Symbolism isn’t just about one thing meaning something else – it’s about everyday things – images, people, items – being used to represent ideas or stories.  It’s a very complex element of art.

What’s the job of an artist?

Make pretty pictures?
Create scenes of fantasy?

Record events from artists’ point of view?


chronicler of history – produced a series of eighty prints that he titled Los Caprichos depicting what he called “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.”

Saturn devouring his son

According to the traditional interpretation, it depicts the Greek myth of the Titan Cronus (in the title Romanised to Saturn), who, fearing that he would be overthrown by his children, ate each one upon their birth.
Various interpretations of the meaning of the picture have been offered: the conflict between youth and old age, time as the devourer of all things, the wrath of God and an allegory of the situation in Spain, where the fatherland consumed its own children in wars and revolution.

Audrey Flack
World War II

Silver dish: symbols of contemporary life.
Pastries: juxtaposed with starving prisoners to make people think, but actually raised guilt: we are eating when the prisoners did not. It is a contrast of those who have and those who have not.
The faces do not actual look like the photograph she used. Flack says there is something of herself in the painting.
Red drape surrounding the work: to look fiery.
Watch: a few minutes before 12, the final hour. also, to symbolize the healing power of time.
Blue chalice: the cup of sorrows.
Black and white prisoners: signifying time past, despair, memory.
Butterfly: liberation of the soul, and Flack also read that hundreds of butterflies took home in Auschwitz following the Holocaust
Candle: began “bleeding” as they were photographing the image as the wax melted onto the photograph
Rainbow border: all that is in the afterlife, outside.
Charred music: music of the spheres, melody flowing through time.
Pear: perhaps symbolizing loneliness and isolation.
Flack wanted “the ultimate beauty of the painting to surpass the subject matter” (Flack 81) and I believe she succeeded. The work shows the beauty of people coupled with the horror of war, but one isn’t held back by that horror; instead it emphasizes the innate beauty of humanity.

Francisco Goya, “Third of May 1808″ (1814)

Political Symbolism – Propaganda

Other symbols

Hieronymus Bosch loved to use all sorts of symbolism in his works.

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