Sunday, May 1, 2011

Conventions and the Evolution of Imagery

In some ways a successful image is characterized by a harmonious balance of familiarity and novelty. Visual conventions, pictorial devices which become standardized, allow for this balance by allowing the artist to adopt an accepted imagery to their novel purpose. In addition to creating an image that resonates with earlier successful images, it allows the audience to better read the image. One such convention, prevalent in Western-European portraits of royalty, was the use of a column and velvet drapery.

King Edward VII of England, by Sir Samuel Fildes, 1902, Oil on Canvas

In this example, the velvet drapery and column are used to symbolize the power of the King, relying on a convention established much earlier and legitimized through subsequent royal portraits, such as the one below.

King Willem III of Netherlands,  Nicolaaas Pienemann, 1856, Oil on Canvas

Using convention allows artists  to relate their image to the images already within the public consciousness, tapping in to the symbolism and meaning of those images.  The application of extant conventions to new uses in some ways constitutes the evolution of imagery. It is like using a given formula (f(x)=2(a)+3(b); a=2,b=6) but changing some of the variables (f(x)=2(a)+3(b); a=1,b=4).

It is the same process for any image, a royal portrait or an advertisement.  In fact, because of the legitimizing effect of convention, images made for popular consumption may rely more heavily on them.

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