What I find especially intriguing about symbols and the use of symbolism in artwork is that we as the viewer are able to interpret a wide variety of meanings based solely on what we bring to the table. The problem I discovered while attempting to select an image for analysis was that when one goes looking for “symbols” in artwork, we unfortunately create or fabricate symbols in the artwork that may or may not have been intended by the artist. With this being said, it is important to note that according to Helmer’s in her second chapter, “The Elements of Critical Viewing,” she discusses the idea that “symbols” can be virtually anything. The key is that we as the viewer must attach a more “complex, psychological system of meaning” to the symbol based on prior knowledge or based on the context in which the symbol is placed.
As mentioned, the challenge of completing this analysis was not the possibility of finding a piece of art with a symbol in it. I have explained that a symbol, really, is anything that we desire to hold meaning. When examining artwork; however, one must truly search for an artist’s clear use of iconography so that in a critical analysis, we are not assigning unintended meaning or pulling “something out of nothing,” so to speak, to the artwork. The piece I will be analyzing is called “Big Bird Over Moonrise” and the artist is Richard Zackia. To better understand the artist’s use of symbols, it is first necessary to briefly discuss the visual elements within the piece and further explain how this image is an illustration of Helmer’s concept of “picturing place.” Essentially, Helmer’s explains that picturing place is the way in which images invoke memory(s) in the viewer of the piece. These memories are not necessarily in direct relation to the piece itself (i.e. a picture of the Grand Canyon does not always invoke a memory of a visit to the Grand Canyon); however, we draw some sort of connection to the piece based on prior experience. Helmer further explains that artists, photographers, and writers intentionally create images to invoke specific memories related to specific schema. In so doing, artists often take what is called “artistic license” to ensure that the memory they plan to invoke is, in fact, invoked in the viewers.
This image, “Big Bird Over Moonrise,” appears to be a black and white photograph of a landscape with specific, and intentional existing and created images highlighted and added to create this sense of picturing place. The image features a small village at the base of mountains. Above the village, a breathtaking night skyline is illuminated by a full moon. The foreground of the image consists of the landscape typically found in arid, desert climates including sand and other ground-cover vegetation found in desert-areas. The village itself is in the middle-ground of the image and most notably, there is a church and cemetery featured at the edge of the village while the remainder of the village blends more seamlessly in to the background. What is most significant and prominent in the piece is a silhouette of a dove that looms high above the village and is placed in the night sky directly next to the moon. With the exception of the dove, the piece appears to be a natural photograph of landscape. However, the dove, in size perspective to the village, takes up relatively the same amount of space as the village itself does. Due to its size and relative placement within the image, the dove is most certainly a dominant component of the piece. The dominance of the dove can also be explained by the artist’s choice of color in the piece. Though in reality, the location of the photograph is in color, the artist chose to use a black, white, and grey scaling. There are select elements in the piece, including the dove, that are colored in white while the rest of the piece is in grayscale. It is arguable that the artist strategically colored specific elements white to express dominance that will ultimately convey a deeper meaning and create Helmer’s idea of picturing place via symbolism.
Now that I have given a broad, visual description of the piece, I can discuss my thoughts on the artist’s possible use of symbolism. What is interesting about this piece is that in addition to the dove, the only other elements that are highlighted in white are the crosses both on top of the church and within the cemetery. Given the use of black, which according to Helmer’s can suggest death, and the strategic use of white, which typically suggests life or hope, it is arguable that this piece makes a statement with religious meaning. In addition, both the image of a cross and the image of a dove denotes specific meanings, namely the dove as a symbol of hope or peace and the crosses as symbols of faith and hope. In this case, the crosses are used as grave markers and thus are meant to commemorate loved ones. However, the mere size and obvious importance of a white dove overlooking a more grim and dark village could be argued as representing God and further representing hope, specifically hope for life after death. Furthermore, as the crosses are meant to represent those who have died, it is possible that their significance in the piece indicates recognition of this hope, almost as if the dove is speaking to the crosses they are responding by illuminating a similar, white glow.
Though this analysis discusses the two obvious symbols used in the piece, it is quite possible that my interpretation had little to do with the artists’ intent. It is also important to note that typically, the dove represents peace and thus the dominance of the dove over-looking the town could suggest the idea that the location depicted in the image is a peaceful and calming place. Without a doubt, an image like this will ultimately invoke many interpretations; however, as explained previously, the use of symbols most often gives the viewer a basic sense of the artist’s intent in composing the piece. In conclusion, it is nearly impossible to say if my interpretation of the symbols is correct due to the versatile nature of symbols. However, with more research and possibly a discussion with the artist himself, an individual interested in analyzing this piece may be able to make some feasible interpretation of the relationship between the dove and the moon. Perhaps the significant size of the dove indicates that whatever the dove is meant to truly symbolize is more important that whatever the moon is meant to symbolize. Unlike, the dove, which is most typically the universal sign for peace and the religious association with the cross, the moon truly encompasses a plethora of meanings. Therefore, until I am able to fully research and complete all nine of Helmer’s analytical steps, it is challenging to determine a definitive analysis of the symbolism in this piece.