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How to make Art with a Message

My artwork is influenced more by ideas than specific artists and in order to give you a better understanding of what its about I am going to talk about one of the major influences on my art which is the relationship between words and images or the visual and verbal.


Unfortunately, there is some necessary technical language. I will try to keep it to the minimum but it’s like a mechanic trying to explain the combustion engine to a monkey without using the word carborator et al.

First off,


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As figure 1 shows any sign, be it say the word “gun” or the sound of that word, as in vocalised speech, or an image of it, has both a signifier and a signified.

The signifier is any of the aforementioned, be it word, sound or image and the signified is the mental idea it produces in the recipient. The main difference however between words and images is that images are what are called iconic signs meaning that they have a resemblance to the object to which they refer. The gesture of the hand in the illustration has some degree of resemblance to an actual gun and therefore has a certain degree of iconicity, a highly detailed photograph much more so. In contrast, words have an arbitrary relationship to the object they represent. For example, any combination of letters or symbols could be used to refer to the object, as would be the case if we were speaking a foreign language. 

Another important distinction which applies equally to the visual as well as verbal is that between denotation and connotation

Denotation is what the sign actually refers to or its literal meaning. For example, if we were in dispute about meaning of a word we could look it up in a dictionary in order to know whether we were both talking about the same thing. In contrast, the connotations are the associations that the sign produces in us, which go beyond its literal meaning. For example, the word home denotes a building used by humans to provide shelter, security etc. You won’t find a dictionary definition which says it’s a nice cosy place where I like to relax in the evenings. These are the associations it has for you, unless you live with a student!.

For writers, this is important as the choice between, say, “smile” or “smirk” produce very different connotations. Equally so in the visual. In figure 2 the choice of typeface for Applemac effects the reading and gives off the wrong connotations, although whatever typeface is used it will still denote the same company.

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 In a famous book called "Mythologies" Roland Barthes argues that denotation and connotation combine to produce ideology in the form of myth.

A good visual example of this can be seen in his analysis of the French magazine "Paris Match".

In it he refers to the signifier as a “young black soldier in French uniform saluting (probably) the French flag” and the signified as a “purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness”. 

He goes on, however, to talk about what he refers to as a “3rd order of signification”, or in other words ideology perpetuated in the form of myth, which suggest to him that “ France is a great empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors …”

This is the preferred reading, as intended by the publishers, which RB is in no doubt aware of, but to the subjects of French colonial rule, they would probably be more inclined to give it an oppositional reading.

This brings us to an important point about connotations which is that the associations depend upon the point of view (or ideology) of the reader or viewer.


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As a further illustration, the image above shows a painting by Thomas Gainsborough titled “Mr and Mrs Andrews” which was reproduced in John Berger´s book “Ways of Seeing”.  In it, he takes a Marxist approach to an analysis of visual imagery and describes how Mr and Mrs Andrews are painted as “landowners” whose “proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expressions”.

For him, it is an image of status and wealth and the “complacent bourgeois” reminding the viewer of the socio-political conditions of its production where “the penalty for stealing a potato was a public whipping” and for poaching “deportation”. Such a reading would be considered as an aberration to a more traditional art historical approach considering such matters as extraneous to the “purely aesthetic” realm. Instead, he or she are more likely to concern themselves solely with the formal aspects of a painting such as the attention to detail, use of brush strokes, depiction of light and space, although perhaps throwing in some personal biographical information etc

*NOTE, A further point to consider ; Do you think the material conditions of artistic production should be taken into account when considering the meaning or value of artworks?

That being said, artists are likely to be careful about the connotations when selecting their subject matter. For example, 

Warhol, who was in awe with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and celebrity culture, reproduced, most famously perhaps, the image of Marilyn Monroe as her glamour and beauty mixed with what we know about her tragic life gave her the ultimate iconic Hollywood star status.

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In “Still Life with Fruit and Ham” the objects are chosen for their connotations of wealth and abundance, of luxury and opulence.

SO WHAT ARE THE CONNOTATIONS OF "The Song of Love" BY Georgio de Chirico?

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The image seems to defy interpretation. The combination and juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects are placed within an unfamiliar context along with unexpected changes of scale.  What was he trying to do?  One way to understand what´s going on would be to introduce the notion of “defamilarization” a term coined by the Russian formalist Victor Sholovsky.  To use a certain story, by way of illustration, after a long period of hospitalisation, De Chirico, on returning to the outside world, was struck by what he saw. Other than having a profound effect on him it´s difficult to know what exactly this experience was but one could say that his perception of the world had somehow become altered or enhanced and that he was seeing things with a fresh perspective.

I myself remember as a child visiting the cinema one afternoon and lost all track of time. When leaving I was expecting to see daylight but was mildly shocked but exhilarated to see that it was in fact night.  It´s fairly true to say that our senses become dulled when we become too familiar with the everyday world and its objects to the point where they may well become completely invisible to us.

De Chirico´s solution to the problem of how to represent this experience can be seen in The Song of Love. On breaking the habitual chain of signification the picture seems to occupy the denotative alone. It throws us back onto the world of objects which become utterly mysterious. The realm of the familiar becomes strange and unknowable. This focus on the things in themselves is perhaps why he called it metaphysical painting.

This image was a big influence on Surrealism and at the time quite shocking. I remember reading that one Surrealist on seeing this painting in a gallery window jumped off a fast moving bus to view it. To the modern viewer, it is no longer shocking. The method of defamiliarising the familiar became a stock in trade of the Surrealist movement and is still largely used up to the present day.



Of “Elective Affinities” he wrote: “One night, I woke up in a room in which a cage with a bird sleeping in it had been placed. A magnificent error caused me to see an egg in the cage, instead of the vanished bird. I then grasped a new and astonishing poetic secret, for the shock which I experienced had been provoked precisely by the affinity of two objects — the cage and the egg — to each other, whereas previously this shock had been caused by my bringing together two objects that were unrelated”.


In order to examine this image more closely let us first return to the relationship between words and images.

At a very basic level, language is created along two fundamental axes called the paradigmatic and syntagmatic.


As you can see in figure 3 words are combined along the horizontal (syntagmatic) axis. We have the definite article “the” followed by the subject “boy” then the verb “sat”. The order in which they go are normally constrained by the rules of English grammar, for example, we could not place an adjective such as “hot” between the article and verb without some rupture in communication. We could, however, substitute these words for others to create new sentences. For example, we could substitute “boy” for “girl” or indeed any other word within the paradigm of subject words such as girl, mother, aeroplane, horse etc.


The same thing applies to the visual, as in figure 4. Here we have a wardrobe which represents the paradigmatic relations, and a girl who, combining the clothes to create an outfit, represents the syntagmatic relations. The wardrobe consists of various paradigms ranging from footwear to tops to accessories and from the paradigm of tops she may select a t-shirt, blouse or sweater and so on. She cannot, however, substitute a pair of flip flops for a hat as flip flops are part of the paradigm of things that go on our feet.

In poetry, poets love to play around with the rules of language, for example, complete the following sentence “ I have measured out my life in….?. You may be initially tempted to complete the sentence by choosing a word from the paradigm of time expressions such as in days, weeks, minutes or pushing it a bit further precious moments. The completed sentence, however, is “….with coffee spoons” This is a line from a poem by T.S Eliot. Here the poet has selected a word from a completely different paradigm, the paradigm of household cutlery, and by doing so encourages us to map the associations of one paradigm, and in particular one object within that paradigm, onto the other. The result is a metaphor; the comparison of two different things based upon some shared similarity though I shall leave it to you to decide what that similarity may be.

Returning to the previous paintings we can see that “Still Life with Fruit and Ham” combines, syntagmatically, objects within the same or similar paradigm whereas “The Song of Love” combines objects from unrelated paradigms. The Magritte painting, however, works primarily through the paradigmatic relations substituting the bird for an egg. The substitution could be said to be – the product for the producer- or -the cause for the effect-, although it´s difficult to say which came first, the chicken or the egg.

What Magritte has created is a metonym (met-o-nim). This is a rhetorical figure in which a part or associated part is used to represent the whole. To give a verbal example a waitress may refer to a customer as “the ham sandwich”, for example, if she doesn’t know the customer’s name and wants another waitress to serve him. An associated part (the ham sandwich) represents the whole (the customer) and in this particular instance, it is the consumed representing the consumer.

Magritte could have, however, employed some other transformation.

He could have left the perch empty thus using the rhetorical operation of suppression to create an ellipsis. He could have had the birds' wings clutching the bars like a pair of human hands, a type of metaphor known as personification. Alternatively, he could have used repetition which is a figure of addition and so on.


All these figures and many others can be seen in the table, figure 5, and Magritte used a number of them throughout his artistic career. These devices have been used by many artists throughout history and across many disciplines from sculpture, paintings, collage to installations and more and have been co-opted by advertising due to their ability to influence public opinion and behaviour.

Let´s look at a few examples

J.M.W Turner´s “The Fighting Temeraire”


The use of a figurative trope may not be immediately apparent but will on closer inspection. The Temeraire was a heroic warship at the battle of Trafalgar and is being towed towards its final destination, the London dockyard, to be scrapped. There is a juxtaposition of the old and new. Both vessels are metonyms, the Temeraire standing in for the end of the old era and the steam tug the coming of the modern industrial age. Related to this theme the image is permeated by the metaphor of the setting sun. The metaphorical mapping that occurs here is that a lifetime is compared to a day and therefore darkness is death and light is life. In everyday language such a metaphor allows us to say something like “ he is in the twilight of his years”, as it is with the Temeraire. There is a dispute, however, as to whether the sun is setting or rising. It is possible that Turner was playing upon this ambiguity. As the image makes simultaneous references to both the old and new it is equally possible to interpret the sun as also representing the dawn of the modern age.

Maurizio Cattelan “La Nona Ora” (The Ninth Hour)


The pope lies on the floor after being hit by a meteorite. The title refers to the last words of christ on the cross “oh lord why has thou forsaken me”. A nice example of irony or more specifically situational irony: The disparity of intention and result; when the result of an action is contrary to the desired or expected effect. The head of the Catholic Church is struck down by an act of god.

Pablo Picasso "Baboon and Young"


Nice example of a visual metaphor where the head of a baboon has been substituted for the body of a toy Renault car based upon their structural similarities. Picasso made a number of similar sculptures playing with these analogous forms, for example;  a bull’s head and horns made from a bicycle seat and a pair of handlebars.

Darren Cullen “Pocket Money Loans” from Dismaland

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One of the posters that accompanied the fake shop uses a mixture of hyperbole (exaggeration) and paradox fused together for satirical effect. The hyperbole is loans for children at £5000APR and the paradox is in the text “ get out of debt with a loan”. Of course, a loan is debt, hence the paradox.

Rene Magritte "Personal Values"

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These small, everyday and mundane objects fill the entire room making them hyperboles because they are exaggerated in size. Suddenly, they are also no longer the everyday or mundane.

Rene Magritte "The Treachery of Images"

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A seeming paradox for some, if you fall into the trap. A painting of a pipe is not a pipe, the map is not the territory, don’t mistake the representation for the real thing. Yet how can we know reality without our representations of it, through books, films, newspapers, conversations, pictures, words, our minds…? ahh philosophy

John Heartfield “Mimicry” 

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Hitler masquerading as a socialist with the help of Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Created using a metaphor, where the role of the propagandist, Goebbels, is likened to an actor’s dresser who places a false beard, the actor’s prop, over Hitler’s face. Although absent from the picture Marx and therefore socialism are metonymically alluded to via the beard. The comparison between Marx and Hitler is here based upon an opposition; that A is NOT like B, that Hitler is not like Marx, that the propagandist’s job is about manipulating public perceptions and that Hitler, wearing a false beard, is using the ideas of socialism merely to gain power.

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