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  • Writer's pictureGillian Holding

The allegorical impulse

Submission to uncertainty 2019 Oil on paper laid on canvas, 150cm x120cm x 2.5cm

Allegory hasn’t had an easy run in the visual art world over the last couple of hundred years.

It’s often been misunderstood in its various forms and is frequently confused with symbolism and metaphor. It fell badly out of fashion with the arrival of Romanticism in the nineteenth century when allegory was pushed aside as artists rushed to embrace the supposed purity and clarity of classical symbolism. Then came Modernism, which certainly wasn’t looking to rehabilitate allegory: to be an allegorist, it must mean one was a historicist, and above all, the Modernist credo was “Il faut etre de son temps”. Then Formalism appeared and obsessed with the idea of artwork as object in itself, meaning art now had no place at all as a moralising didactic tool.

And after all those ‘isms” came Postmodernism, the 'ism' of a postmodern world of mass consumerism, “depthless culture”, and superficial celebrity culture. Cultural theorists began to consider the sorts of grammatical and cultural devices which might encapsulate this world, inviting us to consider montage, pastiche, irony, parody…and yes, allegory.

Just because allegory in the late 20th century became a subject for serious discussion did not mean it became any less embarrassing for artists admitting to an allegorical impulse. The words of Friedrich Melchior Grimm would reverberate unhelpfully in any artist’s head:

“For my part, I think that nothing so testifies to an artist’s lack of genius as resorting to allegory”.


The allegorical impulse though is hard for contemporary artists to ignore. Appropriation of images emptied of their original meaning and significance is evident in a range of contemporary art practices, and site specific installations informed by the allegorical cult of the ruin are two manifestations observed by Craig Owens in his celebrated early 1980s essays. He went on to describe a form of narrative allegory which looks to “the material of the signifier over the meanings of the signifieds”. In other words, the processes and materials themselves function allegorically. This is a hugely important aspect of my practice. My paintings evolve through a process which embraces a permanent state of unsettling uncertainty, using materials and approaches which vary and mix on a daily basis. I start not-knowing, and I move my hand and arm in a not-knowing direction. The absurdity and uncertainty and unknowingness and unknowability of contemporary society is allegorised in the process.

Nor should we forget entirely traditional allegorical devices in these postmodern times. In his monumental analysis of sixteenth century Baroque drama, Walter Benjamin identified a more modern form of allegory than the traditional clear didactic medieval devices, which he saw as shifting and playing with meaning. Ambiguity and a multiplicity of meanings were inherent in this form. His analysis of the shifting dialectical movement of Baroque allegory empowers the viewer/reader in a new and important way. This is a form of allegory perfectly at ease in a post-Barthesian death-of-the-author world of 21st century art. Nowadays we recognise the artist has no control over the way images are read.

So whilst conventional image-based allegory at first sight has no place in our postmodern society, Benjaminian allegory in contrast flourishes in this fragmented and superficial world of image saturation and reproduction layered with multiple meanings and ambiguities. Which is where my pigs come in. The pigs are not there to be “read” in any particular way but are a device capable of multiple readings and interpretations. It is to you, the viewer, to make what you will of the imagery and processes I use.

Gillian Holding 2020

Note: This blog post is based on a much lengthier essay written by me in 2009 and which will in due course make its way online if I ever find a way to open documents originally formatted in an ancient early version of Apple Pages. There has to be a 21st century allegorical element in that.

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