Monday, May 25, 2015

The map of art: interpreting symbols.

Have you ever seen something and wished later that you'd taken notes? That's where I am right now.

Earlier today, I saw an exhibit at the Denver Art Museum called "Joan Miró: Instinct and Imagination". Miro is sometimes called a Surrealist, but he himself refused labels, and anyway this show focused on his work in the last twenty or so years of his life. The works from this period are primarily abstract, although he never completely gave up realism in the way, say, Mondrian or Jackson Pollack did. Still, you can see the roots of abstract expressionism in his work -- as well as found art. They guy would go walking on the beach in Palma de Mallorca where he lived, pick up junk that had washed ashore, and make sculptures out of it. They're kind of whimsical and kind of troubling, all at once. (I wish I could show you some pictures so you could see what I mean, but alas, he hasn't been dead long enough for his work to be out of copyright.)

Anyway, one of the captions on the wall of the exhibit mentioned some of the symbols Miró often used: woman, bird, and stars. The caption also gave explanations for their meanings in his work. That's the part I wish I'd written down, because now I can't remember what they were. The stars are meant to convey imagination, I think; the birds, freedom, maybe? That would make sense, given that the guy escaped Nazi-occupied France only to end up under Franco's regime in Spain -- and that would go along with another of his favorite symbols, the ladder, which would seem to me to symbolize escape. But the purported symbolism of the woman escapes me. It wasn't the Divine Feminine, I can tell you that much.

Anyhow, interpreting symbols in art is always an arcane endeavor. If you're lucky, the artist is a voluble sort who has flat-out told some interviewer what it's supposed to mean. But more often, it's just guesswork. Sometimes historical context will give you a clue; sometimes you can read between the lines of letters or a journal. But it seems like the farther away you get from the artist's life and times, the more you're just guessing -- and the more you have to take the work at face value and see what reactions it evokes in you.

Literature is like that, too. Authors weave symbolism into their work, sometimes deliberately and sometimes subconsciously, and readers are left to figure out what it all means. And the farther you get from the author's life and times and work, the more you're on your own. We sometimes say that the books we write are created again by the reader, because the reader brings his or her own experiences and emotions to the work.

So maybe in the end, it doesn't matter what Miró meant by putting stars and women in his work. Maybe your guess really is as good as mine.

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A heartfelt thank-you to those of you who have already bought a copy of Dragon's Web. I'd like to say it's available everywhere by now -- but alas, owing to the fact that I uploaded everything in a hurry on my way out the door to the airport last week, the book is not yet available anywhere except Amazon and Smashwords. Because of all the snafus in getting it out to wider distribution, I'm going to extend the 99-cent introductory price for another couple of weeks -- to Sunday, June 14th. Hopefully that will give everybody enough time to pick up a copy. Apologies, and thanks as always for your support!
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