Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Voyage of Life

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There is a series of interesting paintings called “The Voyage of Life” by Thomas Cole at Munson Williams Proctor Institute. These paintings contain a great deal of symbolism and, in my opinion, are a perfect example of the communication theory of semiotics. Semiotics is best described as “anything that can stand for something else” (A First Look at Communication Theory by Em Griffin, page 55). In other words, an object or image can be one thing, but it can also stand for something else. For example, a picture of a light bulb over a person’s head might mean that the person has an idea.

The first painting in the series is titled “Childhood”. It is a bright painting featuring abundant new plant growth. New plants can symbolize new life. The scene is calm and there is no danger. It looks like a peaceful way to enter a new life. In the painting there is a child in a boat with an angel behind him. The boat is coming out of a cave and this cave can symbolize a mother’s birth canal from which the child emerges. The boat has angel faces carved in the side of it, and these angels stay with the person and stay with him throughout his life. The boat also has an angel carved in the front, which faces forward. This angel is holding a sand timer, which has all of the sand on top. This symbolizes that it is the beginning of this persons’ life.

The light towards the right side of the painting shows that the child is coming out of the darkness and into the light of a new life. The source of that light is obviously from the sun, which can symbolize Heaven. Although death will not come for many years, the child’s final destination is the Kingdom of Heaven. The child is with the angel, which one would assume is his guardian angel. In many artworks and images an angel can symbolize the ability to explore. In this painting this symbolism can result in the child learning as he goes, and obtaining knowledge all the way.

The second painting in the series is called “Youth”. This painting is also a very bright painting, but not as bright as the first. As I go through the paintings I notice that the paintings get darker and darker as the series proceeds. I believe that Thomas Cole did this for a reason. I think he is attempting to show that during life, some days are easier than others. The brighter the painting, the easier and more relaxed the day or time period. In “Childhood” the painting is very bright, which can mean that it is a peaceful time period. The child is in the boat, floating along calm waters with his Guardian Angel behind him. There is no danger in the first painting. Then when I move to the second painting, the lighting is a little bit darker. This does not mean that there is immediate danger but one can sense that there might be danger in the future.

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Much of the plant life is mature in this painting, which can signify that many years have passed since the first painting depicting a baby. Some of the sand in the timer that the angel is holding, has fallen to the bottom which also signifies that time has passed since the first painting.

The second painting shows the Guardian Angel who seems to be sending the youth off into the world to survive life on his own. The youth seems unaware that the Guardian Angel is there, and points forward as if to shout “Onward!” The youth appears energetic and looks as if he is ready, willing and able to accept whatever obstacles he may encounter. At this point the water is still calm. This can symbolize that this youth’s journey is off to a good start. In the sky I can see a translucent image of a large, royal structure. I think that anyone that views this painting will assume that this structure represents the Kingdom of Heaven. Looking at the youth in the boat with his arm extended toward the sky, it seems that he wants to move forward but still is not mature enough to know where he is headed or what his final destination is.

The third painting, titled “Manhood,” is quite a bit darker than the two previous paintings. This can symbolize that negative or challenging events may be in the near future. The plant life seems to be diminishing and the branches toward the bottom of the painting are broken without many leaves. The dying of the plant life can be understood as diminishing time. Once again, more sand has passed through the sand timer that the angel holds, which means that more time has passed. Although he is only a man and has not reached old age yet, he has attained the second half of his life and his days will soon be numbered. The man is traveling from the left side of the painting to the right, towards violent waters. A ragged tree branch on the left side of the painting can represent previous experiences and obstacles that have been conquered. The rapids that the man is headed towards represent upcoming challenges and obstacles that he must defeat to move on. The dark clouds in the distance can be seen as a warning sign of possible harmful events that may be on the horizon. Above the water, there are three evil spirits that accompany the dangerous territory and the man looks to heavens for help. The angel is in the top corner looking down on him listening to his plea. This can represent the fact that the man is just a man. He cannot conquer these spirits and challenges by himself. He needs help from a higher power to defeat these upcoming events so he can move forward in life. Past the dark clouds in the distance there is a bright sky, which can signify calm days up ahead.

The fourth and final painting called “Old Age” is generally very dark with the exception of the upper left corner. I see plenty of rocks and stony landscaping, but there does not seem to be any plant life in the painting at all. This can symbolize death or dying life. There are very dark clouds surrounding the old man but then they get brighter as they reach the sky. It seems that the man is currently having troubled times, but the Guardian Angel is there to help with the expectation that troubled times will soon be over.

The water that is in each of these paintings has a lot of meaning. Water has many different characteristics. All life forms need water to survive, but at the same time water can kill those same life forms. Water can boil or freeze. Water can be calm or turbulent. Water can create life and water can also corrode. The boat that transports the old man protects him from the possibly dangerous waters that carry him through life. I can tell that the old man has had a somewhat difficult life just by looking at the condition of his boat in this painting. It is worn and rotted and the wooden angel that once held the sand timer has broken off. Since the sand timer is gone, that can symbolize that time is up. In this fourth painting the water is calm again and the Guardian Angel has returned to the old man to lead and protect him through the rest of his journey. The angel is pointing towards the bright sky, which means that the end of his journey through life is near and Heaven is not far away.

Semiotics is an easy theory to understand and many paintings, advertisements, television shows and movies use semiotics to get their point across. In a painting such as The Voyage of Life, that is full of semiotics, has endless symbols that can be viewed as one thing but interpreted as another.

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