When discussing symbolism in your art course, there are a number of ways you could interpret it, and several areas that could spur you on to interesting research paper topics. You could look into the movement of symbolism in art history, discuss the use of symbols in political art and propaganda, or look into the way religious symbols are used in artistic mediums.
Symbolism as a movement
The symbolism movement in art and literature began in 1880 and was a reaction to Impressionism, which emphasized accurate depictions of physical reality through small, visible brush strokes. Symbolism focused not on the physical reality being depicted, but on the meaning behind the images in the painting. According to the introduction to “Symbolism” article on The Art Story, “Symbolism can also be seen as being at the forefront of modernism, in that it developed new and often abstract means to express psychological truth and the idea that behind the physical world lay a spiritual reality.”
When delving into the symbolism movement, you might select one of the well-known artists whose works exemplified the movement’s ideals, such as:
- James Abbott McNeill Whistler
- Edvard Munch
- Pablo Picasso (primarily during his Blue and Rose periods)
Each artist has a short article, as well as numerous resources, available on Questia, and there are additional articles about Symbolist artists such as Gustav Klimt and Jan Toorop.
For research paper topics, consider comparing the styles of two of these Symbolist artists, or look into why Paul Gauguin and his contemporary Vincent Van-Gogh are sometimes considered Post-Impressionists rather than Symbolists. You can also research elements and themes of Symbolist theory, how Art Nouveau fits under the Symbolist school, or the more internal focus of Symbolist artists.
Religious symbolism in art
Iconography related to religious beliefs has been present since the dawn of art. The subject is so broad that limiting your research paper topic to one type of religious symbolism as it appears in art work, or one symbol as it is reflected through multiple religious lenses, may serve to help you narrow your focus. Articles and books that might help you find a starting point include:
- “Islam and Symbolism” by António Rodrigues, Military Review, May/June 2008.
- Church Symbolism: An Explanation of the More Important Symbols of the Old and New Testament, the Primitive, Mediaeval and the Modern Church by F. R. Webber, Jansen, 1938.
- Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions by H.R. Ellis Davidson, Syracuse University Press, 1988.
Symbolism in political art and propaganda
Flags, birds and animals, and a host of other symbols are frequently associated with governments or parties within a government. The way that those symbols are used in art can allow the artist a deeper commentary than with words alone. If you are considering political topics for symbolism in art, take a look at these articles or books for potential starting points.
- “Symbols and Legitimacy in Soviet Politics,” Annie Gérin, Canadian Slavonic Papers, June 1, 2011.
- Art for Art’s Sake & Literary Life: How Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology & Culture of Aestheticism, 1790-1990 by Gene H. Bell-Villada, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
- “In Kashmir, the Paintbrush Becomes an Alternative Tool for Protest” by Fahad Shah, Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 2016.
You can also find topics for political symbolism in art by reading satirical political cartoons, which frequently use symbols in place of political parties or leaders in their social critique.
What topics of symbolism in art do you find most relevant? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.