Semiotics and Iconography
By Theo van Leeuwen
Abstract by Patricia Little
In the chapter entitled “Semiotics and Iconography” in the book Handbook of Visual Analysis, Theo van Leeuwen distinguishes the differences between semiotics and iconography. He specifically refers to Roland Barthes visual semiotics in this discussion. Van Leeuwen immediately begins by describing their basic differences, “But where Barthian visual semiotics studies only the image itself, and treats cultural meanings as a given currency which is shared by everyone who is at all acculturated to contemporary popular culture, and which can then be activated by the style and content of the image, iconography also pays attention to the context in which the image is produced and circulated, and to how and why cultural meanings and their visual expressions come about historically” (92).
Van Leeuwen begins by describing denotation in semiotics. He explains, while this is the literal phase, viewers of the image can still see what they want to see. In order to rectify this and make viewers see just what the producers of the image want them to see, they use a few different techniques. These techniques include categorization, groups vs. individuals, distancing, and surrounding text.
Connotation is taken up next and is described as what the denoted images stand for. He explains that this is myth according to Barthes. An interesting note that van Leeuwen points out is what the visual images are doing (their actual literal poses) has meaning. Posing people or objects in a certain way will mean something specific to most people. He uses, for example, President Kennedy’s pose with his hands clasped, looking up. This is a general pose that makes the viewer feel they are looking at, “youthfulness, spirituality, and purity” (97).
Van Leeuwen then moves to iconography. His first topic in this section is representational meaning. He asks, “How does iconography establish that a particular image represents a particular (kind of) person (or object or place)?” (102). He lists several ways that an image can be particularized. These ways include a title, background research, identity through research, and on the basis of verbal descriptions. One amusing aside, clearly not intended by the author, is when he describes identity established through reference to other pictures. He explains that many popular images do not need to be titled because they are common. It is after time has passed that these once common names become forgotten. He states, “No ‘title’ is needed for the recognition of runner Nellie Cooman in an advertisement” (106). He is clearly right about fading recognition because I have never heard of Nellie Cooman!
He next moves to iconographical symbolism. This type of symbolism has two main subgroups; abstract and figurative symbolism. Abstract symbols have “abstract shapes with symbolic value, for example the cross” and figurative symbols “represent people, places, and things with symbolic value” (107). However, what is of more interest in this section is the difference between open symbolism and disguised symbolism.
To explain this difference he refers to Renaissance painting. He states, “A motif is an open symbol of something when it is not represented naturalistically… a disguised symbol when it is represented naturalistically” (109). Seems slightly vague, but he continues with a more current explanation. Disguised symbolism is an interesting problem for the contemporary artist. He writes “When artists draw on unconscious inspiration rather than on consciously known symbolic traditions symbolism will be repressed on a conscious level. When critics then nevertheless give a symbolic interpretation of such works, the artist will often contest it” (109-110). This point is made very clear in Amy Tan’s memoir The Opposite of Faith: Memoirs of a Writing Life. Tan is often surprised when readers and critics place symbolic significance in practically every page of her book, where she never had intended it. While this is not the type of art van Leeuwen is referring to, it remains a valid example of disguised symbolism.
Van Leeuwen finally moves on to his last section, iconological symbolism. This move from iconographical to iconological has to do with discussing the identification of these symbols to interpreting them. He states, “Iconological analysis, then, draws together the iconographical symbols and stylistic features of an image or a representational tradition into a coherent interpretation which provides the ‘why’ behind the representations analyzed” (116).
In conclusion, van Leeuwen sums up the differences between semiotics and iconography. These differences are two fold and are; first, a “difference between the two methods…art works of the past versus media images of the present” (117). And secondly, “visual semiotics remains restricted to textual arguments…whereas iconography also uses arguments based on intertextual comparison and archival background research” (117).
There does not seem to be much analysis needed for this work. Van Leeuwen is extremely exact with his explanation of the given material. One note, however, that I find interesting is the space and the way in which he discusses the given topic. His explanation of semiotics is clear and concise. Examples are given, when needed, and then he quickly moves on to the next topic. When van Leeuwen finally moves on to iconography the reader gets a sense that this is where he really wants to be. It is in this material that we get the best of the author. He uses more exciting and interesting examples and litters the text with pictures to better describe what he is talking about. It is interesting to note when he uses the example of President Kennedy’s pose he fails to supply the reader with a picture. However, when discussing African-Americans in relation to racist images with fruit, he gives the reader ample proof. It does not seem that he has anything in particular against semiotics, but it is clear that he believes iconography is a more useful and full system.