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Why is symbolism such a large aspect in expressionism

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In this essay, I am going to focus on the key aspects that surround symbolism within the expressionist art. I will be looking at the contemporary two thousand twelve painting ‘The Parlor – Allegory of Magic, Quintessence, and Divine Mystery’ by Mark Ryden and comparing it to the beautiful post contemporary works of Hieronymus Bosch. The parlor focuses on the religious divide, the divide between life and death and also the mysteries of the world. These images document the transcendence of symbolism within the art community. Ryden himself notes in his book ‘The Gay Nineties: An Album of Reminiscent Drawings by R.V. Cutler’ that the piece is all about ones perceptive and how we look at it depends on our own views. It has been theorized that Ryden is responsible for his own genre in the art known as ‘pop surrealism’ this, as the name suggests fixates on the blurred lines between surreality based pieces such as Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ and James Rosenquist’s ‘F-111’.

Both artists surround their works with hidden themes and meanings that may not be apparent to the viewer at first glance. We find that Ryden adds depth to his Parlour by intricately placing specific symbolism between the backdrop and the foreground, such as the DNA wallpaper which reflects of life or the absence of life as seen in the skeletal magician in the left-hand corner. Whereas in Bosch’s Garden, the sexual symbolism is less specific and much more evident, as we are bombarded by images of nude men and women frolicking in their adult playland. Phallic pillars coast the horizon and lend a hand to the overall erotica filled foreground of the piece.

The idea of making everything so visible helps the viewer notice smaller details, as though you have to actually look for something else other than what Bosch is portraying. “Ryden’s vocabulary ranges from cryptic to cute, treading a fine line between nostalgic clich? and disturbing archetype” This defines Ryden’s work exactly, especially when looking at the Parlour. We find that the piece has an abundance of minute details which cause the viewer to concentrate on the imagery portrayed. The doll-like adolescent figures give an unnerving view into the 1890s as envisioned by Ryden. The pieces symbolism incorporates the figures into the fragility of life itself and how it can so easily end or change. The idea of adding death (pictured to the far left) and new life (in the form of the baby in the middle) into the painting, directly gives the pieces a perfect balance, which in turn adds to the symbolic aspect of the idea of change regardless of the decade it is based on. The all-seeing eye pictured in the middle of the podium could symbolize a number of things but I think it focuses all on the repetitive concept of government and the patriarchy, much like the classical concept of Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1964.

The idea that we are always being watched in life or even life is being recorded by a higher being, I feel like this as a statement in Ryden’s piece provokes a very twisted view on life in the 1890s, much like today we are constantly being viewed and judged. Looking also at the way the piece had been painted the term golden ratio seems to come into play as we are also being watched by the eye as a viewer as the eye is compelled to watch us from any angle. It is unsettling and therefore is transcendent as Ryden has obviously fixated on the eye in the hopes of causing this feeling towards the piece. The Parlor – Allegory of Magic, Quintessence, and Divine Mystery (#101)Oil on Canvas, 2012Painting Size: 60 x 96 inches; 152.4 x 243.8 carved Wood Frame: 98 x 120 inches; 248.9 x 304.8 cmSource: MarkRyden.com (The gay 90s – West)Noted in Rydens ‘the gay 90s’ sketch pictured below, The magician pictured in the left-hand corner holds a card that’s meant to symbolise the sensation of our own awareness. The images such as the sword, cup, wand, and Pentangle are the representation of the four elements. The top is known as the divine as put by Ryden in the original sketch and the below is the physical. Such small but prominent details play a huge part in Rydens work as it helps him tell a story through his pieces. The eye is classed as point zero, as it is perfectly centered. The term divine proportion could be used, as Ryden has split the eye perfectly into a total of four subsections. These corresponding panels focus on the feminine divine, the Mineral King, the transcendent divine and the celestial divine. These four sectors reflect perfect balance within life as each image complements each other. An example of this is the feminine divine, shown in the form of the young woman holding the spring of grain. Each stalk contains the seed to reproduce itself, meaning that there is always new life happening even after death, or in this case the fall of another seed. Another symbolic aspect is the use of body parts located on rods, a hand for touch, a mouth for speech, an eye for vision and so forth. These are simply a nod to the sensory world, and how it is apparent in every situation. Ryden ingeniously incorporates every single aspect of life and that of the unknown in this piece. Including the moving image of eternity, located in the center, below the eye.

However, Ryden believes ‘the function of it is more for people to look at and wonder what all the symbols mean’ rather than to give a specific meaning to each and every detail. It is as though, Ryden believes his audience is much more observant and open to his work than they might be if he gave an explanation for his symbolism. This, in turn, gives his pieces much more depth as we wonder what he may be thinking during the creative process. Symbolism, in short, is quintessential in expressionism as it makes us feel something that in other circumstances we may not be able to feel. Whether it is religious, political or gruesome, symbolism will always be apparent in a piece that focuses on a greater drive for change or power. Ryden’s Parlour symbolizes many great aspects of life and death in a very intricate way which not only helps him get a point across as an artist but also for the viewer to understand at a greater level. It is so important because without symbolism there would be no thought or feeling towards a piece. Especially one so apparent as Ryden’s ‘Parlour’. The key word being ‘Expression’ art could not be created without both aspects otherwise there would be no feeling in the entire movement. Symbolism is just that important in expressionism as it helps us feel a connection to the work. With most if not all expressionist, they all fight for a greater cause within their work, there is always a theme, a signal, a sign that must be fulfilled in their work.

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