Symbol and Sumbolon

Are all images symbols? Since an image (from the Latin, imago or »likeness«) by definition represents something  even though the twentieth century has taught us that what it represents may be nothing more than the manner of it's execution or even »itself« in the colloquial sense of the term, symbol (as a representation), it is safe to say categorically that all images are symbols, even if not all symbols are images..

But the origin of the word symbol is more specific than its modern colloquial sense of representation, for it derives from the Greek sumbolon, a token for establishing one's identity by joining it with a counterpart which is to say that, in the strict sense, the token in and of itself did not serve to represent. Its function of representing or symbolizing, realized itself only in conjunction with its counterpart. Only then did the sumbolon fulfill its function of representing a third abstract element: identity. In its original sense therefore, a symbol was the first leg of a dialectic: 1. sumbolon (thesis); 2. counterpart (antithesis); 3. identity (synthesis).

The dialectical nature of the original sense of symbol as sumbulon finds its analogy in the structure of artistic creation: 1. artist (thesis); 2. reality or that which the artist represents (antithesis); and 3. the work of art, which partakes of both the artist and the reality that the artist represents, and yet transcends them both (synthesis).

But what are the implications of this dialectic if an artist aspires to represent metaphysical reality, as in the work of Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein? Is it possible for a work of art to transcend a metaphysical reality that supersedes all merely aesthetic transcendence? If not, then what manner of representation is it?

In the past, artists resorted to allegory to represent the metaphysical world. But the images of SH are not allegories, neither are they, as Panofsky has suggested of Medieval Art, intended to represent the Platonic Ideal of an image, for they aspire to compel in the viewer the experience of transcendent reality without the mediating conveyance of allegory. That they are not Platonic Ideals is one reason they are rendered in abstract language. But unlike many abstractions they are specifically mimetic and do not refer to themselves except incidentally; they aim to represent reality, but the reality they represent is »unseen« except in the paintings themselves.

One ancillary feature of this work is that, like that of a number of artists working today, it calls into questions the abstract/ figurative distinction, but it does so in a manner that arises directly from the work's theme of metaphysical representation.

These works affirm that painting is representational by definition regardless of whether it chooses an abstract or a figurative language (similarly, it is a truism that all representational images are to some degree abstract).They similarly affirm that the unseen transcendent reality that is the essence of immanent reality before us, is equally subject to representation, but that the manner of its representation, to be adequate, must respect the fundamental character of the transcendent, e.g, since transcendent reality is infinite, (including but not limited to infinity of time and space) the work rejects for example a traditional use of light to give the illusion of depth, it rejects a distribution of forms in the image that gives a sense of space wherein objects refer to each other internally, or to the world beyond the frame  all in favor of a »dimensionlessness« proper to the transcendent.

This sort of enterprise not only presupposes faith in the existence of the transcendent reality it seeks to represent (without the faith of the artist, this sort of act becomes antiaesthetic), but implies that faith is a necessary disposition in the creative act itself: the artist seeks neither to be master nor detached theoretician, but the instrument of the object of representation.


Although SH's primary exhibition medium has been oil paintings or installations of which big oils are an important part, like many artists she has throughout her career taken advantage of the immediacy and portability of watercolors as means of working through ideas and studies for big paintings. But recently the artist has revealed a system of watercolor paintings that derives from the distinctive nature of the medium, and are not »preparations« for bigger works at all. As in all of SH's paintings light (the visible metaphor of God) is not merely a conveyance of that which is represented but is itself that which is represented, hence the »dimensionless« noumenal light afore mentioned. But we all know that, although it is possible, it is not in the nature of the watercolor medium to render a definite line or »cut« light source, watercolors bleed or effect gradual transitions of degrees of brightness.

Ordinarily this feature of the medium lends itself directly to the illusion of depth, but here the artist uses it to show that there is indeed a light source, but that it seems to emerge simultaneously from all directions, and indistinguishably from the depth and the surface of the image.

Since all images are also about seeing, I would argue that this technique evokes a simultaneity of point of view which is not limited like Cubism to objects in three dimensions, but which is metaphysical (Cubism has a number of limitations of which the most obvious is that it is useless for representing flatness). Metaphysical simultaneity of point of view that arises from the artists treatment of light in this medium aspires to become a means for the viewer to contemplate the simultaneous vision of God.

Here it remains to consider the diversity of size and placement of the groups of watercolors. Why are they different sizes, why are some vertical and others horizontal, and why are they in groups at all? For one thing, this mean of placement allows the viewer to take in an entire group in a single glance (another evocation of the theme of divine simultaneity of vision). In this way the images within each group assume an organic relation to each other that causes them to appear to pulsate backward and forwards with respect to the viewer.

This effect compounds the perspective disorientations within each individual image (i.e., those arising from the apparent fluidity and simultaneity of light sources).Within each work and with respect to each other, the images oscillate between dimensions and flatness, between dimensionlessness and simultaneity of dimension.

Big Oils

Consistent with the usual nature of the medium the big oil paintings do not bleed, and yet they succeed in evoking a like simultaneity of illumination. One reason for this is that they reject single-line perspective, parallel perspective; multiple perspectives with defined points of view (which usually presupposes a figurative language as in de Chirico); or superimpositions of various perspectives (»violation of the picture plane« or the surrealist principle applied to perspective). Even to »violate« the picture plane in the manner of Picabia or his imitators presupposes a clearly defined perspective distinction between the base image and the superimposition, or a base which gives the illusion of depth and the superimposition of an element that is flat.

In the big oils, flatness and dimensionality are constantly in flux, and the colors re-inforce this quality, for the colors are »unmatchable« variants of a consistent base color, red or blue plus a color (usually gold) for light. The color for light is devised in its flatness not to give the illusion of the effect illumination, but to represent light. In this way it acquires its function as metaphor for the transcendent; it is not there to »trick« the eye into the perception of depth in a flat image.

Here spatial compositions are also in flux and divested of the merely organizational function proper to a depiction of immanent reality. In this way the decentralized and fluid character of spatial elements allude to a transcendence of space that is also in the service of representation of metaphysical reality.

Time and the Image

Ordinarily in abstract painting, the technique of »meshing« brush strokes typically strives to generate a perspective disorientation and therefore pertains to the rendering of space. Consistent with the strategy of a symbolic technique, here the painter alludes less to space than to time. Since metaphysical reality is eternal and therefore both subsumes time and transcends it, the »meshing« of dual brushstrokes of different colors alludes to the »co-incidence« of immanent time and the transcendence of time, history and eternity.

Here the artist ascribes to each color a time value by according it a speed. For SH, orange is faster than red; and red faster than blue, warm colors are faster than cold colors. The time element is not only a persistent theme of the big oils, but of the cross in the altarpiece of the Chapel of the Hospital zum Heiligen Geist in Hamburg. In traditional theology, the Crucifixion is the center of history which alludes to the conjunction of the immanent world with its horizontal axis, ant the transcendent world with its vertical axis. The center of the cross is the juncture of history and eternity. In the cross of the altarpiece, the artist´s consciousness of these time elements is implicit in the juxtaposition of materials. The cross itself is gilded wood, a material that decays with time, but which is contained in a representation of transcendent light.When the wood decays, the stone at the juncture of the axes survives as an image of temporal transcendence.

We recall that one way that an image differs from reality is that it is static with respect to time, while reality is either always dynamic with respect to time or in the case of metaphysical reality, eternal, i.e., it transcends time. By investing an image with a temporal dynamic, the artist addresses the problem of realism in a more fundamental way than the merely figurative or »representational.«


Having considered that one difference between an artistic representation of immanent reality and one of transcendent reality is that although the dialectical structure of artistic creation applies in either case, in the case of the latter, the work of art that becomes the synthesis of the artist and the metaphysical world represented cannot be said to transcend them both as would be in the case in an artistic representaion of immanent reality. Nothing can transcend metaphysical reality which is itself the essence of all reality including all transcendence, in Anselm's traditional phrase, the »that beyond which nothing greater can be conceived.«

The work of art as synthesis of the artist and metaphysical reality can however give rise to another dialectic: 1. the work of art (thesis); 2. the viewer (antithesis); 3. immediate experience of the transcendent in the immanent world.

Created with a contemplative disposition, these works of SH are the tokens which, in conjunction with the viewer, realize their symbolizations of the transcendent. They do not merely represent metaphysical reality; they are each a sumbolon of our capacity to experience metaphysical reality in this world.

Drew Hammond
Los Angeles

©  2018 by Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein