‘Tis the season of Halloween– the time of year when the punks, goths, and metalheads are able to blend in with their surroundings. I recently visited the National Gallery of Art here in D.C. to admire some of America’s greatest artwork. During my visit I stumbled upon Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life series. Coincidentally, one of the pieces of the The Voyage of Life acts as the cover artwork for one of my favorite metal bands, Candlemass. As a fellow metalhead and Halloween fanatic, I believe this time of year is the perfect time to write about the semiotic meaning surrounding the paintings of Thomas Cole and the Swedish Doom Metal band, Candlemass vis C.S. Peirce.
Surveying Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Old Age
Old Age is the last installment in The Voyage of Life series. This series illustrates the life of one man (the Voyager) while he travels through the ‘river of life,’ which allegorizes childhood, youth, manhood, and old age.
In my initial viewing of this work, I first noticed the darkness. It provokes daunting emotions. The dark clouds are intimidating and blend into the vast dark ocean, giving the feeling of eternity.
The second thing I noticed was the light. Coming out of the dark clouds is a beam of light, seemingly appearing as if it is from the heavens. This light carries your eye towards an old man in a ragged boat. The man is reaching up towards the light and is accompanied by two angels–one next to him in the boat, and the other closer to the heavens, welcoming the old man to immortal life. Overall, The Voyage of Life: Old Age is embracing death.
Breaking it down using Peirce
C.S. Peirce was an interdisciplinary expert that is responsible for shaping modern day semiotics. Semiotics can be loosely described as the study of meaning and meaning making. Peirce uses a triadic model to model a ‘sign’. The Peircean Model consists of the representamen: the form of the sign (physical or non); the interpretant: the sense of the sign; and the object: something beyond the sign that the sign refers to (Chandler p. 29). Now let us apply this to The Voyage of Life: Old Age as a work of art. The representamen would be the painting itself. The interpretant (or should I say interpretants) are the aspects of the painting itself, the old man, the angels, the light, and the dark. The interpretants, as well as the representamen point to the concept of death. The object in this situation is death. Therefore, the whole painting is the sign.
Like I mentioned before, The National Gallery of Art is not the only place one could find The Voyage of Life: Old Age. This artwork is also the cover artwork for an album by the Swedish doom metal band, Candlemass. Nightfall (1987) is known to be a “Doom Epic” album. Unlike single-based albums, the tracks on the album follow a story.
Like Cole’s work, Nightfall takes the listener on a journey addressing the embrace of death. So how does the role of semiotics change when The Voyage of Life: Old Age is utilized as cover art?
My best guess: The representamen: The physical album as a whole (Vinyl + Cover + typography “Candlemass” & “Nightfall”).The interpretant: the meaning of death behind the artwork. The object: A thought provoking metal journey into darkness.
Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007
Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image.” In Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, 32–51. New York: Hill and Wang, 1988.
If you want to get heavy: