Museum gift shops are combating coronavirus with artistic face masks, NPR reported. Museums from Detroit and Milwaukee to Philadelphia are selling masks with prints of famous works of art on them, including Edvard Munch’s The Scream. In a sense, all of art is symbols and signs to discover.
According to NPR, one of the ways museums are staying afloat during the pandemic is by taking wearable art to a new level. “Many museums are still closed, but their shops are doing a lively business with face masks that are funny, or gorgeous, or daring, and can be ordered online,” the article said. “Usually the masks are based on art in their collections. Edvard Munch’s The Scream is Milwaukee’s second best-selling mask. Number one is Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night.”
In its most stripped-down sense, art consists of signs and symbols, whether they’re more direct and representational symbols or abstract symbols that evoke an emotion or response.
The World of Semiotics
With so many media for visual art—painting, sculpting, sketching, and so on—there are schools of study devoted to all of them. In fact, a relatively recent academic field called semiotics looks at visual art in a new perspective.
“Semiotics is the study of signs,” said Dr. Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, President of Rosemont College. “Signs are basically everything—you have visual depictions, actual street signs, and even body language. Everything really works in art; we can look at particular symbols, but also things like color and line can be symbols or signs of something else.”
Dr. Hirsh said that the study of semiotics was founded by Ferdinand de Saussure, who suggested calling all the things like color and line “signs.” He didn’t like to call things symbols. To fit his philosophy, then, everything identified in a work of art would be a “signifier” of something else.
“For works of art, that means that everything in the painting, sculpture, or print could be read as a sign, or signifier, of something else,” Dr. Hirsh said. “Certain objects or depictions might appear to us to be symbols or obvious signs. But there are also other signs or signifiers in every work of art.”
Signs in Van Gogh
In one particularly well-known painting—Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear from 1889—we find some interesting signs. The background consists of warm colors while Van Gogh smokes from a pipe, his head wrapped vertically in a bandage.
“The pipe is an actual symbol, signifier, or sign of contentment, simplicity, and—for Vincent—being in the company of simple folks,” Dr. Hirsh said. “The bandaged ear, on the other hand, is a symbol or a sign of how he is not so simple or normal. The color background could be seen as a signifier of what’s really going on with him even as he writes to his brother—at the same time he’s painting this painting—that things are getting better and calmer.”
Dr. Hirsh said that Van Gogh was part of an artistic movement in the late 19th century that was actually called Symbolism. With Symbolism, artists sought to use any and all symbols available in order to guide the viewer’s eyes to other aspects of the painting and objects in it.
“It’s putting all these signs together and understanding their relationship to each other and to the whole that makes reading signs much more interesting than just looking at a couple of symbols.”
Thanks to the museums around the country selling masks with artwork on them, we may be able to read the signs on people’s faces—in a slightly different manner than being at the museum.
Dr. Sharon Latchaw Hirsh contributed to this article. Dr. Hirsh has served as president of Rosemont College since 2006. She completed her undergraduate degree in the history of art and studio art at Rosemont and earned her MA and PhD in the history of art from the University of Pittsburgh.