Category Archives: Week 6

Communicating meaning: the dialogues in artworks


Reflecting on my own reading experience, the word “dialogical” and “dialogism” appear usually in literary critique or philosophy, but very little has been said about the meaning of these terms in artworks and visual media. From this week’s reading, I have a chance to gain a broader understanding and newer insights about these terms, especially when applied to arts. As Bakhtin mentions in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, being-in-dialogue is a process that “a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium”. What I perceive is that “dialogical” or “dialogism” can be viewed as tropes similar to counterparts in literary theory, that is, metaphors to support the analysis of cultural products that are materially self-contained. In this way, we put ourselves in real dialogues and in certain forms of communication between two living entities when we are examining artworks.

Me, as a viewer, participates with the painter Paul Klee when I see Paul Klee’s painting Park near Lu., 1938 the first time. I couldn’t help putting myself at the nexus of minds and imaginations. The black symbols which represent trees and their branches, as well as roads in Lucerne. There is a strong contrast between the brunch and surrounding areas. My interpretation of this painting is that it represents hopefulness and anxieties at the same time. It is said that “Park Bei Lu” was created when Paul Klee was inspired by an impression he had of nature within a park located near Lucerne. His wife Lily needed to travel to Lucerne for health reasons to visit a sanitorium. Warm colors like orange, red and yellow get me in an energetic and warm feeling. The surrounding areas around branch do look like the blossom. But I still have a feeling of anxiety at the same time. So this is my involvement with Klee. I think that the dialogues between me and Paul Klee are more dialogic than monologic. Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism, the belief that language and thought are ultimately social in addition to being unitary. Bakhtin wrote of dialogism “After all, our thought itself — philosophical, scientific, artistic — is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought‘.

The dialogues also take place between Klee and other artists such as Kandinsky. Klee’s “inventiveness” includes pictorial transpositions drawn from music — he married a pianist and played violin every morning — and from a theater. The movement and rhythm in their paintings do reflect the influence of music on the visual arts. By approaching to music and painting it in their work, these artists have discovered unconventional techniques in their art-making approach. Also like Kandinsky, Klee took up a spiritual pursuit in color.

Paul Klee’s “Efflorescence” & Otherness: Opening A Conversation

Paul Klee, Efflorescence (1937)

When I look at this piece of art, I immediately relate it to others (artist: Basquiat, author: Scott McCloud) – outside of myself, without any conscious effort to do so. Although I am creating meaning from my personal experiences and knowledge, all of that is in reference to other works, ideas, and images I have had exposure to (see Irvine quote below). After reading the works of Saussure, Pierce, Bakhtin, Irvine, and Crow I learned that:

Meaning is created as a dialogue and is an activity to engage with and contribute to (it is continuous and not fixed). In art, like language, signs and symbols are meant to represent something or to express something. “The transfer of meaning from author to reader is not a one-way process, but a process of creative exchange” (Crow, 7). Efflorescence has childlike visual elements that remind me of the way I used to approach art in my youth. In professor Macovski’s New Media and Texts Across Culture class, we discuss how important identity and representation are integral to visual media. The extent to which we relate to someone or something, plays a large role in our relationship to that object and the meaning we derive from it. Author Scott McCloud states that as children we are able to relate to cartoon characters because they are empty shells (abstract faces) that allow us to become the character and travel into another realm. Because of the simplicity in Efflorescence, my imagination was a big part of how I experienced the work. I became involved in the work (a contributor), which allowed me to create meaning that is my own, or rather experience meaning myself. This would prompt me to further ask: was Klee a part of a conversation that was more open-minded than previous art? Was this a step in the direction of interactive art, and a step towards how people at the time constructed meaning? What is the artist/observer relationship, does the artist see himself as one with the observer? What was going on that may have influenced a return to childlike imagination and freedom from realistic work (modern art)? Did Klee understand that meaning is a conversation therefore intending to create space for infinite interpretation?

Supporting Quotes:

“An individual person’s meanings, cognition, and expression require and presuppose a community of others: others’ expressions are necessary as structured “inputs” that initiate and perpetuate participation as an intersubject with other members of a cultural community.” (Irvine, 22)

“Everything expressed in social situations and in larger cultural contexts is fundamentally grounded in otherness—others’ words and others as receivers of, and responders to, anything expressed. Anyone’s expression in speech and written genres is always inhabited by the words of others, other voices and other contexts in time or place, and others different in identity from one’s own” – ( Irvine, 21)

“When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential “meaning” an artist can amplify that meaning in a way realistic art can’t” – (McCloud, 30)

“In emphasizing concepts of objects over their physical appearance, much has to be omitted.” – (McCloud, 41)

Applying these concepts to Efflorescence, these are further questions I would like to pose in order to discover new meanings:

Does one need to engage with ‘others’ to understand art? What are the most prevalent others that is the process of choosing certain ones over others?

Klee’s choice of abstraction is trying to convey what concepts?

What conversation is happening here? What was the cultural context during 1937? What other artists was he inspired by and conversing with?

What is omitted in this work? Space is used to separate all lines, absence of connected lines is a choice. What is this meant to represent?

According to Saussure value comes from the signs around it, so where is he assigning value in this piece? What is he choosing to display in his use of and non-use of coloring?

How is the title Efflorescence meant to anchor the reader? The words Essence & Efflorescence refer to ideas/concepts/feelings/emotions to further draw you in and create a framework to build on that is broad and inviting conversation

Why and how does the use of shapes, colors, lines work together to create a mood?

Who is this work addressing? To what audience was this work meant to be seen by and how may that have influenced the choice of signs and symbols?

How do I identify with this work? What ‘others’ do I include in my immediate interpretation of this piece?

Key terms: Perspective, Identity, Otherness, Addressivity/Answerability, Intersubject, Artist/Observer Relationship


Crow, David. Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts. Lausanne; London: AVA Academia; Thames & Hudson, 2010.

Irvine, Martin. “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality.”In The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 15-42.

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Visual Semiotics

Irvine, “Student’s Guide to Mikhail Bakhtin: Dialogue, Dialogism, and Intertextuality.

McCloud, Scott, and Mark Martin. Understanding Comics. New York, NY: William Morrow, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2017. Print.


Paul Klee and visual semiotic

Paul Klee’s painting was never based on immediately observed nature, but his abstract paintings have pulsating energy and evolved through a natural process of dynamic growth and transformation (Arnason & Mansfield, p.282).

I choose the two paintings by Paul Klee that will be seen in next week’s field trip. One is Young Moe (1938), and the other one is Kettledrummer (1940). Both of them reflect the representative features of Klee’s painting, his work not simply emphasis on the geometric elements such as the point, the line, but he created energy and vivid emotions to the color, to the line.

To understand the meaning of Klee’s works, the concept of visual semiotic is about the inquiry into sign and symbol systems. “Meanings, and all kinds of responses to signs and symbols, are socially communicable events, not fixed things.” So by looking at this two paintings, i have come up with following questions.


According to the reading, Klee discovered his iconography of painting through teaching, where the arrows are the indications of lines of force for his students, the elements that show emotions and feelings. As visual semiotic suggests that when we look at a painting, it is necessary to take consideration the big environment as situated, not the painting itself. While Leonardo Da  Vinci and Monet or Andy Warhol are known for their symbolic artist’s style that got recognition and uniqueness, I do think that Klee has his own individual prototype. His use of contrasting and bright colors, the arrows, the lines, and his sometimes childlike perspective and his personal moods and expressions are vividly reflected through his works of art.

  1. The exhibition of Paul Klee and Ten Americans expected to contain Klee’s works and the other Americans artists’ paintings that are influenced by Klee’s style. I personally feels that they tend to learn the sprit of Klee’s painting as it contains powerful and unique symbolic language of expressions. They do share something in common, as i see the arrows, the lines. I am still intersted to see closely and maybe compare and constrast how does the symbolic of Klee’s painting is similar or different from the other American artists, in the way that are influenced by the context and semiotic meaning behind it.
  2. For Klee’s own works of Kettledrummer and Young Moe, i see the common symbolic of his use of simple lines drawing to represent people, while they are also diverse. They both told some stories about the figure in the paintings, while kettledrummer is more expressive and contrast in colors, and Young Moe is with more peaceful and pleasant story. I would like to ask how Klee’s personal background of teaching and the big enviornment of Bauhaus movement impact his painting of this two?

H. H. Arnason and Elizabeth C. Mansfield. History of Modern Art. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Visual Semiotics (revised)

Semiotics, Remixes, and “Young Moe”

A basic underlying theme through many of this week’s readings was the sense that everything has heightened meaning when placed alongside or in contrast to something else.

Introduction to Visual Semiotics talks about how we always should consider what larger conversation the artwork we view may be a part of; we need to consider the “larger socio-cultural context” of the different components of “our cultural encyclopedia.” The piece on Mikhail Bakhtin introduced me to the concept of “hetreoglossia” (“the presence of another’s speech”), which is what gives value to one’s own speech: our words are “shaped in dialogic interaction with alien words,” after all. Lastly, the Remix Studies article concludes by saying remix/hybrid pieces are greatly essential to propelling our culture forward, as they act as “interfaces to the generative, collective, and unfinalizable meaning-making processes that enable cultures to be cultures.”

All of these arguments are fitting to learn about before we study an exhibit in which Paul Klee’s artwork is placed in dialogue with the work of some of his American successors. Young Moe (1938) caught my eye, so I’ll go with that as a painting to analyze as part of this blog post.


1) What are the prototypical elements of Paul Klee’s artwork? Intro to Visual Semiotics mentioned some creative masters (Shakespeare, Hitchcock, Van Gogh) whose works are “prototypes” because of their widely-known and recognizable features. Since I am not super familiar with Paul Klee, I can’t readily say what the signature features of his paintings are– I look forward to learning this further and seeing how they are represented in Young Moe.

2) How will the exhibit compare to the Vermeer exhibit we saw at the National Gallery of Art? Back then, we looked at how Dutch artists of the same era influenced each other’s artwork. I find it intriguing how, in our next museum outing, we are instead seeing how a Swiss/German artists influenced artists from a completely different country one generation later. In what ways did Young Moe inform the styles of a later group of painters?

3) The exhibit description at the Phillips Collection website mentions how major influences of Paul Klee’s work and of this current exhibition “the art of indigenous cultures, the power of symbolic language, the method of working from the unconscious, and an interest in probing nature’s invisible forces?” How can some or all of these be seen in Young Moe?

4) If the key groups of semiotics can be thought of as “objects,” “interpretants,” and “representamen,” how might the different visual components of Young Moe be classified as one or the other?

Look forward to diving into all of these questions, and more, as part of this unit!




Gottlieb, Gell and Boas: Towards Meaning-Making in Anthropology and Art

A few of the readings stood out to me this week; Visible Signs and De-BlackBoxing Meaning Making in Art and Visual Media.  Both unpack the signs and symbols used in everyday conversations to understand and deconstruct how communication works. Such a system becomes a visual language where such “signs and symbols are given and received with the same form of correlation among instances of patterns and meaning associations” (Irvine, p. 2). Explaining how such structures create meaning systems are not able to be observed but rather make possible everything that we can observe. It becomes a sort of “visual language” to understand the world around us through such codes.

These readings remind me of a class I took my second semester Junior year called Romantic Legacy of Anthropology class. We looked to German philosophy to understand the romantic impulses within the field of anthropology. Meaning-making is not only restricted to conversations and so forth but can be stretched to encompass culture. In class we talked about hwo culture is a meaning-making machine and is constantly creating meaning but nonetheless culture seems to take an internal nature and we experience such meaning within our minds. Anthropologists don’t have easy access to this system so to unlock such a process, they look towards operations and relations. Alfred Gells and Franz Boas, two social anthropologists, learned how to “de-blackbox”, if you will, primitive forms of art by creating indexical relationships of objects in the world for anthropologists to easily observe and understand them. Index is one of the three categories within the sign-making system; symbol, index and icon. They each stand in for an idea or represent something, for example and index could be smoke that stands in for fire but indexes the material existence of fire.

Keeping these concepts in mind, I was able to generate a list of research and interpretation questions for “Labyrinth #1 (1950)” by Adolph Gottlieb, a contemporary of Paul Klee. His work immediately reminds me of Egyptian Hieroglyphs in the way they are oriented and placed in relation to each other. Given such a comparison: Was Gottlieb exposed to Ancient Egyptian artwork while creating this piece? Does such a piece that is composed of various signs and symbols enter into a conversation with other cultural signs and symbols, say that of Ancient Egyptian culture?

Labyrinth (1950), Aldoph Gottlieb


A quick google search of the artist gave me more of a background into his intention of his works of art. Gottlieb would indeed introduce inventive symbols in this artwork yet if he “discovered that a symbol had a recognizable meaning within either Western or tribal art, he immediately removed it from his painting vocabulary as part of his quest for a collective unconscious.” He is thus intentionally filtering out signs and symbols to achieve a certain state of the sublime for his viewers. Yet does he accomplish such a task in his Labyrinth? Why is it called “Labyrinth”?

Connecting the Dots of the Artworld



Bradley Walker Tomlin, “Number 12-1949” (1949)

Paul Klee’s “Kettledrummer” (1940)

At first glance, Bradley Walker Tomlin’s Number 12-1949 (1949) and Paul Klee’s Kettledrummer (1940), contain visual patterns and similarities, such as, heavy black lines and contrasting earth tones. Both are abstract in nature, have a primitive quality, both do not depict a story, thing, or sign, and both do not follow the artistic rules of “traditional” art. Tomlin shows this ‘disobedience’ by allowing paint to drip on the canvas while Klee has a childlike quality. While the visual details are important, “the utterance is filled with dialogic overtones, and they must be taken into account to fully understand the style of the utterance” (As cited in Irvine, p. 4). In other words, recognizing and discovering the discourse behind the genre and the artist can provide deeper meaning as to what each simulacrum represents.

  Similarities between paintings show a possible dialogue between artists, but for meaning to be discovered, we need to know the “historically contingent” background for each. Discovering the connection requires a combination of both visual and background information. Just as recognizing the visual influence of Japonisme can deepen the interpretation in Degas’ “The Tub” and Cassatt’s “The Bath,” the historical account of their relationship leads to deeper discovery. Kleiner (2016) writes “Cassatt’s style in this work owed much to the compositional devices of Degas and of Japanese prints, but the painting’s design has an originality and strength all its own” (p. 697). In this case, Cassatt’s work can been seen as in interface to the work of Degas, offering a new perspective by combining his work with her own. “Remix” in art is a fact, not a problem (Irvine, 2014, p. 31). Therefore, the importance of excavating the network of influence in the art world is essential to finding meaning.

Edgar Degas, The Tub, 1886.

Mary Cassatt, The Bath, ca. 1892.

In addition to who and why these artist were talking to, what historically contingent, cognitive information regarding Tomlin is needed to deepen the meaning in his work? Could Tomlin be seen as an interface to Klee’s work?

When The Armory Show in the US expanded a discourse to include Americans (Arsanon & Manefield, 2012), how did the conversation change?

Since semiosis is not a one-way interpretation, according to Crow (2010), and culture impacts the interpretations of signs, can we see patterns among the American artists work that reveal any collective interpretations? Or are the American paintings evidence of inter-individual responses to Klee’s work?

Because color can produce different interpretations and signs depending on your culture and since abstract art emphasizes color, what can we gather from Klee in comparison with the ten American artists? Furthermore, how can we use contextual knowledge of Klee’s cultural experience to discover symbolism in his context? Can this provide insight into what meaning the American artists interpreted from Klee’s art? Are there any commonalities?  What network of meaning was Tomlin a part of that allowed him to be impacted by Klee in the first place?  Knowing that Klee never traveled to the US, how does such an abstract subjective painting impact an entire community of artists?



Crow, David. Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts. Lausanne; London: AVA Academia; Thames & Hudson, 2010.

Kleiner, Fred S..  Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective, Volume II. 14th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2016.

H. Arnason and Elizabeth C. Mansfield. History of Modern Art. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.

Irvine, “Student’s Guide to Mikhail Bakhtin: Dialogue, Dialogism, and Intertextuality.

Irvine, Martin. “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality.”
In The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 15-42.

Phillips Collection website for Paul Klee and Ten Americans, After Paul Klee


Questions on “Pierrot”

Looking through the works featured on the website for Ten Americans, After Paul Klee, my attention caught on a work by William Baziotes, Pierrot (1947). As I started considering the many facets of the painting, I felt a draw to start looking into the background and context surrounding it more–but for the sake of this post, I’ll restrain myself to the questions I came up with to guide future research and interpretation.

Does Pierrot fall easily into one genre of painting, or does it draw on multiple genres? How do the choppy brushstrokes and use of subdued colors play with the visual codes of that genre (or genres)? What about the use of both geometric shapes and seemingly identifiable images (the eye at the top)? Are the shapes meant to be iconographic, symbolic, or both, and in either case, what are they representing?

What was happening in the art world in 1947? What other artists were doing similar work, and how well exposed to them was Baziotes? What artists might he have (consciously or subconsciously) drawn on as inspiration? How did his fellow artists respond to Pierrot?

Where does Pierrot fall in the work Baziotes? Is it connected, in topic or style, to other works of his, and if so how? How does it fit into the themes of his work more generally? What is his general approach to art and its creation?

The work’s title refers to a classic French character generally portrayed as a sad, naïve clown. (This is in fact what drew me to the painting initially.) What connection does Pierrot (the character) have to modern art movements? What other artworks (visual, stage, literature, and others) featured Pierrot in the early-to-mid 1900s? How is this work a (re)interpretation of the character, and how does it echo, resist, or expand upon other interpretations?

What was happening outside the art world in 1947? Is this piece commenting on the post-WWII world (at least, any more than modernist art as a movement does)? If so, what is it saying?

Most of these questions are expansions on a more general one: What message or meaning is Baziotes trying to present in this piece, and how does the format of his art convey and contribute to that message? I have some suspicions, but as I noted, I’ll hold off on those… for now.

Paul Klee and Ten Americans

Each sign is to be understood in a certain context. In “Dialogue, Dialogic, Dialogism| Intertextuality, intermediality| Remix: A Student’s Guide,” Prof. Irvine introduces Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of “utterance.” “Our utterances” are not themselves “connected discourses,” but they also suggest “our relation as a speaker to a necessary other” (Irvine 1). This interpretation puts utterance and the subjects who produce those signs into a context. “An expression, utterance, or any form of discourse is therefore always already embedded in a history of expression by others in chains or networks of ongoing cultural and political moments” (Irvine 1). Bakhtin’s theory not only works for utterances, but also for all forms of expressions, including artworks.

Reading the introduction of the “Ten Americans: After Paul Klee” Exhibition, it seems that the Phillips Collection did a wonderful job in contextualizing Paul Klee’s artworks. The Introduction clearly explains that “the exhibition is the first to feature Klee in dialogue” with ten other artists. A brief introduction social-historical background immediately follows:

While Klee himself never joined his peers across the Atlantic, his works traveled there in great numbers, stimulating an enthusiastic reception by a young generation of American artists who, after the horrors of World War II, were searching for an art form removed from the external world. In Klee, they found a liberating example of an artist who drew upon many ideas gaining currency in the international artistic avant-garde, including the art of indigenous cultures, the power of symbolic language, the method of working from the unconscious, and an interest in probing nature’s invisible forces. Klee’s stylistically diverse body of work resonated with American abstract artists searching for a new personal language of expression.

The introduction explains how the horror of the war urges the artist to find new forms of art to express themselves. This gives an adequate reason for why Klee’s expressionist style resonates so well with his coeval American artists.

Paul Klee Yang Moe (1938)

Kenneth Noland In the Garden (1952)

Take the two paintings for example, even though the stylistic differences between the two paintings, including the two artists’ use of lines and colors, are obvious, they share some commonalities. For example, both of them use simple lines to create abstract patterns, and both patterns in their resemblance to human figures carry their own symbolic meanings. Although Noland painted In the Garden 14 years later than Paul Klee’s Yang Moe, their expressionist style and the themes that both paintings share nevertheless allow the viewers a new perspective to access to the traumatic post-WWII age. The commonalities between the two painting demonstrate well how the Phillips Collection brings the artists into dialogues.

My questions

1.Using the above case for example, how do we understand the process of meaning-production with Pierce’s theory? In other words, how do we conceptually get the meaning of the painting, and what are the “interpretants” in this process.

2. If we don’t contextualize the two works synchronically in spatial terms, but in temporal term with Peirce and Bakhtin’s theories, what is the new relationships between the two paintings?


Irving, Martin. Dialogue, Dialogic, Dialogism| Intertextuality, intermediality| Remix: A Student’s Guide.