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Lesson Plans


Re: Mushrooms and Visual Symbolism

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Katherine Giltinan (k.giltinan)
Tue, 03 Feb 1998 18:18:43 -0600


Wendy Sauls wrote:

i am interested in finding info on visual symbolism...you've heard of how
certain fruits in (n. euro. ren. , i believe, as well as more modern )still
lifes are supposed to represent qualities or ideas? does anyone know of a
source that identifies these? i'm especially interested in the mushroom.
also, if anyone can think of any art that contains mushroom imagery, i'd
really appreciate it!

we (ms art class) are doing a unit called mostly green, about plants. our
first project was traditional, realistic botannical illustration from life
along with prints of leaves and flowers. our second project is a fantasy
shroom scape and we are trying to think of all the different meanings the
visual representation of a mushroom can connote.

Images of food and flowers in 17th c Dutch still-lifes are often moral
lessons on vanity. This type of imagery is known as Vanitas.

Ambrosius Bosschaert, of Middleburg, painted 'Vase of Flowers' in 1620. His
flower-pieces show thematic use of flowers to represent vanity and
transience. The full-blown bloom is dying, even at its most glorious. In
case you're doubting this grim interpretation of pretty flower paintings,
notice how often you'll see an hour glass or skull included in the still-life.

Rather than forbidding mushrooms as still-life material, why not take a
page from the 17th c. Dutch emblem books and set-up a contemporary moral
allegory on vanity, transience and street-drugs? Could be very powerful...

Other Artist's Names (to check for visual references):
Balthasar van der Ast
Pieter Claesz (I spent many hours in front one of his breakfast-pieces,
when it hung at my undergrad. college museum of art. His reflection, at
work on the painting, is incorporated into the melage. Even the artist is
transient - though we still enjoy the work. How's that for a moral lesson
on the work ethic? )
Jan Daidsz. de Heem
Willem Kalf

You might, also, check Audrey Flack's Vanitas series, for a 20th c
interpretation of the form. WOW! She holds the lens of moral examination
up to cosmetic vanity and Marilyn Monroe. (I've written a lesson for
high-school students using Flack.)

The earliest version of this picture/symbol/language is the 1505 Venetian
text, "Hieroglyphica". As the title suggests, Egyptian hieroglyphs had a
role in Dutch art. Actually, humanist scholar's mis-interpretation of the
Egyptian symbols, lead to the emblem books of the 17th c. I don't know of
any mushrooms - but these are the sources where you'll find meanings for
some 17th c Dutch still-life objects and genre subjects.

Major Authors of Dutch Embem Books:
Gerbrand Adriaenz. Bredero (1585-1618)
Johannes de Brune (1588-1658)
Jacob Cats (1577-1660) aka Father Cats, his emblems were reprinted into the
19th c. He also wrote conduct directions women were to follow in each
life-stage. Paternalism?
Pieter Cornelisz. Hooft (1581-1647)Amsterdam
Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687)
Jan Luyken (1649-1712)
Carel van Mander (1548-1606)
Hendrick Laurensz. Spiegel (1549-1612)
Ott van Veen (1556-1629)
Roemer Visscher (1547-1651) esp. 'Sinnepoppen'- 1614
Daniel Heinsius (1580-1655) Leiden humanist

also see Crisijn van de Passe, 'Hortus Floridus', Arnhem, 1614

Dutch art hung in Dutch homes. It wasn't just in palaces and public
buildings. The Dutch were highly literate, familiar with the emblem books
and plays and Bible stories represented in this art. Their language also
explains some objects, with, for instance, the word for a woman's genitalia
and a certain clam-shell being the same. Dutch trade was also a source of
national pride and provided subject-matter for still-lifes. The sea shells
and coconuts and various Asian, and African objects were valuable
collectibles either owned by Dutch who commissioned paintings of them, or
desired and possesed only through the painting.

other symbols assoiated with the mushroom: Mushroom cloud = bomb, mushroom
= fast growth,