Symbolism

The Symbolism of Words by Jeannine Cook

Palma-de-Maiorca.jpg
Balearic Islands, Spain

Balearic Islands, Spain

When I first came to Mallorca, Spain, so many years ago, it was still during Franco's regime. The Balearic Islands were officially forbidden from speaking their own regional language, Mallorquin, and they certainly were not allowed to have any symbol like a regional hymn.

Palma de Mallorca

Palma de Mallorca

Slowly, slowly, over the years after Franco died and Spain became a democracy and part of the European Union, the Balearics regained their identifying characteristics. One of the most beautiful aspects, I have always thought, was the song that is now termed the hymn of Mallorca, La Balanguera.

La Balanguera

La Balanguera

The poem that gave rise to this hymn was written by Joan Alcover i Maspons, as a children's poem that combined whimsy, beauty and instructional philosophy for their life ahead. The poem was put to very lyrical music written by the Catalan composer, Amadeo Vives, and in 1996, the appropriate governmental body, the Consell de Mallorca, declared it to be the island's official hymn.

La Balanguera music

La Balanguera music

I have always known, of course, its Mallorcan or Spanish versions, loving it when I hear its melodies sung or even hummed.  I recently found an English version translated by Dr. George Giri and published in the Majorcan Daily Bulletin.

Its words contain enough quiet wisdom that I think they bespeak a beauty worth considering.

The spinning wheel’s mysterious treadler Like a spider its subtle art Reels away her flaxen distaff Into yarn that holds our life Thus the spinner treadles On and on And spins her yarn.

Turning glances backward Sees the shadows of the past And the coming springtime Hides the seeds of things to come Knowing that the roots are growing And new roots are taking hold Thus the sinner treadles on and on And spins her yarn.

Hopes that hold traditions Weave a banner for the young Like a veil for future marriage Locks of silver and gold Which are spun into our youth But with age are nearly gone Thus the spinner treadles on and on And spins her yarn.

The Spanish version is just as lyrical in feel.

La Balanguera misteriosa (del francés "boulangère": panadera), como una araña de arte sutil, vacía que vacía la rueca, de nuestra vida saca el hilo. Como una parca que bien cavila, tejiendo la tela para el mañana. La Balanguera hila, hila, la Balanguera hilará.

Girando la vista hacia atrás vigila las sombras del abolengo, y de la nueva primavera sabe donde se esconde la semilla. Sabe que la cepa más trepa cuanto más profundo puede arraigar. La Balanguera hila, hila la Balanguera hilará.

De tradiciones y de esperanzas teje la bandera para la juventud como quien hace un velo de bodas con cabellos de oro y plata de la infancia que trepa de la vejez que se va La Balanguera hila, hila, la Balanguera hilará.

Hymns always reflect the optic of the region or nation that has them. The gentle yet fatalistic recognition of life's realities inherent in La Balanguera is very congruent with the sense of long history and solid self-identity with which this island faces the invasion of visitors and potential foreign residents over the years. I love this feeling of deep-seated culture that underpins Mallorcan life in so many instances, especially away from the tourist centres.

In essence, La Balanguera tells of the art of living. An interesting choice for a hymn.

Symbols Matter by Jeannine Cook

phoca_thumb_l_Wiley_Kehinde-EquestrianPortrait.jpg

In an article in the Wall Street Journal in May 2012, painter Kenhinde Wiley was discussing his portraits and the realities of being a portrait artist.  He ended by saying that, "You'll never be able to exist in the market place without recognising that paintings are perhaps the most expensive objects in the art world.  (The work) is not going to change anyone's life.  But what it does (is) function as a catalyst for a different way of thinking – symbols matter". (My emphasis.)

Exhibition at Brooklyn Museum in New York City, 'A New Republic", Kehinde Wiley, evoking Napoleon and others

Exhibition at Brooklyn Museum in New York City, 'A New Republic", Kehinde Wiley, evoking Napoleon and others

Wiley has been most skilled at suggesting other versions of past masters' portraits of the great and powerful.  His version of portraits by Rubens, Titian, Tiepoloand others are hugely symbolic as they remind us that the previous white-male-dominated world could indeed have been different.

It is not just by offering different versions of history that artists can offer insights into our world.  As artists, whether we realise it or not, we are offering interpretations and meanings about our surroundings and history. As the late Kirk Varnadoe reminded us in Pictures of Nothing - Abstract Art since Pollock, "We are meaning-makers, not just image-makers.  It is not just that we recognise images - it is that we are constructed to make meaning out of things, that we learn from others how to do it."

Take one of the most famous symbolic paintings of the last hundred years, Guernica by Pablo Picasso.

Guernica,  Pablo Picasso, 1937.  Image courtesy of the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937.  Image courtesy of the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid

It is one of the clearest demonstrations of the power of symbolism in art. It is a reminder that we can all use art in many powerful ways.

Euros - Symbolism on the Bank Notes by Jeannine Cook

Last week, when the Eurozone was hanging on the final "yes" vote in the Slovak Parliament to agree to the proposed EU bailout fund, I could not help thinking about the actual euro currency and its design.

For those who have not seen the bank notes, they are elegant. In clear and distinct colours that are easy to distinguish, they are a welcome change from semi-monochromatic currencies. Their design was thoughtful and symbolic, for this currency is an ambassador for the countries of the European Union. History, ethics, moral values –are all implied by a country's currency, and more so with this new currency that the EU launched in 2002.

euro_notes.jpg

On the side illustrated at right, it was decided to use architecture down the ages in Europe, designing it so that it was not specifically that of any one place. Using the symbolic motif of arches and entrances, examples were sought from across Europe and then stylised. The 5€ bill evokes classical architecture, the 10€ Roman architecture and the 20€ alludes to Gothic buildings. The 50€ brings us to Renaissance times, the 100€ refers to Baroque and Rococo architecture, the 200€ evokes the advent of metal in 19th century buildings, while the 500€ brings us to modern architecture. (For many years, in Spain, the 500€ bills were referred to as "Bin Ladens" as they were so seldom seen!)

The reverse side of the bank notes is about bridges, another important symbol for this ever-increasing union of countries that have often been enemies in the past.

money_architecture.jpg

Again, the style of architecture follows the same time frame, from classical to modern.

One of my favourite notes is the 20€ bill, for its limpid, subtle blue and serene design reminds me of the wonderful stained glass windows in Gothic cathedrals and the old bridges across the rivers of Northern Europe.

598864-20_note_Bridges_side_Europe.jpg

Sometimes, it is at the physical level - that of handling the bank notes and looking at their artistic design and symbolism - that helps bring home the importance of parliamentary decisions. I am glad that the Slovaks decided to help the euro stagger on again. It would be a great shame to abandon such elegant currency!

When did Art become an Integral Part of Man's Way of Life? by Jeannine Cook

It's been a day of fascinating coincidences.

Before I go further, I should just say that I am very much a child of Africa, I spent many, many blissful hours as a child along the seashores of Kenya and Tanzania and I still have treasured collections of the seashells I gathered there long ago.

Those reasons were enough to prompt me to read with attention an article from August's Scientific American magazine which my husband waved under my nose. Entitled " When the Sea Saved Humanity", it is an account by archaeologist Curtis W. Marean of how his findings in a cave above the rocky coast near Mossel Bay, South Africa, have afforded insights into how the very small and endangered population of Homo sapiens could have survived the dry, cold glacial age that rendered most of Africa uninhabitable from 195,000 to 123,000 years ago. South Africa's coastal bounty of shell fish and its very nutritious underground geophytes or tubers allowed this small group of people (from whom today's nearly seven billion inhabitants descend!) to survive.

Excavations from this cave, PP13B, at Pinnacle Point, have shown that man began living there 164,000 years ago. Evidence from the cave and others in the same area has pushed back to these very early dates proof of human cognition, technological abilities, tracking of time through lunar phases and sophisticated use of marine resources. But they have also shown another highly important sign of human "cognitive modernity", namely the evidence of art and its symbolic usage.

This is where, as an artist, I read with fascinated glee. Amongst the other artefacts found in the cafe at Pinnacle Point were countless pieces of red ocre, carved or ground to powder to mix with some binder, such as animal fat, to make paint for body or other surface adornment. By 110,000 years ago, red ocre and sea shells, collected and saved for their aesthetic appeal, made their appearance in the cave. These point to the existence of the concept of art and other symbolic activities. Another British archaeologist, Ian Watts, has found worked and unworked pieces of red ocre by the thousands at other sites in South Africa, dating from 120,000 years ago. (Remember - the earliest European cave paintings that use red ocre on the cave walls date from 32,000 years ago.)

Curtis Marean also mentions the discovery, in Blombos Cave, to the west of Pinnacle Point, of pieces of ocre with systematic, abstract carving by Christopher S. Henshilwood of the University of Bergen. Along with the ocre rocks, he found refined bone tools and beads, all dating from 75,000 years ago.

The image of the abstractly-decorated rock is courtesy of Christopher Henshilwood and Francesco d'Enrico, via National Geographic.

Red ocre incised brick, 75,000 years old from Blombos Cave, South Africa (Image courtesy  of National Georgraphic, Italy)

Red ocre incised brick, 75,000 years old from Blombos Cave, South Africa (Image courtesy  of National Georgraphic, Italy)

This afternoon, I listened to Alix Spiegel, on NPR's All Things considered programme, asking "When did we all become mentally modern?" Symbols again.

Shells like these, into which holes have carefully been drilled by hand, were used as beads. The beads, which were found at Moroccan Middle Paleolithic sites and are believed to be about 82,500 years old, were used as symbols and indicated status and beliefs, much in the way modern wedding rings or religious iconography do. (Image and text courtesy of NPR.org)

Shells like these, into which holes have carefully been drilled by hand, were used as beads. The beads, which were found at Moroccan Middle Paleolithic sites and are believed to be about 82,500 years old, were used as symbols and indicated status and beliefs, much in the way modern wedding rings or religious iconography do. (Image and text courtesy of NPR.org)

Professors Francesco d'Enrico and Marian Vanhaeren published these illustrations of the beads in the Journal of Human Evolution.

All these amazingly early datings of evidence of art and its use in man's daily life give one an even deeper feeling of the centrality of art's role in our lives. We ignore this heritage at our peril.