Swastikas, Symbols and Art
Given the recent flack generated by posting a photograph in the gallery depicting Nazi memorabilia, I thought it might be interesting to discuss the issues raised by the photograph posted below. I post this photograph specifically because it has absolutely no connection to the Nazis. And yet, that is what makes it such an interesting photograph, one which raises issues about symbols and their use in art in general and photography in particular.
Background: Five or six years ago, I was given several hundred glass negatives which were found under a stairwell in a commercial building in the small town in which I live. They mostly are commercial portraits taken of the settlers and early residents of Cass County Iowa. I cleaned the plates and printed the best negatives. The one posted below always draws the most attention.
I have determined that the plate was exposed sometime between 1900 and 1920. The name “Dvorak” is written in grease pencil at the base of the plate. It was taken in the Lewis Photography Studio, Atlantic, Ia. That’s it as far as “the facts.”
Each viewer of the print has pretty much the same reaction. First, they give a quick glace at the faces of the woman and girls. They then pull the print closer and look closely at the ribbon worn by the middle girl. They then look up at me with a quizzical look. Generally, they will ask, “Were they German immigrants.?” I then remind the viewer that the photograph was taken before 1920, and their last name was Dvorak. ‘So, why is the girl wearing a ribbon with swastikas on it?”
To me, this simple portrait demonstrates the problem inherent whenever one uses a symbol in art. The symbol must be understood the same way by the artist and the viewer. Here, the girl was wearing a swastika, a symbol of peace and prosperity. We view it, 90 years later, as a symbol of hatred and genocide. I can intellectualize why she was wearing it, but it is still difficult to get past my revulsion for the symbol.
The meaning of symbols changes over time. The meaning of symbols varies from culture to culture. To work as a system of communication, the viewer and creator must “speak the same language.”
So, should we use symbols in our photographs--what does it mean if the female nude is holding a fig verses a pomegranate verses a glass ball? Can we ever really understand art of the past, which used a definite systems of symbols, on anything other than an academic level?
Should we go ahead and use past symbols in our contemporary art, realizing that only a select few will fully understand what we are saying? Should we use contemporary symbols in our art knowing that they may be misinterpreted in the future? Did modernism completely kill symbolism, so that we are only left with metaphor and allegory?
Is the impact of the symbol greater or lesser because it is in a photograph compared to a painting, drawing or sculpture? Does this photograph prove that works are always products of their time and to be fully understood, we need to know the facts concerning their creation, or are works of art timeless?
Just a few things to discuss. I'm not atempting to give any answers here. I thought I would just get the ball rolling. Feel freee to introduce additional issues in your discussion.
The swastika shown looks more the symbol used by Buddhists and some native Americans. The corrupted Nazi symbol runs the other way.
Many Buddhist temples I've seen have this symbol. Its over doorways, and often on statues of the Buddha. It symbolises His heart.
That`s a left Swastika widely seen in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, the HakenKreuz adopted by the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, it`s a right faced one with a clockwise rotation, therefore, a completely different symbol.
The Swastika has been considered a symbol of goodness, the circle life, good luck, etcetera for over three thousand years. It was once the symbol of the American 45th Division. They are now known as the Thunderbirds and have a corresponding symbol. The Nazis adopted and corrupted the symbol , and many other ancient and powerful symbols, and although we are revolted by the Swastika today, we use many of the other symbols the Nazis adopted, and don't notice, as they aren't as well known.
(the girls' swastikas run the correct way)
Agree - this is the reverse "swastika". There is a public building in Sydney from the late 19c in the middle of the tourist zone which is tiled with these symbols of peace and goodwill. As a result there is a very painstaking display on the wall to explain these symbols and their history to prevent any "righteous indignation" getting out of hand from any misunderstanding. Excessive political correctness may have seen them removed but it serves to remind us that symbols prima facie are harmless. It's the value systems and beliefs they represent which we carry and cause us to respond to them.
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First, I didn't see the picture/s in the gallery, and haven't read the thread discussing the issue yet, so am responding simply to above.
I think it's a complex area. I'm not sure you can say that symbols are of themselves 'harmless', because by definition they encapsulate and represent ideas, systems, beliefs etc.
The associations and meanings of symbols do change over time. I'm not sure you can ever go 'backwards' and ignore more recent influences/permutations; but perhaps you can.
An interesting one is the way the cross of St George is seen now in Britain. For many it would be a simple 'innocent' expression of 'Englishness', (most usually now assocated with football).
Can we ever, though, get away from the fact that the far right groups - National Front etc.- 'usurped' the cross of St George to signify racist politics. Confused by the fact that some (a small minority) of English football fans appear to espouse these political views.
I personally, am not sure what to think. Friends of mine who are not in any way associated with the far right display the flag without thinking during football contests. I can't pass a house displaying the cross, though, without thinking of the associations that have come about over the past 30 years (especially).
Maybe it IS changing, and the flag is being reclaimed. It's interestiing to see if this IS happening, and if it will be possible.
This is not so much about photography and art, but it would become so, if the cross of St George were to be used as art/photography.
Last edited by catem; 10-30-2006 at 06:21 AM. Click to view previous post history.
You could also see something similar in the Basque Country. Have a look here:
There are three swastika shown clearly in the image (two more are mainly obscured); two appear to be 'left', one (the right-most of the three) appears to be 'right'. I think the symbol is printed through the fabric so that its orientation depends on the side from which you are viewing.
But I could be wrong!
The destination is important, but so is the journey
the photographer obviously meant to promote intolerance and hate.
"Where is beauty? Where I must will with my whole Will; where I will love and perish, that an image may not remain merely an image."
And how is the photographer supposed to do this? The photograph in this discussion was photographed in America, in what looks to be a time long before Hitler and his perverted gang became known outside of the rowdy Beer Cellars they infested and used a corrupted form of the swastika.
Originally Posted by Christopher Colley