Symbolism in Contemporary Art: A Continuum of Coded Language

As the world becomes more interconnected and diverse, contemporary artists embrace symbolism as a means to transcend cultural boundaries and tap into the shared human experience.

by Heather Zises

In the ever-evolving landscape of contemporary art, symbolism remains a potent and enigmatic language that artists employ to express complex ideas, provoke thought, and commune with their viewers on a deeper level. It is through symbolism that artists can express their deepest fears, hopes, and desires in a realm that transcends verbal expression. As the world becomes more interconnected and diverse, contemporary artists embrace symbolism as a means to transcend cultural boundaries and tap into the shared human experience.

Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt, The Tree of Life, courtesy of

Symbolism in art is rooted in ancient civilizations, where representations of gods, nature, and everyday life hold profound symbolic significance. From Egyptian hieroglyphics to ancient Chinese scrolls, societies have relied on these visual codes to communicate complex ideas and spiritual beliefs. Fast forward to the 19th century, symbolism emerged as a movement in art (as well as literature) that sought to explore the world of dreams, emotions, and the subconscious. While its birthplace was centered in Paris, the movement spread globally. Artists like Gustav Klimt, Edvard Munch, and Odilon Redon pioneered symbolism’s ideas, in turn, rejecting the realism of the time in favor of evocative and mysterious imagery. Contemporary artists such as Basquiat, Banksy, and Yayoy Kusama have employed or continue to employ symbolism to provoke thought, question norms, and express dissent. In the digital age, symbolism has found new avenues for expression through multimedia installations, interactive art, and even augmented reality experiences.

“Untitled,” a Basquiat painting from 1982, sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction in May 2017. Credit: 2017 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris / ARS, via Sotheby’s | Source:

One of the defining characteristics of symbolism in contemporary art is its ability to challenge conventional notions of representation and realism. In contrast to traditional art forms that strive for accurate depictions of reality, contemporary artists often delve into the abstract and conceptual realms, using symbols to convey emotions, concepts, and themes that transcend the tangible world. These symbols act as bridges between the seen and unseen, giving form to intangible thoughts and feelings.

Kamil Mullashev
Kamil Mullashev, Listen to the Voice of Time, 2022, oil on canvas, 67″ x 59″

One prevalent trend in contemporary art is the use of symbols to address pressing societal issues and shed light on marginalized voices. Artists become advocates for change, challenging the status quo and sparking conversations about topics such as identity, gender, race, politics, climate change, or globalization. For Kazakhstani painter Kamil Mullashev, the representation and perception of time is a central theme in his work, both as a personal investigation into the nature of the temporal dimension and as a reflection on the current events of his era. While some of his works are ardent protests against current injustices, other works offer a more existential perspective. “In my work, I did not want and do not want to be associated with politics or to be a social critic. Politics is temporary, art must be eternal! I have always painted pictures on the theme of the truth of life and time. I also enjoy rendering poetic images of the Kazakh and Tatar peoples.” Gradually transitioning from realistic figuration, Mullashev has furthered his exploration of philosophical reflections on the nature of life, time, and space through an increasingly abstract aesthetic. In his most recent series, Creator, Energy, and Absolute Darkness, the artist seeks to capture spatial and temporal infinity, as a progression from total emptiness to creation to energy. 

Kristin Sue Kim
Kristin Sue Kim, New Orleans, 2020, mixed media on canvas, 30″ x 40″

In some instances, contemporary artists revive classical symbols and icons, infusing them with new meanings relevant to the present moment. By revisiting historical symbols, they highlight the continuity of human experience and the timeless nature of certain themes. Inspired by dreams and perceptions, Korean painter Kristin Sue Kim creates work that manifests on the conscious and subconscious planes. She weaves her emotional experiences into a language rich in symbolism, drawn from religious and cultural references–such as angels, crosses, stars, snow, houses, and flowers. The water droplets in her paintings represent the isolated lives of autistic children, which pays a poignant homage to her youngest son who was diagnosed as autistic in kindergarten. Additionally, Kim paints other elements such as marbles, silver balls, beads, and pearls which symbolize lonely souls estranged from society. Serving as a bridge between past and present, Kim offers her art as a channel of healing, prompting viewers to reflect on the enduring nature of human struggles and aspirations.

Yael Izrai
Yael Izrai, Dream Dust Series #2, 2022, giclee print, 18″ x 15″

The use of personal symbolism is another distinguishing feature of contemporary art. Many artists infuse their work with symbols drawn from their own experiences, memories, and emotions. By doing so, they create deeply intimate and authentic pieces that resonate with a broader audience, fostering empathy and connection between the artist and viewers. Multimedia artist Yael Izrai creates paintings that are allegorical depictions of her feelings and reactions to the world. Described as “tuning forks for the soul,” her works invite the viewer to find harmony amid chaos and discover something essential within themselves. Drawing inspiration from her previous work in ceramics, Izrai transposes the illusion of volume and dimension onto the picture plane with multi-layered surfaces through techniques like collage and intaglio. She then adds nuanced aspects of her own visual language which pose existential questions such as what our greater purpose is here on Earth is. Izrai also draws from cultural and historical sources for inspiration. “Through its teachings, Judaism has greatly influenced me, and consequently my art. Many Judaic symbols have their roots in Mesopotamian culture…Another primary source has been the Renaissance, both the Italian and Northern. My work has been influenced not so much by the images themselves, but by the ideas that the artwork of that period conveys.”

Contemporary artists frequently draw inspiration from a wide array of sources, including mythology, literature, history, pop culture, and social issues. By intertwining these diverse elements, they create multi-layered narratives that invite viewers to engage in a process of interpretation and introspection. This active involvement with the artwork allows the audience to become co-creators, as their individual perspectives and experiences shape the meaning they extract from the symbols presented.

Kamil Mullashev
Kamil Mullashev, Flight in Time and Space, 2017, oil on canvas, 66.5″ x 54.5″

Moreover, contemporary artists often blur the boundaries between traditional artistic media, incorporating new technologies and interdisciplinary approaches to enhance the symbolism within their works. Digital art, video installations, virtual reality experiences, and interactive exhibits are now part of the contemporary artist’s toolbox, enabling them to create immersive and thought-provoking environments that resonate with a tech-savvy audience. In Triptych Flight in Time, Mullashev casts a critical eye on how the digital age has changed our perception of time and the challenges of preserving our human qualities. Seemingly, we have access to an infinite amount of information, where people seem to have lost their bearings, finding themselves in weightlessness. 

In conclusion, symbolism in contemporary art serves as a powerful tool for artists to navigate the complexities of the modern world and create meaningful connections with their audience. It empowers artists to transcend the confines of reality and venture into the realm of the abstract and conceptual. By incorporating a diverse range of symbols, addressing pertinent issues, and embracing technology, contemporary artists continue to shape the language of symbolism and challenge our perceptions of art’s capacity to provoke thought and transform society. As we move forward into an uncertain future, the role of symbolism in contemporary art will undoubtedly remain a vital force in shaping the trajectory of human expression and cultural discourse.

Heather Zises is a seasoned media professional with progressive roles in public relations and marketing. She is an accomplished editor, curator, and arts writer, with a focus on digital content development and social media strategy. Heather is the founder of Avril Media Group, a communications company that offers tailored media strategies to a diverse range of clients. Additionally, her multi-award winning book, 50 Contemporary Women Artists (Schiffer 2018), is available at leading art institutions and university libraries.



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