Symbolism is one of the most important artistic ideas for students of creative writing, film, visual art, dance, theater and all the other arts to grasp. Artists use symbolism to express important ideas or themes in their work. Understanding the differences between literal and figurative symbolism and the uses of both will make you a better artist in whatever discipline you work in.
Literal symbolism is, in a way, not symbolism at all. Literal symbolism is only symbolic in that within art, anything can only be a representation of an actual object, not the object itself. For instance, when a poet writes the word "tree" he is making the reader think of a tree. If that is the only meaning behind the word, then it is, in a fashion, a literal symbol for the object being represented, because no real tree exists for the reader.
Examples of Literal Symbolism
Examples of literal symbolism in art can be difficult to find because so many times artists are trying to represent something beyond that which first appears in the work. Photography is a common place to find literal symbolism, as the images shot often attempt to represent the most perfect reproduction of the actual object possible. With literature, understanding the literal meaning of a symbol is important for later being able to interpret the figurative symbolism.
Figurative symbolism is where the world of symbolic interpretation in art really gets started. Essentially, figurative symbolism is when one aspect of the art being examined is representative of one, or many, things beyond its literal interpretation. Metaphors in writing are an example of figurative symbolism. Color in film could by symbolic in this way. For instance, the color red in costumes or set pieces could represent the blood of past conflicts without actually having to show blood on the screen .
Figurative Symbolism -- Examples
In "Macbeth," blood symbolizes violence, a fairly literal interpretation, but it also symbolizes the guilt of Macbeth and his wife. In "The Chronicles of Narnia,",the entire land of Narnia exists as C.K. Lewis' representation of heaven. Symbolism was an entire movement in the visual art world, where artists felt their work should express ideas through symbolic rather than literal representation. Gustav Klimt was one artist who used this style.