If I paint a hammer and sickle people may think it is a representation of Communism, but for me it is only a hammer and sickle. I just want to reproduce the objects for what they are, not for what they mean.
In my earlier post on cycling, I focused on the motto Festina Lente, hurry slowly. I didn’t get into the emblems associated with that motto. There are two that Calvino calls out: A dolphin wrapped around an anchor, produced by Aldus Manutius near the start of the 16th century, and a crab and a butterfly, produced by Paolo Giovio early in the 16th century.
I find emblems very interesting with their incongruous and potent imagery–I even contemplated making a book of new ones. Today we think of emblems primarily in branding–corporate logos or country flags–and we also know them in chivalric terms–every great family has a shield, for example–but in the 16th century there seems to have been a real pursuit of emblems as a moral art (though this could also just be the proliferation of a long-standing tradition now made public by the invention of the printing press). They represented ideas and mottos that have value independent of brand (though Apple’s first logo was very emblematic, and, in todays visual culture, a real dud). They were essentially visual fables. The first formal book of emblems was published by Andrea Alciato in 1531, though it is worth noting that each emblem was accompanied by a poem.
In some ways we can think of a still life similarly to an emblem, and this seems to be what troubled Picasso. This might also be an underlying assumption in the imagist proclamation “no ideas but in things.” Calvino puts that idea differently when he says “in a narrative, any object is always magic.”
But can a thing ever just be a thing? The answer is likely to be no, because all things are interpreted through the lens of culture, but I wonder if that depends on how the thing is rendered and what objects are included in a composition. In the Alessi and Zeke’s sketch I did, the two objects go together naturally, and I rendered them as such. They seem to only convey coffee, with no assertion of value, no tension. Is this true or am I taking an oversimplified look at them? Is there any greater lesson or meaning in them?
Had I painted, say, a hammer and an iPhone together, the resulting incongruity would have taken on a variety of meanings. Would it be a Luddite statement, or a statement of design and build elegance? Would we assign a silly motto like “build through communication,” or something stronger and more sinister? It depends on how we view a hammer, as a sign of construction, or destruction. A nail beside it would show construction. A hole in the wall would show destruction.
So how about this? What do we take away, or are these just things?
Thanks for humoring me on this one. Back to original watercolors soon.