When looking at artwork; our minds start searching for hidden meaning within the visual aesthetic and begin to interpret the work based on previous knowledge, ideas and experiences. Art provokes your mind to think deeper and connect what is seen with what has been previously experienced. It is sometimes shocking to realize that looking at one random artwork is all it takes for these experiences to surface back.

Art is about feelings and emotions. Artists communicate their thoughts through their work, then the viewers experience what they cannot express by the means of creation through the artists’ artwork.

Wolfgang Lettl, Der Aufschrei, Oil on Canvas, 82x120cm, 1989 (www.lettl.de)

This Oil on Canvas painting entitled Der Aufschrei (The Outcry) by the German artist Wolfgang Lettl from the year 1989 portrays a clay male figure in terrible pain that is reaching out his arms towards the dark and frightening sky.

The figure is hollow with a cage on his chest. This cage suggests the white bird’s escape, breaking free from the cage to fly away and leave the man alone in his collapsing body. The figure is seen on a waterfront in the middle ground. Behind him several boats are seen on the water’s surface, with one person on each boat, they all seem weak and feeble,  each with one arm extended to the water as if searching for something. The male figure is a depiction of Prometheus a Titan in Greek mythology who stole fire from heaven and delivered it to mortal kind hidden inside a fennel-stalk. This enraged Zeus, and lead to Prometheus’s arrest. In an act of revenge, Zeus then ”set an eagle to feed on Prometheus’ ever-regenerating liver or heart” (Theoi Project).

So in this case, instead of having a white bird symbolise freedom and hope, the artist borrowed a story from mythology to portray the exact opposite through the eagle that is sent to torture Prometheus.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, Oil on Canvas, 24x33cm, 1931 (www.dalipaintings.com)

One of the art movements which believed in the power of the unconscious mind to produce creative and imaginative artworks is Surrealism; it was inspired by Freud’s psychoanalysis theory and was founded by André Breton in the 20th century “to liberate thought, language, and human experience from the oppressive boundaries of rationalism.” (artsy.net, ‘How the surrealist movement shaped history).

Some major artists from the Surrealist movement include: Salvador Dali, René Magritte, and Frida Kahlo. Surrealist artworks are usually disturbing and extremely symbolic. Surrealism motivates the imagination to come up with different analogies; these analogies are influenced by the viewer’s own point of view. It is almost impossible to see things as they actually are; our perception of them is affected by our own ideas, beliefs and experiences, that is why people interpret the same artwork differently. Images communicate directly with the subconscious mind; which is where memories, emotions, and sensations are stored. So when art is perceived visually, the stimulus causes an emotional effect because it connects to the subconscious mind.

Picture of Edmund Husserl taken in the 1910’s, a German philosopher, founder of Phenomenology, 1859-1938

Phenomenology is a disciplinary field in philosophy or a movement in the history of philosophy that studies the appearances of things and the meaning of them in our experiences. “According to classical Husserlian (Edmund Husserl) phenomenology, our experience is directed toward—represents or “intends”—things only through particular concepts, thoughts, ideas, images, etc. These make up the meaning or content of a given experience, and are distinct from the things they present or mean.” (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy). So, if we see symbols in visual artworks which we don’t have a direct understanding of, we interpret or perceive them based on familiar and often encountered or experienced events or ideas. How we perceive artworks and why we appreciate them has a lot more meaning than recognizing their aesthetic value. Try to be aware of the way you analyze paintings to know exactly how they affect you and what memories they bring back.

Finally, analyzing and interpreting artwork helps viewers understand themselves better. Tracing back thoughts and ideas as well as the understandings of different concepts and notions, and how much  of past experiences has affected the interpretation is always an interesting matter to look into. Here are some artworks that are open to various interpretations, depending on the viewer. Discuss with your friends your family possible explanations and perceptions as well as the reason behind them, get to know yourself and the people around you.

Frida Kahlo, The Flower of Life, Oil on Masonite, 198x290cm (without frame), 1943 (theartstack.com)
Joan Miró, The Harlequin’s Carnival, Oil on Canvas, 66x93cm, 1924/25(en.wikipedia.org)
Rene Magritte, The Lovers II, Oil on Canvas, 54x73cm, 1928 (www.renemagritte.org)

All images courtesy indicated in captions.


Nuha Zalloum
Nuha Zalloum

I am a student at the University of Jordan majoring in English and German language. I am interested in all forms of art and am an amateur photographer.

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