Category Archives: Week 4

Hello, Mucha …

” The term ‘sign’ includes every picture, diagram, natural cry, pointing finger, wink, knot in one’s handkerchief, memory, dream, fancy, concept, indication, token, symptom, letter, numeral, word, sentence, chapter, book, library, and in short whatever, be it in the physical universe, be it in the world of thought, that, whether embodying an idea of any kind (and permit  us throughout to use this term to cover purpose and feelings), or being connected with some existing object, or referring to future events through a general rule, causes something else, its interpreting sign, to be determined to a corresponding relation to the same idea, existing thing, or law” — C.S. Peirce


Time flies and lead me back to last year Thanksgiving holiday, upon that time I had the opportunity to spent half a day to go through Mucha’s art pieces and appreciate Mucha’s extraordianry talent “in person”. Alphonse Mucha, the famous Czech Art Nouveau painter and decorative artist who produced many paintings, illustrations, advertisements, interior design, from the giant piece to the tiny stamps, everywhere in Prague I can found the unique Mucha style and taste.  “Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign” (Eco 1976, 7) Through our reading from this week, semiotics appear closer to me and not only just as an academic discipline, each sign can speak, deliver the messages and to evoke the memory even euphotic value (Barches) Today, I want to pick one of my favorite one from Mucha’s Museum in Prague, called ” Zodiac”


When we thinking about the meaning of sign, it’s maybe comes out many different interpretation. Because the sign is what we produce and individual understanding, the sign is concrete and stable, even it’s international language without any barriers. Looking at the Zodiac lithography from Mucha, the stand out in the picture is the woman with her sophisticated jewelry and the dramatic hair style. Female figure like that is the sign of Mucha and they are very common themes of his artworks. Then we continue to read this painting, there are another identifiable object which is behind the woman’s head is an almost halo-like effect that displays the twelve signs of Zodiac. The linguistic message from this painting is Zodiac? or more in depth? Chandler mentioned from his book “A linguistic sign is not link between a thing and a name, but between a concept (signified) and a sound pattern (signifier)” it’s absolutely not real sound, in here we can explaining by the way we feel or sentimental sense through art piece, it’s  evoking the psycological  sympathy. Looking at the painting, when I recognized they have each zodiac symbol with the detailed paint, the first thing I start is looking for my zodiac which is Libera is in a very middle part. That moment  is what I find the connection between me and Mucha’s painting, and the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified (Chandler, 36) Establishing a bridge to make each icon or sign to empower connect with any individual.

Since Zodiac is also symbolized the astrological calendar, the chemical in here is
the history and mystery indicate the variety layers from this painting. The rest of the work is a typical Art Nouveau (new art) design that is a mixture of elegant lines, flowers, and prague_praha_2014_holmstad_st-_vitus_cathedral_katedral_alfsons_alphonse_mucha_jugend_art_nouveau_window_glass_glas_jugend_flottplants a
well as a highly decorative borders. This is another sign and language from Mucha’s work which is fancy
frame or borders, it is a unique Mucham’style exemplifying a cluster of concepts, cultural meaning, and symbolic association. ( Irvine, 9) Art Nouveau means the total art style including the architecture, interior design, furniture, jewelry. That’s why at the beginning I mentioned I can see Mucha’s art everywhere in Prague, because he was participated many cathedral building decoration and government building interior design projects to dedicated his art experience back to his beloved hometown.

Style Mucha is a notable sign in Czech, and established himself as the pre-eminent exponent French Art Nouveau. Mocha’s work is not just labeled as “high art” because he worked in a variety of media and easy accessible to wide audience. He believes everything could be a work of art, from stamp, wallpaper to furniture to wardrobe to the iconic promotional posters around the entire country. This a “prototype” work, the welmunicipal_house_praguel-known forms of expression or representation as embodying to appear and atrract the real audiences. Therefore mentioned Mucha-art is like the nationalist character,because Mucha spent the half of his career focused on the Art Nouveau posters to celebrate the history and mores of Czech culture, he stirred by a pride in his country and dedication with his own belief. “I was happy to be involved in an art for the people and not for private drawing rooms. It was inexpensive, accessible to the general public, and it found a home in poor families as well as in more affluent circles.  By  Alphonse Mucha “


  1. Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.
  2. Irvine, Martin,  Introduction to Visual and Pictorial Semiotics: De-Blackboxing Meaning-Making in Art and Visual Media, Communication, Culture & Technology ProgramGeorgetown University, 2017.
  3. Mucha Foundation,
  4. Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image.” In Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, 32–51. New York: Hill and Wang, 1988.
  5. All images locate from Mucha Foundation and Wikipedia

Symbolic Meanings: A Semiotic Analysis of Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue

By: Jordan Levy


Piet Mondrian, renowned for his primary-colored geometric compositions, is credited with co-founding the De Stijl art movement in the Netherlands in 1917; De Stijl is the Dutch translation for “the style,” giving the minimalist style an extremely literal moniker. However, despite the literal translation of the movement as a whole, Mondrian’s works within the style are anything but literal. Composed of primary colored squares and rectangles broken up by varying thicknesses of black lines on white canvas, Mondrian’s paintings, such as Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1935/42) do not literally represent any single meaning. It is up to the interpretation of the viewer and their knowledge of the De Stijl aesthetic to utilize semiotic principles to both uncover and assign meaning to seemingly convoluted works.

Because Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue bears no pictorial likeness to real-world images, its interpretation relies on prescribed viewer knowledge and meaning systems. By considering the painting’s creating within the De Stijl movement (which suggests was created as a reaction to the “decorative excess” of the Art Deco movement), viewers can understand the symbolic nature of this painting’s simplicity to represent “a universal language appropriate to the modern era” ( The “visual language consisting of precisely rendered geometric forms” could possibly symbolize Mondrian’s “search for the universal, as the individual was losing its significance” ( In this way, Mondrian’s painting is symbolic in nature, failing to literally resemble the signified: the concept of a universal language of precise geometry (Chandler).

Continuing to utilize principles of semiotics to assign meaning to a visual work, viewers can take into account the non-descriptive titles to many of Mondrian’s paintings. Each of Mondrian’s geometric paintings share certain characteristics including similar color schemes (primary and neutral colors), aesthetic design (geometric precision), and titles (often some combination of the word ‘composition’ paired with the painting’s primary colors). In my opinion, by naming his works some variation of ‘composition with…’ instead of a more specific title of what his work stands for, Mondrian’s style of painting remains symbolic in nature, where the signifier (the painting itself) does not resemble what is signified (the concept of simple universality or a universal language/human experience) (Chandler).  Although the study of semiotics can be utilized to study sign systems and meaning processes (Irvine), Mondrian’s painting is less about the sign and more about the hidden symbolic meaning.

In The Grammar of Meaning Systems, Irvine suggest that the structures of meaning are socially and culturally encoded. This holds true to the meaning of Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue as its meaning lies in the social relevance of the De Stijl movement and its deeper universal significance. When discussing how Mondrian’s painting serves as a physical interface to its system of meaning, viewers need to consider how the geometric simplicity of the painting reflects on the intended themes of abstraction, simplicity, and universality. Perhaps the visual simplicity is the key to universally uniting people of uncommon backgrounds? Is Mondrian trying to suggest that abstract simplicity is a symbolic metaphor for a visual language that everyone can understand and agree to? In the early 1900’s when this painting was created, perhaps Mondrian and other De Stijl artists eliminated the excess decoration of the Art Deco movement in hopes to come to a consensus for a visually pleasing aesthetic that all people could appreciate.

In addition, perhaps the thick, black vertical and horizontal lines featured in Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue suggest a visual metaphor for the connecting lines bridging the gaps between different groups of people. After all, the original goal of De Stijl artwork was to create a utopian vision of art with its “transformative potential” as a means of “social and spiritual redemption” ( Today, this utopian vision has since been abandoned as evident by the demise of the De Stijl movement in the early 1930’s. Is the end of Mondrian’s movement also symbolic in the sense that the symbolism of his paintings failed to unite people?


Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: the basics. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2002.

Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue, Piet Mondrian, 1935-1942

“De Stijl.” The Art Story: Modern Art Insight,

Irvine, Martin. The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics. 2017.

The Hong Bowl – Yingxin Huang









The Hongs Bowl, made in 18th century (1785-1795), China, porcelain

The first time I saw this punchbowl was during my field trip to the Lyme House, a 14th century aristocratic manor located in Cheshire of UK, and it was also the scenery of Mr. Darcy’s house in the movie Pride and Prejudice (BBC’s version of 1995). On the top floor of the Lyme House, there was a room called “Long Gallery”, which used to be a ball room but currently as a museum opening to the public. Several delicately carved oak cupboard cabinets were properly displayed, together with series of porcelain bowls, cups and plates, almost all of which were from China and Japan.

Among those decorations, I was attracted by a porcelain bowl called “The Hongs Bowl” produced in China during the 18th century. Wrapped around the bowl were images capturing life in Chinese trading warehouses. In Chandler’s words, “a symbol is ‘a sign which refers to the object that it denotes by virtue of a law, usually an association of general ideas, which operates to cause the symbol to be interpreted as referring to that object’” (Chandler, 28); “‘It ‘is constituted a sign merely or mainly by the fact that it is used and understood as such’” (Chandler, 28). This punchbowl struck me so much in that I realized the scenery of the setting in this image, which I regarded as a conventional and habitual symbol, for example, I could see the warehouse, where the officers and merchants were talking and coolies were carrying merchandises as well as the national flags were waving in the wind. The warehouses, national flags, officers and merchants, and coolies, all of which depicted a trade scenery – to me, it was all of the symbolic codes in my knowledge that made me notice this work. This also reminded me of another concept, the “cultural encyclopedia”, “The conceptual model of an encyclopedia entails describing multiple overlapping and intersecting contexts (historical, social, political, ideological) in conceptual structures that form networks of meaning beyond a dictionary list” (Irvine, 41); “the encyclopedia is a useful description for how we relate interpretants (at many levels) to symbolic information to generate meanings” (Irvine, 42); “Our learned codes for associating signs and symbols with their cultural meanings are a function of this macro-cultural Encyclopedia” (Irvine, 42). I’m totally into the description of “macro-cultural encyclopedia”, since I’m from China and have the knowledge background of Chinese ancient culture, and that’s the reason why I echoed with those symbolic information (punchbowl, the warehouse, merchants and etc.) and consciously referred to the cultural meanings behind this art work. For instance, I would describe and introduce this art work to others that, “in this scenery, the warehouses were so crowded together that it can be an indication of a prosperous and developing trading in Southern China during the 17th and 18th century; it seems to be an area of the concessions where merchants from various countries gathered and dealt with commercial issues, as the national flags were all around the warehouses”. Here, you can see my narrative is based upon my knowledge background and that again, the cultural encyclopedia enables me to reflect the cultural meanings behind that symbolic information.


The Hongs Bowl, made in 18th century (1785-1795), China, porcelain


As I was wandering around the long gallery, a question came up to me: why was it preserved in the Lyme House? When I thought of this question, I suddenly realized that another interesting explanation in Chandler’s work was meaningful, “Signs cannot be classified in terms of the three modes without reference to the purposes of their users within particular contexts” (Chandler, 34).

The Hongs Bowl in the Lyme House were much the same as the case inferred in Chandler’s work – the Rolls-Royce, therefore, the Hongs Bowl can also be regarded as an index of wealth because one must be very wealthy to own one. The upper class manor masters, who were in possession of the properties and estates in the countryside, were in great demand of fine decorative objects to fulfill their luxurious country houses. The oriental origin ceramic objects by long-time transportation from the Far East should be rare, and they were a special and fantastic option for the housing decoration for those aristocracies. In the long gallery, those porcelain decorations were mostly bowls and plates, however, the masters would have displayed them in the oak cabinet, rather than use them in daily life.

Except for analysis with the theories and principles I learned in this week’s reading, I want to tell more about this art work since I was so impressed by it the first time I saw it the UK. Honestly, it was not the only time I saw such punchbowls, as the increasingly popularity of Chinese culture among the European aristocracies as well as the trade traditions with foreign merchants, large amounts of the hong bowls were transported to the western, and finally displayed in different museums nowadays. One of them was exhibited in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.



  1. Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.
  2. Irvine, Martin,  Introduction to Visual and Pictorial Semiotics: De-Blackboxing Meaning-Making in Art and Visual Media, Communication, Culture & Technology ProgramGeorgetown University, 2017.
  3. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History:

Lin – Week 4 Discussion Post



Melchers, Gari (American, 1860 – 1932), Penelope, 1910, oil on canvas

During our first trip to the National Gallery of Art, I saw a lovely painting which portrays a moment of a young lady and her maid in a cozy room. When I first entered the gallery room, I was immediately attracted by this painting.

This painting is painted by Gari Melchers, who was one of the leading American proponents of naturalism. Actually, when I first looked at this painting, I thought that it is a French painter. Maybe it is the style, the color choice, or the sunlight that has misled me. However, what I have interpreted was not completely wrong. As one introduction article has mentioned, Melchers “fell under the spell of the French Naturalist painters” (Garimelchers website), when he was still a student. One of his favorites was Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848 – 1884).  Lepage painted contemporary country life in open-air light and “combined vigorous brushwork and brilliant color with an exacting eye for place and personality” (Garimelchers website). This is what I have felt from Melchers’ Penelope. As mentioned by Dr. Irvine, signs or symbols convey meanings for “we map or correlate something physically perceptible to intelligible and cognitive responses” (Irvine, 2). It is interesting that the signs I have seen from Melchers’ Penelope have led me to my speculations and interpretations, which links back to Melchers’ background.


Bastien-Lepage, Jules (French, 1848 – 1884), Sarah Bernhardt, 1879, oil on canvas

Back to Melchers’ Penelope, though the painting is all about that one moment, whether it is in the morning or in the afternoon, to me, it represents their life style or daily routine. I can hardly feel the passing of the time when I looked at it. It seems that the young lady and her maid were just about to yawn and continue doing their work. It is only a short pause for a long period of time and this period of time was perfectly preserved in this painting.

According to Peirce, “Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign” (Chandler, 13). Everything can be a sign, an image, a piece of music, odors, flavors, acts or objects, as long as we link them with a certain meaning. What has reserved in this painting can all be seen as signs. The flowers in this painting reveal the season; characters’ dresses and clothes on the chair show the warm weather; the sculpture on the fireplace, the painting on the wall, the table cloth, the embroidery and the wallpaper together represent the taste of the young lady in this painting. The relationship between these two ladies can be interpreted from their clothes, for clothes can help speculate one’s status. We can tell that she is a maid because she is wearing a maid uniform. From her maid status, we can understand the relationship between these characters. We can also make a good guess that she is helping the young lady with her embroidery work.  The lower status of the maid, compared with the other lady, can be interpreted from her gesture or pose. She is standing when there is an available chair with two pieces of clothes and where she is directly facing the sunlight. I feel that I can think of so many stories for this painting and it reminds me of several scenes from different novels. I really enjoyed it!


Works Cited:

Bastien-Lepage, Jules. Sarah Bernhardt, 1879, oil on canvas. Retrieved from

Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.

Garimelchers website. “Gari Melchers: Who Was Gari Melchers?”. Retrieved from

Irvine, Martin. “Introduction to Visual and Pictorial Semiotics: De-Blackboxing Meaning-Making in Art and Visual Media.” Communication, Culture & Technology Program. Georgetown University. 2017.

Melchers, Gari. Penelope, 1910, oil on canvas. Retrieved from

Dalí’s “Bather” and meaning


Beigneuse (Bather), 1928

By Shalina Chatlani

Salvador Dalí is well known throughout the world for his iconic painting genre–surrealism. This term is difficult to define but can be narrowed down as a 20th century avant-garde movement throughout literary and artistic culture to challenge norms of traditional understanding and creation (Strom 2004, pg. 37).

Understanding Surrealism 

Kirsten Strom in her article on surrealism as political culture says that generally there is a consensus on what avant-garde means, but she references to several other terms that could be used to understand it, such as those offered by  Italian academic Renato Poggioli: “activism, or the spirit of the adventure, agonism, or the spirit of sacrifice, futurism, or the present subordinated to the future, unpopularity and fashion, or the continual oscillation of old and new; finally, alienation as seen especially in its cultural, aesthetic, and stylistic connections” (Strom 2004, pg. 38). Looking at surrealism within this context is limiting, while at the same time still incredibly confusing. One cannot imagine the concept of surrealism in visual form by just reading this description. And Strom goes on to say that surrealist during the time “fought seemingly incessant battle against public misinterpretation of their intentions” (Strom 2004, pg. 39). The confusion brought artists together to come up with their own manifesto on “What is Surrealism?,” and their insight offers some help into understanding the work of Salvador Dalí, who is one of the most perplexing surrealist painters in the 20th century. In this manifesto they write:

“Surrealism is not a new or an easier mean of expression nor even a metaphysics of poetry. It is a means of total liberation of the mind and of all that resembles it.” (Strom 2004, pg. 40).

salvador_dali_-_bather01_1928_frHad I known the context and description of surrealism before I had gone to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona about five years ago, I probably would have had an easier time understanding this painting by Dalí from 1928. Beigneuse, or “Bather,” depicts a scene of a bather on the beach but in the form of a large amorphous toe. It is a continuation of another 1928 “Bather” painting, where the lady being represented is in whole form, but still at first glance, incredibly disfigured.  This artwork was born at the burst of surrealist thought in the 20th century. So while at first glance, I was confused by the painting and what Dali could have possibly hoped to achieve from it, I realized as I began to look around the room it was in within the Picasso museum that it was a part of a larger movement of aesthetics in art culture. Dalí’s association with Picasso, particularly in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, where the artist’s most famous work is housed, shows that Dalí was not just part of the conversation. He was a visionary and leader throughout this artistic movement–a reality which is only affirmed by the unique quality, and truly singular voice of his work and the fact that this painting was made at the start of his Transitional Period. This was a time after his initial painting as a teenager that he actually started to become aware of surrealists in Paris and become a part of their movement; it was the beginning of his more celebrated surrealist work. The fact that it is in this museum with Picasso from such an early point in his professional surrealist career shows that he is an incredibly impressive painter, even though at the time his work was controversial and often determined as being highly grotesque.

And, in looking at the painting with its bold, uninhibited brushstrokes and lack of structure and mixing of physical medium (oil and sand), the impression that does come to mind, now understanding the surrealist movement is “total liberation of the mind.”

Applying the ‘meaning’ to the artwork

As Irvine writes in “Introduction to Visual and Pictorial Semiotics,” when the individual looks toward something physical, there is an understanding of value beyond the physical surface (Irvine 2017). We interpret what we see based on pattern-relations to better understand which ideas to focus on. The items which can help in this process are the representation, objects, and interpretant (which is a product of greater cultural background into the genre and time period). To better understand “Bather,” the observer can start to digest the piece through these terms.

Representation: Bather is a difficult piece for the observer to asses because what is represented is not immediately obvious. There is a woman at the beach, but her body is transfigured into a large toe. The impression that comes to mind from this technique is that perhaps Dalí had a difficult relationship with women in his past, or that he is fascinated by the idea of body morphology. The part of this painting that we are immediately drawn to though is clearly the large toe.

Objects: This is what we can talk about. When it comes to “Bather” the object of thought immediately is the surrealist quality. The “aboutness” of the painting is that is out of the ordinary, unusual, and somewhat grotesque. It’s hard to process because we want to see a whole body, but all we see is a something that is morphed.

Idalinterpretant: And the interpretant is outside the context of the museum. The only way to understand the “Why” of Dalí’s work is to understand his background, as a “more developed” sign. Why did he paint this image in this way? It’s a part of a pattern of becoming a part of a surrealist movement– this “genre code” one answer to the question. The other answer, an important cultural insight into his work, is that it was paint
ing is part of Dalí’s quest to understand the irrational.

As Martinez-Herrera et. al write on Dali and Pscyhoanalysis, “Salvador Dali was immersed in the conquest of the irrational and never ending search for the unconscious,” and he did this by using “disquieting pictorial symbolism and language” (Martinez-Herrera et. al, abstract). Or, a large ugly toe.

The article quotes Dalí in 1945, and it truly reflects the type of mind he had in painting: “The dream… a huge, heavy head on a threadlike body supported by the prongs of reality.. falling into space just as the dream is about to begin.”

An important interpretant of this work is Dalí’s life, the fact that he often struggled to prove his existence especially because he was named after his brother, who had died before his birth. His father regularly visited prostitutes and tried to teach him lessons with grotesque images of STDs. Such experiences morphed his notions of the body, sexuality, and his existence altogether. Becoming a part of the surrealist movement was just another factor to his psychological development (Martinez-Herrera 2003, pg. 855-6).

These factors were lost to me when I first visited the museum in Barcelona. But having the sufficient background to Dalí’s life makes the toe as an image of a woman bathing “make sense.”

Works Cited

Irvine, Martin. “Introduction to Visual and Pictorial Semiotics: De-Blackboxing Meaning-Making in Art and VIsual Media.” Communication, Culture & Technology Program. Georgetown University. 2017.

Martinez-Herrera, M., Antonio G. Alcantara, and Lorena Garcia-Fernandez. “Dali (1904-1989): Psychoanalysis and Pictorial Surrealism.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 160, no. 5, 2003., pp. 855-6 Research Library; Science Database; Social Science Database,

Strom, Kirsten. “‘Avant-Garde of What?”: Surrealism Reconceived as Political Culture.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 62, no. 1, 2004, pp. 37–49.

Image locations:

Bather, full form:

Bather, toe:


Oh, the Memories… – Ojas Patel

My first encounter with Impressionism was not in a museum looking at a painting, but a book about Joseph Conrad’s Modernist style of prose in Heart of Darkness. It compared the extremely controversial image used in Marlowe’s initial phase of his foot journey through the Congo of groups of black people as “bundles of acute angles” (because of the way they sat on the ground) to Claude Monet’s Impressionist work Impression, Sunrise. I didn’t care for the analogy particularly, but before that reading, I didn’t know anything about Impressionist painting. Fast forward a few months, to a lovely date I went on to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in a room filled with works of French Impressionism (I’m talking Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, like… ~*~Impressionism~*~), I encounter Renoir’s The Grands Boulevards, and I must’ve stared at the thing for ten minutes. My date started to realize I was a huge dork, made the mistake of finding it charming, and continued to date me for three years. This confluent moment in my life – a date that started a significant relationship in my life, the merging of schema and lived experience with Impressionism, and my own interest and fascination with this Renoir work was my first deep dive into the tradition of art history. This is what I’ll be exploring in this post – the confluence of three unrelated experiences (the Heart of Darkness essay, the date, and the Renoir painting) at a critical juncture in time as an interface to a grander tradition of artistic representation and museums.

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Beyond Caravaggio__Jing

Jing Chen

Caravaggio was the name came into my mind when I consider the topic of my blog of this week. I went to the Beyond Caravaggio Exhibition at the National Gallery in London last December. I thought this exhibition would be about the artist himself but there were only six Caravaggios in the show. The other forty-three works are masterpieces of Caravaggio’s followers, the Caravagesques. Caravaggio was famous for his natural style and chiaroscuro techniques (contrast of light and dark. His techniques were adopted by other masters in this exhibition. They “smitten in Caravaggio’s brilliant wake, darkening their backgrounds and flooding their foregrounds with candlelight”.(Hodges,2016)[i] Caravaggio’s work “is essentially a symbol, not a duplicate, of what it represents”.[ii] (Chandler,24)They are the prototype of the Baroque art and naturism.


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610)  The Taking of Christ, 1602 Oil on canvas, 133.5 x 169.5 cm
On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr. Marie Lea-Wilson, 1992

Many works of Caravaggio are on religious themes. Hence, the labels help the audiences to “to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself; it is a matter of a denoted description of the image” [iii] The Taking of Christ was painted by Caravaggio for the Roman Marquis Ciriaco Mattei at the end of 1602. To understand the symbolic figures in the paintings, we are supposed to have the knowledge of the religious background. Reading the label, we can also tell this painting I saw in London belongs to Jesuit Community of Dublin. This painting was thought to be disappeared in 18th and it was rediscovered in the 1990s. Similarly, it was only in the 20th century that Caravaggio’s importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. Look at his name “Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio”.  The name is not only a name of an artist but also a name reminds us of a genre of paintings. “Caravaggio” is not the painter’s last name but the name of a town not far from the city of Bergamo. This name has been used symbolically for many meanings after the success of the painter.

Thinking about the rediscovery of Caravaggio in the 20th century, itself was a symbolic study. As Dr. Irvine said “Signs and symbols are always formed in systems”[iv] (Irvine, P2)Through the time, works of Caravaggio have generated different kinds of responses. People gaze on Caravaggio and get different signs and symbols in different eras based on the different system. People in the Caravaggio’s time regarded him as the most radical painter and people in our time respect Caravaggio as a symbol of western art tradition. Meanwhile, people in 18th century may just ignore him.


Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, Italian (1571-1610). Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1604-1605. Oil on canvas, 68 x 52 inches. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 52-25

Caravaggio is known for using ordinary people as his models and putting them in extreme circumstances. My favorite painting in the exhibition is this Saint John in the Wilderness from the Nelson-Atkins museum. “Rather than presenting the saint as an emaciated old man, Caravaggio painted a muscular half-nude youth”(Souter,2016)[v] Looking at the shadow on his neck, we know he will die when Salome demands his head (See another masterpiece of Caravaggio), but now he looks so sexy and peaceful. Caravaggio depicted the saintly scenes in a real-life likeness. His imitators followed his steps. When we gaze on other works of the exhibition, It’s not difficult to find what the followers inherited from Caravaggio. They utilized chiaroscuro techniques; depicted glowing candlelit scenes; ordinal human beings became their subjects.

Understanding the meaning of something is one’s “competence in engaging the available cultural encyclopedia, the whole repertoire of symbolic resources available and known to a culture.” (Irvine P42)  To understand the meaning of Caravaggio’s work require historical background and analysis.


 [i] Michael Hodges, “Beyond Caravaggio Review: A Compelling Tribute to Influential Artist.” Mail Online. 15 Oct. 2016

[ii] Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics.  P 42 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007

[iii] Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image.” In Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, P156 . New York: Hill and Wang, 1988.

[iv] Martin Irvine “Introduction to Visual Semiotics”, P2, 2017.

 [v] Anna Souter. “Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery | Exhibition Review.” The Upcoming. N.p

[vi] Martin Irvine, “Intro to the Grammar of Meaning Systems: Signs, Symbols, Semiosis.” 2017


Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring by Zhihui Yu

CCTP-802: Art and Media Interfaced
Professor Martin Irvine
Communication, Culture & Technology Program
Georgetown University

Zhihui Yu


Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutch: Meisje met de parel) , Johannes Vermeer C. 1665. 44.5 cm × 39 cm (17.5 in × 15 in)


The masterpiece I choose to illustrate is Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s well known painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutch: Meisje met de parel). I saw it when I had my visit to Netherland years ago in the Mauritshuis, an art museum in the Hague in the Netherlands, and that’s the very first time I saw it. I was young back then. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about art the time I physically saw it in the museum, but I remember I was totally impressed the first time I saw it. And I knew the name of it in my art history even class years after I saw it. It was a small painting, with a girl wearing headscarf and a markedness pearl earring on her ear. I was shocked by the huge contrast between the innocence and pureness appeared on the girl’s face and the resplendent lightness reflected by the pearl earring.

In Vermeer’s painting, pearl is the element used frequently to express the purity and chastity. To me personally, I regard pearl as a sign of quiet and calm, nature while in good taste. Like professor Irvine mentions in The Grammar of Meaning System: Sign System, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics, “we not only perceive with our senses in brains adapted to immediate awareness of the world, we make mental relations between perceptions and thought, and generate further relations among thoughts connected in vast networks of collectively understood signs spanning many states of times.” And in this painting, pearl earring, to me, is the sign.


The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, C.1503–06, perhaps continuing until C.1517, 77 cm × 53 cm (30 in × 21 in)


We do not know the relationship between painter and the girl in this painting, I believe they are intimate if the painting is based on real life. What we can see from the painting is the shyness and trust in the girl’s eye, there’s no hesitation and dissociation in the girl’s eyes, her bright, and smart eyes. The appearance and expression of this painting remind me of another world known painting Mona Lisa (a half-length portrait of Lisa Gherardini by the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci), characters on both paintings have the same exotic expression, they watch your face directly through the frame, you even do not want to escape from their sight.

It is said that signs have three types of expression, Icon, Index and symbol via Pierce’s understanding.  And to me, in this specific painting, the girl with the pearl earring as an icon, is purely an image, and as an index, her expression and her earring becomes the sign of innocence and purity, deep to symbolic meaning, the painting shows timeless peace and mystery to be argue for its audience.



Irvine Martin. “Intro to the Grammar of Meaning Systems: Signs, Symbols, Semiosis.”

Inferring illumination direction estimated from disparate sources in paintings: An investigation into Jan Vermeer’s Girl with a pearl earring, Micah K. Johnson,a David G. Stork,b Soma Biswasc and Yasuo Furuichi

Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007



What’s the meaning system behind the combination of lines, geometric figures and colors? -Ai-Ling

We are exposed to multiple symbols and signs when we read a book, see a picture or watch a video online. However, before learning about semiotics from this week’s readings, I have not dived deeper into various layers of the meaning behind the signs. Semiotics is a brand new world for me. It provides me with a new approach for understanding the interfaces between the audience and artifacts.

There are two models widely used by scholars in the field of semiotics. Firstly, Ferdinand de Saussure’s dyadic models which defined a sign as being composed of a “signifier” and a “signified”. Secondly, Charles Sander Peirce proposed a triadic model consisting of the represent amen, an interpretant and an object. I want to apply Peirce’s model to decode the Mondrian’s painting, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, as the physical interface to its meaning system.









Piet Mondrian,Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow (1930), Oil on Canvas, w45 x h45 cm

The painting shown above was created by Mondrian in 1930 on a 46 x 46 cm canvas. This oil painting mainly consists of thick and thin lines, geometric figures, especially variations of squares and rectangles. Mondrian used red, white, blue and yellow as the colors for individual planes. These lines, geometric figures, and colors compose the representamen or “sign vehicle” with interpretable features. Besides, these are the most obvious signs which perceived by the audience at the first glance. Although this work of Mondrian is a painting, it does not like a “picture” or possesses any “likeness” to real-world things outside the painting which refers to a low iconic function. If the audience has little knowledge about the background information of the painting, the first interpretant will still remain on the concept of lines, geometric figures and four colors. It is also difficult for the audience to relate to the object in the real life. At this time, we can apply the dialogical thought in Peirce’s model to activate the audience’s conversation with the painting. “Peirce saw that interpretants are explicitly revealed when expressed in additional, ‘more developed’ signs, and thus interpretants generate further signs in sequences of understanding with increases in symbolic complexity.” (Irvine, 2017) Moreover, ” A genuine symbol is a symbol that has a general meaning” (Irvine). The following information about Mondrian’s background and art movement will stimulate the audience to perceive further signs which based on the first interpretant.

The background information helps the audience build the conventional and rule-governed meaning system of the painting. This painting is an indicative representation of the works during the decline of the de Stijl movement. It is one of the major modern movements which depends on a Neo-Plastic ideology of art. Mondrian found his own style in this movement and termed it as “Neoplasticism”. “This consisted of white ground, upon which he painted a grid of vertical and horizontal black lines and the three primary colors” (‘Piet Mondrian’, 1981). De Stijl was not a group of similar artists or stylistic techniques, nor was it a school devoted to art or design, but rather de Stijl was a “collective project or enterprise between 1917 and 1928″ (Paul, 1991). The basic principles that the de Stijl movement promoted were a “stripping down of the traditional forms…into simple ‘basic’ geometric components or ‘elements’; the composition from these separate ‘elements’ of formal configurations which are perceived as ‘wholes’ (Paul, 1991). This painting can be recognized as a “prototype” work of “Neoplasticism”. It exemplifies concepts, cultural meanings, and symbolic associations in collectively known instances.

The most distinctive figure in Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow is the large red square located in the top right corner. This piece also has a very distinctive, thick, and pronounced line separating a large white plane in the upper left corner into two individual planes. These two elements draw the viewer’s eye inward and then force the eye to proceed in a downward manner that allows the viewer to experience the painting first as individual elements and then as a whole. These signs have a dialogue with the philosophy of de Stijl: “single element, perceived as separate, and the configuration of elements, perceived as a whole” (Paul, 1991). Furthermore, the bright and distinctive colors reinforce the simplicity and abstraction of de Stijl ideology. The horizontal lines signify a sense of rest and repose, while the vertical lines communication a sense of height to the piece.  Working together as an overall piece, the lines together create a sense of stability and solidarity. “Mondrian sought to give expression to the ‘universal’ through the absolute harmony of the individual pictorial elements”(Google Art & Culture). In my opinion, this pursuit of universal and harmony may be explained by the Mondrian’s life experience during the WWI and the period in post-war Paris.

I want to point out that the picture of Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow in my post is the re-tokenization of the original painting. It changes the type of the painting’s symbolic form. Besides, some signs may be lost in this type such as the texture of brush stroke and actual size.

All in all, the signs of lines, geometric figures, and colors in this painting can work as interfaces that enable viewers to explore the meaning system behind the physical symbols, including de Stijl movement, simplicity, abstraction, the relationship between the segments and the wholeness and the “universal” feature. Moreover, the painting mainly focuses on symbolic sign function. The finite signs can generate infinite interpretation through conventional and collective meaning system. The Semiotics can be a powerful and practical tool for me when I study the interface of artifacts and conversation between art and the audience. I also benefit a lot from the semiotic method in investigating meaning and value of the painting independently from individual preferences.



Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow – Piet Mondrian – Google Arts & Culture

Irvine Martin. “Intro to the Grammar of Meaning Systems: Signs, Symbols, Semiosis.”

Irvine Martin 2017, Introduction to Visual Semiotics

Overy, Paul. De Stijl. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

“Piet Mondrian”Tate gallery, published in Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.532–3. 


Through signs, we construct meanings.- YinYing

– YinYing Chen

” It is that the word or sign that man uses is the man himself. For, as the fact that every thought is a sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a train of thought, prove that man is a sign;so that every thought is an external sign, proves that man is an external sign.” – Charles. Peirce (Innis 1985, 2)

The artwork that I choose to explore and apply the concepts we have exposed to so far is an oil painting titled as ” Hidden Island” by Lien Chien-Hsing, a Taiwanese artist. I saw his solo exhibition “Desolate Magic” in Yu-Hsiu Museum of Art last month, when I was back to Taiwan for winter break. Among the works shown in the exhibition, this piece stood out to me. It seems surreal, but as standing in front of the work, some sort of deep emotion linked to my known world was stirred. Therefore, for the post this week, I decide to look into the work to contemplate how signs, networks, and the viewer (In this case, myself) could interplay to construct the meanings of this work.

Lien Chien-Hsing, Hidden Island (2009). Oil on canvas. 132 x 230 cm.

Lien Chien-Hsing, Hidden Island (2009). Oil on canvas. 132 x 230 cm.

To tear the layers aways, the title of the exhibition “Desolate Magic” is a good point to start with. The meanings of the two words seem to contradict each other. “Desolate” denotes the feeling of dismal emptiness, whereas ” magic” gives the feelings of joy and hope. The odd combination of the terms is a sign, since from the title viewers can infer that the theme of the exhibition embodies some sort of inconsistent elements. In other words, from the inference patterns, viewers, as the sign-cognizing agents, are able to extract some meanings out of it, which may not be totally comprehensive though ( Irvine 2017, 1). Nonetheless, it is still a sign, which may be categorized as both an index ( the title direct something beyond itself) and a symbol ( the meanings of the two words are inherently conjunctured to the symbol-using minds of the interpretants), because as Pierce puts it ” a sign is something by knowing which we know something more.” (Irvine 2017, 2) What’s worth noting is that a quote, which says” I hope to stroll the island and gaze upon it with sheer sensibility”, from a novel by We Heh, a Taiwanese writer, is paralleled with the title of the exhibition. This quote enrich the perceptible structure in which the title is positioned.

Then, moving to the artwork label, the following information related to the artwork is illustrated: the title, the year, the materials used and the size. No other description or information of the artwork is provided. It is intriguing to consider why the information provided by label is kept as simple as possible. The less information is offered in linguistic message, the wider the margin is left for our mind to explore the underlying meanings and messages. As Barthes indicates, linguistic messages are the shackles that can stifle the polysemy of images, or in his words, ” text has thus a repressive value.” (Barthes 1988, 157)

Turning to the painting, the whale covered with moss ( it may be viewed as a strange whale-shaped island, depending on the interpretants) is the object that is used again and again in different works in this exhibition, which probably can be conceived as a crucial token that links to the bigger material-representational structure. Imbuing the ruins with vitality through flourishing plants is the unique “prototype” of his works. In the regard, although the works in the exhibition are all self-containers that have their own narratives, they are all connected to the story and the main idea, overdevelopment and the natural environment, that the painter tries to convey through the interface of paintings ( Lator 2011, 6).

Zooming out to the viewer, myself, who was emotionally moved by the peaceful coexistence of the ruins abandoned by human beings and the thriving new lives depicted, and lamented for the selfishness of the human beings who just walked away after depleting the resources, I am wondering if the work can resonate the viewers from different cultural backgrounds, who do not grow up with the stories of the mining villages that rise and fall with gold and the withering fishing villages. The absence of representamen makes the object un-perceptible and cripples Peirce’s triadic model of sign. To me, many ruins shown in his works are immediately identifiable, because they are icons that resemble the scenes that I am familiar with, while they may not be iconic to many people. As Dr. Irvine elaborates it, ” Human thought is based on signs in symbol systems, each of which have a structure of material/perceptible and cognitive/logical relations that unfold dynamically in situated human-experienced moments of time.” (Irvine, 14) With different material/perceptible structure, the vessel of the works can carry very different interpretations and meanings.  

Lien Chien-Hsing, Romantic Sail (2004). Oil on canvas. 80 x 116 cm.

Lien Chien-Hsing, Romantic Sail (2004). Oil on canvas. 80 x 116 cm.

Copyrights by Paul Lin Taipei/Taiwan

Copyrights by Paul Lin Taipei/Taiwan


Barthes, Roland. 1988.  “Rhetoric of the Image.” In Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, 32–51. New York: Hill and Wang, 

Latour, B. 2011. Networks, societies, spheres: Reflections of an actor-network theorist. International Journal of Communication 5 : 796-810.

Innis, Robert E. 1985. Semiotics: An introductory anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Irvine Martin. “Intro to the Grammar of Meaning Systems: Signs, Symbols, Semiosis.”

Irvine Martin 2017, Introduction to Visual Semiotics