Symbolism in Art: The Bird

By Mark Sheerin - Friday, November 4, 2016
Symbolism in Art: The Bird

The most striking elements of this poetic scene are incomplete without a look at the background. The lone table tennis player may exemplify Doig’s interest in human character and form. And the abstract backdrop to his one-sided game may well bring to mind the modernist architecture which the Scottish painter has famously explored elsewhere. Together they form a puzzle, an unfinished narrative, and an arresting visual image that really defies paraphrase.

Symbolism in Art: The Bird

The most striking elements of this poetic scene are incomplete without a look at the background. The lone table tennis player may exemplify Doig’s interest in human character and form. And the abstract backdrop to his one-sided game may well bring to mind the modernist architecture which the Scottish painter has famously explored elsewhere. Together they form a puzzle, an unfinished narrative, and an arresting visual image that really defies paraphrase.

But look closely at the composition and you may find an important point of reference. In the top left corner, in grey, barely distinct from one of a bare tree branch, or the shade of a bare chest, is a bird in flight.

As we know, birds can be symbols of transcendence. Doig may have settled in Trinidad, but in Native American culture, a raptor such as this would be seen as the incarnation of a spirit guide, the conduit of help from beyond. In ancient times in Western culture, it was also a common belief that birds were messengers from a heavenly plane, and they soared down to earth with important messages.

But whether in the Americas or Western Europe, many of us would expect our important messages to come from the brush of a painter. In this respect the soaring messenger here should only return our attention to the shirtless figure, and his imprisonment within gridlines. Momentarily, can he too transcend? Or is the artist just serving up his best opening point, with heavy backspin?

 

Oil on canvas, 94 1/2 × 141 7/10 in, 240 × 360 cm. © Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved / 2014, ProLitteris, Zurich Photograph by Thomas Müller. "Peter Doig" at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen (2014-2015). Collection: Barrie and Emmanuel Roman, bequested to Tate. Source: Artsy

 Idea of the series belongs to Dirk Vanduffel.

Mark Sheerin is a journalist, writer and blogger from the UK. He holds a degree in English and Spanish American Literature from the University of Warwick, and an MA in English Literature: Critical Theory, from the University of Sussex. A former copywriter, Mark retrained in 2009, gaining an NCTJ certificate in Magazine Journalism from City College Brighton. Since then he has written for Hyperallergic, Culture24 and The Arts Desk, interviewing the likes of Yinka Shonibare, Jake Chapman, Glenn Ligon, Mary Kelly, Nathan Coley, and Marcus Coates. The latter story was syndicated by Whitechapel/MIT for their book Documents of Contemporary Art: Nature. He is also author of the art blog criticismism. In 2014, criticismism appeared in top ten blog lists from Cision, Creative Boom and CreativeTourist. Between 2009 and 2011 Mark also covered live music events for best-selling paper News of the World.

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Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

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