artist’s head. Line, color, composition, sense of texture, and motion everything can and will act as a signifier or a sign. We only fully understand the work when we have fully interpreted all the different signs when we carefully consider their relationship to one another and the context of the work itself.

Let’s look at some obvious signs, objects that are clearly depicted to be read as symbols. Then we can see how this relates to other non-object signifiers and what a semiotician would call an entire sign system. We are going to be analyzing two symbolic portraits. Both works are by Vincent van Gogh and they are “Van Gogh’s Chair” (1888) and “Gauguin’s Chair” (1888).

Vincent van Gogh’s Chair (1888)
Gauguin’s Chair (1888)

In order to accurately interpret art, it helps if you have a clear understanding of the context and the history of the artwork.

First, we are going to look at the context. Here we are going to look at the working relationship between van Gogh and Gauguin in 1888. Gaugin had actually moved in with van Gogh in a little house that he was renting after he had settled in Arles, France. For Gauguin, this was an opportunity to collaborate with another artist. Vincent had actually invited other artists to come and stay with him but Gauguin was the only artist that showed up. Van Gogh almost wanted to set up an artist’s colony there. But to be honest, Gauguin came because he had the opportunity to live there for free because both of them were accepting Vincent’s brother Theo’s generosity.

So, the context might include knowing a little bit further about each painter’s personality. However, the paintings of the two chairs are so obvious to their personalities, we can learn about them from analyzing the paintings.

Obviously, the chairs are symbols that represent the two different men; Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

Vincent van Gogh. Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat (1887).
Paul Gauguin’s Self-Portrait (1893).

Now here both symbolic portrait is depicted and symbolic self-portrait. So, what do these works of art tell us about each other? We are going to focus on the analysis of the two chairs.

First, look at the huge difference in the styles of the chairs. Who is the plain person and who is a lot fancier?

Van Gogh’s Chair — is obviously a lot plainer and simpler. It’s a straw kitchen chair. Simple yet functional with plain straight natural wooden legs. Probably made out of more common wood with a straight plain back support and interwoven straw seat. It’s made out of natural and probably more common materials that were easier to come by making it less expensive to purchase. There is nothing fancy about this chair. Also, there is a pipe and a packet of tobacco resting on the seat of the chair. The pipe is a symbol of calm. Something one does in repose and expresses an everyday feeling of home. At least for van Gogh.

Gauguin’s Chair — Paul Gauguin’s chair is obviously much fancier than van Gogh’s. It appears to be made of a finer wood. Its craftsmanship is more complex. The carving of the legs of the chair is not straight, but in fact, curved in more of a Queen Ann style fashion. It’s more cosmopolitan and more “glam.” Gauguin’s chair also has armrests which van Gogh’s chair is lacking. They too are carved in a curved and fancier fashion. The backing of the chair is carved in a much more stylish way also. Its seat is interwoven straw, similar to van Gogh’s chair except for the symbolic objects that rest on the seat of the chair. Gauguin has a lite candle and some books. Now, books are a sign of knowledge and intelligence. The lite candle is a sign of divine light and wisdom. These are signs of enlightenment and wisdom which Gauguin did pride himself on having. Symbolic objects give a layer of meaning and significance to these portraits.

What are some other signs and signifiers in these two paintings?

The Point of View — The point of view for both of these two paintings is given as if we are standing very close to the chairs, perhaps contemplating whether or not we should sit down. In the point of view of these two paintings, both chairs are presented facing in different directions. Gauguin’s faces to the left and van Gogh’s faces to the right.

Now, imagine you did want to sit on one of them. Which one would be the easiest to approach and sit down on?

The one that is most opening and welcoming is van Gogh’s chair. It has more seat space available with fewer bulky objects taking up space. So, if we wanted to sit down quickly, we could just grab van Gogh’s pipe and tobacco and take a seat.

However, this is not the case with Gauguin’s chair. Gauguin’s chair has arms and larger and bulkier objects to remove from the seat. Therefore, you would have to approach Gauguin’s chair much more cautiously. You’d have to move with much more respect and honor around the arms of the chair and then very carefully you would have to move the lite candle as well as the two books before actually sitting down. So, the personality that was Gauguin’s, required a much more careful and complex approach.

Both van Gogh and Gauguin were part of a movement in the late 19th century that was actually called Symbolism. And these types of artists were interested in using all the symbols they could and these visual signs to direct the viewer to other content in the work. So, it’s putting all these signs together and understanding their relationship to each other and to the whole of the piece that makes reading signs much more interesting than just looking at a couple of symbols.

How to understand art is actually learning how to identify signs.

The interpretation begins when we start looking at the relationship with them all, other signs and elements which include context, texture, point of view, etc.

Recognizing and understanding certain visual objects in the work that would serve what we would call symbols. Now, we might call them special representational signs. And these are complex even when we are looking at just one example. Here I’d like to bring up the staged murder of Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia murder and it will be something we will come back to in a little bit. For now, just know that there are different kinds of symbols. If the symbol meant something at the time that it was included in the work of art, it might not have the same meaning decades or centuries later.

Let’s look at representational signs, not just color or lines, they are also signs but representational signs that would be actual represented objects.

There are three (3) kinds of these representational signs in semiotics:

(1) Symbol — The signifier does not look anything like the signified. It’s totally arbitrary. Often this will become a convention so that you look at one of these totally arbitrary symbols and you know what it means but you’ve only learned its meaning over the course of time. An example might be a simple ring may of gold which will be interpreted as a wedding ring. So, it signifies the union of “marriage.” Even better, two interlocking gold rings would signify a marriage union or partnership of some kind. So we come to understand a gold ring as a convention but it really is only just a ring. Another example would be national flags — flag symbols have to be learned. Likewise, the historical crests of famous families would have objects depicted on them as well. So, these arbitrary symbols would also have to be learned as to what possible connections they may have with the signified.

(2) Icon — Signifier resembles the signified (e.g., a portrait or even a cartoon). Here an example of an icon would be in the artwork of Gedeon Baril, “Caricature of Giuseppe Verdi” in the 19th century. Another icon might be Andy Warhol's Marilyn which represented Hollywood culture and yet another American iconic symbol would be “Uncle Sam” which represents American Democracy.

(3) Index— Signifier is not arbitrary; rather it has a direct connection to signified. Remember I talked about Elizabeth Short and the Black Dahlia murder, this was the type of symbolism employed in Elizabeth Short’s denial, by her perpetrator, of her female identity and its association with her sexuality (female genitalia). It was symbolic of castration. It was a psychotic foreclosure on the part of the perpetrator in the violent expression of “No! Not that!”

Other examples of indexes would be a bullet hole that directly pointed to the bullet.

Another example of an index sign would be footprints which are classic index signs that someone has been there.

Smoke is another index sign of fire.

A lot of times you have actual “pointers.” Someone is looking at an index sign and will actually point for the viewer to make sure that the viewer understands the connection.

If you think “index” think “index finger” which is used to “point to something” you can easily make the connection between the index and how it points to the signified.

With absent index, and here we can think of the work of Julia Kristeva, is the simulacrum or absent presence which circles around the image’s surface. Julia Kristeva was, of course, talking about the relationship between mothers and daughters but in written works of psychoanalysis, but if we considered the bullet hole it might be the absent presence of the bullet.

At the heart of this philosophical debate is whether truth and presence are absolutely linked. In Phaedrus, Plato argues for the unmediated truth of speech over the mediation of writing. The unmediated truth of speech comes from the presence of the speaker, while the writing mediates this presence. Therefore, representations in the form of images or writing present presence through mediation. It is through a medium (such as art, literature, and poetry) that meaning is presented to the world.

“Marie Antoinette and Her Children” (1788) by artist Vig e-Lebrun.

In the artwork by Vig e-Lebrun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1788), there is an empty cradle next to Marie Antoinette in this painting, while the eldest child lifts the empty cradle’s curtain while pointing at it was an indexical sign that his mother had recently lost a child; Princess Sophie. This portrait was done as a public relations piece to depict Marie Antoinette, as not only a good queen, but also a good mother who had recently suffered a tragic loss.

William Holman Hunt. “The Awakening Conscience” (1853).

This painting was included in Bram Dijkstra’s “Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of feminine evil in the fin de siècle culture” which was a book written about the pervasive fear of female flesh and the will they exerted against their male counterparts. It was a Victorian-era painting that depicted a lesson was being learned. What was the lesson? That the woman in the painting was “living in sin.” The index sign is very easy to pick out if you are familiar with the relationship between signs. In this painting, it is the bird and the cat in the lower left-hand painting of the work. The cat is obviously preying on the bird and that is a sign that someone is preying on somebody but who, we are not sure. Or are we? This piece was done during a time when women felt they were being treated unfairly and were not given the same equality as men. A critic at the time this painting was presented said the most obvious sign was “the telltale newness of the furniture.” This was not “married couple” behavior at the time and most certainly the two people in the painting were clearly “living in sin.” So, here is where we need to learn a little about the Victorian era’s way of thinking because, today, this painting would be interpreted much differently.

There is a difference in the types of symbols used.

In Marie Antoinette’s painting, the index makes more and more sense as we get used to recognizing the index signs in art because they have a logical connection and they make sense to us.

“Vanitas with Books, Violin, and Skull” by Levin Rodriguez.

If we see a skull, what do we think of? Death. And that’s an index sign for us as Pieter Claesz and Levin Rodriguez both used skulls in their vintas or still life paintings. Remember a “vintas” is a symbolic work of art showing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death.

The icon is also not difficult because it looks like what it is signifying.

It’s the symbol and the arbitrary sign that is something totally unrelated that might cause us trepidation in our analysis.

With arbitrary signs we ask ourselves, how do we know this?

And the answer is, you might see them “sticking out” in the composition because they are arbitrary and they look like they don’t actually belong there so you might have to do more research as to why those symbols were included. So, if you’re looking at something that just doesn’t seem to fit in the composition because it seems odd or juxtaposition you might want to think about it further as being a symbol. After all, symbols are often represented in our dreams, and they don’t make much sense to us until we do further research and find out what their symbolic meaning is.

Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Here is an interesting exercise in art analysis that you can do yourself. Look at the painting and look for something that you think is unusual. There are several things. See what you can uncover before reading on further.

(1) Shoes in the lower-left corner of the painting and Giovanni is in stocking feet. This is a SIGN he is standing on “holy ground.” If you remember the story from the bible with Moses and the burning bush. Moses had to take off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground in the presence of God.

(2) Only one lite candle in the chandelier. This is a classic sign that you are in the presence of a holy presence. There are many paintings that depict light as being in the holy presence of divinity. One is Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul (1600–1601) and the other is Adoration of the Shepherds (1622) by Gerard von Honthorst. Both artists’ use of light to depict divine presence can be understood as a symbol of divinity.

(3) The portrait is taking place in the bedroom. The importance of this is the connection between marriage and procreation.

(4) The sculpting on the headboard of the bed is of St. Margaret the patron saint of midwives.

(5) The fruit on the windowsill is a symbol of fertility and is completely indexical sign. The fruit has seeds, seeds bear fruit, fruit equals sex.

(6) Giovanni’s Wife’s pregnancy is a sign of what’s to come or what they hope to do. It is showing their marriage as a holy covenant in the sacrament of the church and that they made this covenant on holy ground in the eyes of God.

Thus, the portrait is about being holy and expresses the commitment he has taken to his wife before the eyes of God.

Hieronymus Bosch. “Garden of Earthly Delights” (1500–1505).

It is a triptych in three panels. We ask ourselves, did the author of this painting want us not to be confused about the role of sexuality and the human proclivities of pleasure? Absolutely not. This work screams SEX! SEX! SEX! You could spend years analyzing this particular artwork. There is a lot going on here and I’m particularly confused by the image in the central panel of a person, naked and bent over, with another naked person alongside him or her sticking flowers in their derriere. What does that mean? Of course, this is a triptych that is supposed to depict acts of human evil and licentious behavior.

“All art is about signs and symbols.”

The Tools of Analysis

First, notice how the artist uses signs, symbols, and representational signs in a work to suggest meaning. This helps one to begin to formulate an interpretation.

Second, are there any elements particular to the seasons or the time of day?

Third, in a picture with people what are their objects, activities, and relationship? How are they connected?

Fourth, what time period is the artwork from? What meanings would the significant objects in the work have had at that particular time?

Fifth, are there any traditional symbols?

Sixth, are there objects that might be symbolic?

Seventh, always look for “signs” or “pointers” that link indirectly to the signified objects. In Elizabeth Short’s murder, her murder scene was staged near a dumpster and she had several suitors who called on her.

Eight, how are various signifiers; the symbols, the icons, the indexes related to style-based signs, such as line, color, light, point of view, etc., all of that?

Nine, together, how do they enhance your understanding?

Ten, ask yourself. How does the way the artist uses signs and symbols contribute to the overall meaning of the artwork?

On a final note, if we considered the staged murder scene of Elizabeth Short depicted below, what might we conclude using the above-referenced tools? We might need a little background information on Elizabeth Short’s lifestyle and the time period this murder took place.

Elizabeth Short’s body was severed into two pieces in a procedure known as a hemicorporectomy and her body was drained of all of its blood.

The procedure used on Short’s body was known as a hemicorporectomy. It is a medically induced disarticulation of the pelvis from the upper torso for the purpose of saving the life of the patient. In Creativity and Perversions, Chasseguet-Smirgel presents three Luciferian characters; Caligula, Doctor Moreau, and Hans Bellmer. It is Hans Bellmer, whose fascination with disarticulated doll parts, may provide clues to the inner workings of the mind of the perpetrator in the Black Dahlia murder.

“It is in Germany in 1933 that Hans Bellmer created ‘The Doll.’ Constantin Jelinski, writing on it, says: “It is a fetish, and idol” and calls its maker a ‘demiurge’: Disarticulated, placed in a doorway, its limbs scattered over a bed, or reduced to a pair of legs, set off with lace, The Doll, embodied fancy, seems as Olympia to escape the will of its demiurge’ (Les Dessins de Hans Bellmer, 1966).” (Chassaguet-Smirgel, 1984, pg. 20)

In the case of Elizabeth Short, her ‘demiurge’ is more accurately described as belonging to the Platonic schools of philosophy by definition. In Platonic philosophy, the demiurge is an artisan-like figure responsible for fashioning and maintaining the physical universe. Here, it is most likely a medical doctor or someone with surgical medical knowledge. Most definitely male.

“Jean Brun had the intuition that the Doll is a product whose aim is to dethrone the father and his (genital) begetting capacities (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1984, pg. 20).” Thereby, vanquishing “the father.” In this form of creative perversion, a creative solution to a perplexing problem, Elizabeth Short’s genital begetting capacity was denied and her sexuality dethroned from her facial identity and can be interpreted based on the severance between the genitalia and her facial identity. An act that screamed, “No! Not that!” Was she an embarrassment to her father? To one of her boyfriends maybe? She had many male callers. Could the perpetrator have been her father who, had only recently kicked her out of his home, and only lived three blocks away from her staged murder scene where her body was dumped? Or was it an older male she was dating who might have been enraged by her proclivity toward what may have been perceived as acts of promiscuity? Was Elizabeth Short an “idol of perversity?”

Other posts to consider:

Romance, the Novel, Psychoanalysis and Sexual Fantasy — Proclivities’ Principle Wisdom (wordpress.com)

Theaters of the Mind: The Psychic Theater and the Psychoanalytic Stage (Part II) — Proclivities’ Principle Wisdom (wordpress.com)

Theaters of the Mind: The Psychic Theater and the Psychoanalytic Stage (Part III) — Proclivities’ Principle Wisdom (wordpress.com)

Sources:

Absence/Presence. The Chicago School of Media Theory. https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/absence-presence/

Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine. (1984). Creativity and Perversion. London. Free Association Books.

Dijkstra, Bram. (1986) “Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of feminine evil in the fin de siècle culture. New York. Oxford University Press.

Walker, Michelle Boulous. (1998). Philosophy and the Maternal Body: Reading silence. New York. Routledge.

Additional Sources Providing Context and History on the Black Dahlia Murder:

https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/the-black-dahlia

https://vault.fbi.gov/Black%20Dahlia%20%28E%20Short%29%20/

https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2006/october/dahlia_102006

Black Dahlia Murder — 13 Horrifying Facts

https://theblackdahliars.weebly.com/investigation.html

Mother, Daughter, Student, Graduate, Lover of Books, Reader of Philosophy, Interested in Psychoanalysis, Criminology, Sexual Deviance, Social Justice&Law