Anna Powell: Iconology and Art Nouveau

In today’s lecture, after reflecting on our previous semiotics lecture, we were introduced to our new topic “Iconology and Art Nouveau”. Last year we touched on Iconology in our lectures and workshops, therefore I already had a general idea of what it is. Iconology is a study of visual signs- like semiotics, however takes semiotics a step further. It does this by exploring the associations of the subject, possible ideas or representation. Initially it was originated in art, and many examples are painting based, however the Iconology principle can easily be used in everyday ways.

The lecture involved exploring Iconology by meaning, historical and social context and references and metaphors, where meaning is driven through association.

When analysing Iconographic image, the process should be split into two parts. Generally people do this anyway, but don’t realise they are doing so. The first stage of the analysis should involve you simply saying or thinking what you see in the image. Therefore think of the genre, content and whether it includes text or not.

The second stage of process is where you read in between the lines. Rather than just looking at the image as a whole, you analyse each part that makes up that each, and think of associations bind them together. It is useful to ask why, as this generates a range of ideas that may lead to you discovering the message or purpose behind the subject.

Anna then showed us an example how Iconological  associations can be used in contemporary life.

The introduction to american TV show Desperate Housewives is full of Iconography such as Adam and Eve. However, generally there is a theme of femininity that therefore relates to the show. One example that is used in the introduction is the 1484 painting “The Arnofini Wedding Portrait” by Jan Van Eyck. This is a perfect example of associations as many theorists and artists believe in different theories for this painting.

Using the analysis process, the first things you are aware of in the image is that there is a man and woman, presumed to be a couple, holding hands in their presumed home with their dog. Another key aspect is that the woman is pregnant. At the time this was painted, nothing like this had already been done. It was very innovative to portray man and woman indoors this way and in this detailed style. Looking into the painting further you will notice certain features: such as the reflection in the mirror, the text above, the shoes indicating they are bare foot, and the single lit candle light.

The mirror is supposedly used to signify purity and clarity. Also, if you zoom in you will notice the passion of Christ images around the frame. The single lit candle is odd considering the painting is in daylight. It supposedly signifies the presence of God. Above the painting, includes the artists signature as a message. This personalizes the painting, as well as the reflection in the mirror. Focusing on the man and woman, there is far more detail in the face of the man in comparison to the woman, but there positions in the painting had said to signify conventional gender roles. This is because the man is situated near the window whereas the the woman is further inside and closer to the bed- meaning a woman’s place is in the home.

To prove the multiple interpretations theorists have on the painting, Anna showed us this video.

We then moved onto to another Iconographic example. Anna showed us a Coca Cola advert of the traditional Santa Clause. When I say traditional I mean, it portrayed the stereotype red suit black boots old man that comes down our chimneys. However she then compares this with another image of Santa Claus in a forest wearing Green. The Santa Claus figure has changed drastically over the years, originating from Saint Nicholas. It is interesting to think how we have been brought up into this association of the Santa Claus figure to be wearing a red coat, jolly and yelling “Ho Ho Ho” as it is something that has been developed over time. Anna then showed us a child’s drawing of a cat, in comparison to the Hello Kitty Icon.  This is interesting because both images had the same association, but yet looked completely different, as well as looking nothing like an actual cat.

To summarize our exploration of Iconology, Anna explained to us Erwin Panosky’s “Three levels of Strata” which is an iconological meaning.

  1. Natural level of analysis (say what you see)
  2. Conventional (General theme)
  3. Intrinsic (in depth assumptions and analysis)

We were provided with the example of Jason Munn’s “Moma” Screen Prints. These involved an Eye icon with associations to art and photography due to the camera and paint being used.

We then moved onto looking at Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau was a movement in the visual arts popular from the early 1890s up to the First World War. It is viewed by some as the first self-conscious attempt to create a modern style. Its influence can be found in painting, sculpture, jewellery, metalwork, glass and ceramics.The drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, the architecture of Victor Horta and Paul Hankar and the poster designs of Alphonse Mucha are some of the most familiar examples of the Art Nouveau style. We noticed the similarities in this movement style, such as the feminism portrayal, use of black outlines, and floral and hand craft associations. Anna hoped that by viewing examples of Art Nouveau we would now be aware of Iconology and think more in depth about what we see.

I found this lecture quite interesting, more so with the Iconology rather than the Art Nouveau. I also struggled to find the relation between the two as we never analysed a Art Nouveau example from an iconological perspective. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the lecture and look forward to next week’s focusing on “Modern Life”.