Exercise 2 – Join the Navy, an exercise in denotation and connotation

Join the Navy semiotic analysis

Join the Navy, 1917 (colour litho); Richard Fayerweather Babcock

Fig. 1 Join the Navy, c. 1917 (colour litho)


This is an exercise on the concepts of denotation and connotation within a semiotic analysis of a recruiting poster of around 1917.


Denotation or what I can literally see:

I see a young man astride a golden torpedo. He is dressed in a blue sailor’s uniform with a white cap. His legs are wide apart, with one hand he holds what looks like a rein, his right arm is raised in the air and holds a piece of string. The torpedo barely touches the water and raises splashes all around. The colours are blue, yellow and green. In the lower part of the poster, in big red capital letters, we can read the text JOIN THE NAVY. The article ‘the’ is smaller and underlined by two wavy lines. Below follow the words, in blue smaller capital letters, THE SERVICE FOR, and underneath and slightly larger the words FIGHTING MEN with an underlining yellow straight line. The gold of the torpedo and the red of JOIN THE NAVY are the colours that stand out at first sight.



Connotation or what are the implied meanings of what I see: 

I think that this recruiting Navy poster works as a metaphor: to join the Navy will be as manly and adventurous as riding a horse in a rodeo. The young sailor is shown tense in action and clearly enjoying himself as a cowboy straddling a horse. Memories of the old Wild West would naturally come to mind to a young American man seeing the poster. The open sea is an equivalent of the wild desert and an invitation to action.

It’s true that to modern eyes the torpedo might look like a phallic symbol, as Creative Arts Today suggests, but it’s difficult to tell if this connotation was intentional at the time. However it might be inadvertently present if one considers that horses and missiles are traditionally both seen as sexually meaningful penetrating objects, or perhaps this is another modern and contemporary overinterpretation . In any case the poster appeals directly to the masculine values of fighting and strength and insinuates strongly that real men are those who join the Navy or otherwise that if you don’t join the Navy you are not a real man. Another masculine virtue which is implicit in the poster is that fighting men are in control, are able to dominate a dangerous torpedo like a wild horse, enjoy taking risks and are not afraid of war.


Analysis of a poster from the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty

For a semiotic analysis I have chosen an advertising poster for Dove because some years ago it had grabbed my attention on the street and in magazines as something different.

It’s interesting to read what Unilever writes on its website about this campaign:

‘For too long, beauty has been defined by narrow, stifling stereotypes. Women have told us it’s time to change all that. Dove agrees. We believe real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages. That is why Dove is launching the Campaign for Real Beauty.’ (campaignforrealbeauty.com)



Image result for dove campaign

Fig. 2 Poster for Dove Campaign for Real Beauty


Denotation or what I can literally see:

On a white background I see on the centre left of the poster a group of seven young women (one coloured, one asiatic, one with a tattoo) in different white underwear, all smiling and looking at the camera. They look like they are posing for a photo and touching each other. At the opposite side of the poster, below right, there is a group of white and blue Dove products. Also on right, in mid air hover the words ‘For the price of 1 supermodel, / we got 7 real women’ preceded by the logo image of a stylized yellow dove. At the top right in small letters is the name of the campaign website, campaignforrealbeauty.com, to which the poster belongs.


Connotation or what are the implied meanings of what I see:

Having read the intentions for the campaign declared by Unilever, I’m going to see how the company has translated them into this poster. First of all the message communicated is hybrid since it certainly wishes to persuade consumers to buy a certain product but declares also the ambitious social end ‘to change the status quo and offer in its place a broader, healthier, more democratic view of beauty’ (campaignforrealbeauty.com).

That said, Dove products are in the low price range, are sold in supermarkets and cosmetic chain stores and are aimed at a generic consumer, so the choice of a campaign without luxury connotations seems a good and sensible one. The girls look comfortable with themselves and relaxed, as a group of friends taking a selfie, their unpretentious white underwear indicates that they show themselves as they are, feel well in their skin, are confident in their bodies and expose them without worrying about the judgement of others. So far so good even if the implicit message seems to be that real, normal women DO have doubts about how they look, DO feel insecure and so DO need to be reassured by a poster like that.

I must also say that the text ‘For the price of 1 supermodel, we got 7 real women’ does not sound particularly flattering to real women – it is like saying that they are not worth a supermodel and can be bought rather cheaply as a bunch, at a discount price – but most importantly it seems to me that it contradicts the visual message that beauty cannot be measured and assessed. So conventional beauty and being traditionally gorgeous DOES count after all and women ARE judged by their appearances which is exactly the opposite of what the visual message wished to communicate.



List of illustrations

Figure 1. Richard Fayerweather Babcock, Join the Navy, c. 1917 [colour litho] At: movedbybreath.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Join-the-Navy-1917-Richard-Fayerweather-Babcock-colour-litho.jpeg

Figure 2. Poster for Dove Campaign for Real Beauty At: http://payload163.cargocollective.com/1/7/247254/5568685/DoveOOH1_900.jpg


At: http://www.campaignforrealbeauty.ca/supports.aspurl=supports.asp&section=campaign&id=1560 (Accessed 21/02/17)



Denotation and connotation

From my Creative Arts Today handbook (page 124):

  • denotation describes what can be seen and its literal interpretation
  • connotation describes the possible meanings that are suggested by the literal elements

I think that these are very useful concepts to start from in order to analyse an image. As an integration to these definitions I have found also useful as an integration an article published online by the California State University at: http://www.csun.edu/~bashforth/098_PDF/06Sep15Connotation_Denotation.pdf

(Accessed on 20/02/17)

‘Connotation is the emotional and imaginative association surrounding a word. Denotation is the strict dictionary meaning of a word.’

‘Connotation represents the various social overtones, cultural implications, or emotional
meanings associated with a sign’

‘Because of usage over time, words that denote approximately the same thing may acquire additional meanings, or connotations, that are either positive (meliorative ) or negative (pejorative ).’

‘The connotative meaning of a word is based on implication, or shared emotional association with a word. Greasy is a completely innocent word: Some things, like car engines, need to be greasy. But greasy contains negative associations for most people, whether they are talking about food or about people. Often there are many words that denote approximately the same thing, but their connotations are very different. Innocent and genuine both denote an absence of corruption, but the connotations of
the two words are different: innocent is often associated with a lack of experience, whereas genuine is not. Connotations are important in poetry because poets use them to further develop or complicate a poem’s meaning.’

‘Since everyone reacts emotionally to certain words, writers often deliberately select words that they think will influence your reactions and appeal to your emotions.’


‘Language meaning is continually shifting, is always contextual, and is influenced by historical, cultural, and economic factors’

‘Denotative language is factual; connotative carries emotional overtones A recipe is denotative; an advertisement connotative’


Exercise 1 – What does this apple mean?

A short research of apple images on the web has produced a very huge number of examples both in fine and commercial arts which show how the apple has been used throughout the centuries as  a powerful symbol resonating with multiple and even contradictory meanings. As a symbol it looks very complex and ambiguous. I made a personal selection of images and looked into the apple has been considered in different visual contexts.

Fig. 1 Venus Verticordia (1864-68)

This and the following picture (Figs. 1 and 2) are two examples of Venus holding the apple which had been assigned to her by Paris of Troy (Fig. 5). In this case the apple appears to be associated to beauty, love, fertility and sexuality and this seems to be one of its fundamental meanings that reverberates powerfully throughout human visual culture.

Fig. 2 Venus Holding an Apple (between 1530 and 1540)

Fig. 3 Adam and Eve (1507)

In Figure 3 Adam and Eve eat the apple accepted from the serpent in the Garden of Eden. In this case the apple seems to be an even more complex symbol: the forbidden fruit represents sin, the temptation of knowledge or immortality or a combination of both on the part of mankind, the consequent loss of innocence and fall of mankind. In any case the apple takes on an ambiguous value, the desire of beauty and freshness may be dangerous.

File:Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (M.A.N. Madrid) 11.jpg

Fig. 4 Hercules stealing the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides (between 201 and 250 AD)

It is not difficult to see a connection between the forbidden apple of the Garden of Eden and the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides from the Greek mythology (Figure 4). There is a different pagan overtone here, and probably no sense of guilt associated with the stealing. Hercules is a hero that defies the gods in search of immortality. The roundness of the apple helped perhaps its association with perfection and immortality.

Intaglio - The Judgement of Paris

Fig. 5 The Judgement of Paris (ca. 1520-30)

The apple as a symbol of beauty and immortality appears in another connected myth, that of the three goddesses who claimed the apple (Figure 5): Hera, Athena and Aphrodite,  and of Paris of Troy who was named to award the apple to the most beautiful among them and chose Aphrodite. (Figs. 1 and 2).
Figure 6 below shows how the meaning of the apple has evolved with time in Christianity. In it it’s the Infant Jesus who holds the apple, now seen as a positive symbol of redemption from the fall of man.

Fig. 6 Madonna and Child (Madonna of the Apple) (1455-60)

Perhaps this ambiguous mixture of good and bad, and by analogy the double nature of knowledge as progress and advancement on one side and of defiance and sin on the other, represented by the apple, is contained also in the Apple name and logo (Fig. 7). I think that the bite in the apple maybe represents the original sin and in it there is possibly also a pun with the word “byte”.

Fig. 7 Apple Logo Evolution (1976-2003)


Fig. 8 Idun and the Apples (1890) 

In Figure 8, in which the goddess Idun from the epic northern poem Edda gives apples to the gods, the apple seems again to be linked with the idea of eternal youthfulness and immortality.

Fig. 9 Snow White and Poisoned Apple

The half poisoned apple in the Snow White tale from the Grimm brothers is not easy to interpret. Perhaps the fact that is half delicious and half poisoned represents beauty and its dangers and the inevitability of growing and losing innocence.


The Listening Room, 1952 by Rene Magritte

Fig. 10 The Listening Room (1952)

Figure 10 is one of the numerous paintings by Magritte in which the apple makes its mysterious presence. It’s difficult to tell what exactly the apple meant for him. In this respect it may be interesting to read his own words: “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see”.(http://www.renemagritte.org)

It means perhaps that when we are confronted with something we have to ask ourselves questions and not to take passively for granted what we see. In this case the apple might be a symbol of what is hidden and mysterious.

Figures 11 and 12 may seem more simple but I know by now from … Magritte and my budding semiotic studies that everything deserves attention and that there are only simplistic answers to complex questions!

It seems to me that in both figures the apple is showed as something fresh, healthy and genuine, and above all intimately connected to our bodies. In the first an apple may be healed with a plaster like the cuts in our own flesh and in the second the apples are shown in front of a woman’s torso like two breasts. So perhaps the apple has been chosen because it feels and looks alive and has strong good health connotations.

Fig. 11 Band-aid advertisement 

Fig. 12 Illustration in blog

The analogy with the delicacy of flesh seems obvious also in this painting by John Currin (Figure 13): the apples and the breasts of the woman in the foreground are visually connected in shape, texture and colour and emanate sensuality and temptation, and possibly also the fragility and delicacy of beauty.

Symbolism in Art: The Apple

Fig. 13 Maenads (2015)

Figure 14 is an enchanting portrait of the artist’s wife while pregnant and I think that the apples she is carrying may symbolize fertility.

File:Macke, August - Portrait with Apples - Google Art Project.jpg

Fig. 14 Portrait with Apples (1909)

In Figure 15, a still life with apples by Cézanne, apples with their brilliant colours and their rustic arrangement communicate a feeling of simplicity and natural, genuine values.

Still life, bowl with apples (detail), Paul Cézanne, 1878-79

Fig. 15 Bowl with Apples (1878-79)

The same values of nature and authenticity are brought forward by the juicy looking apples against a background of mountains of Figure 16, an advertisement of the Fifties.

Image result for apple in art

Fig. 16 Blue Mountain advertisement 

As a last example I come full circle with a citation of a work by Sam Taylor-Wood that I had studied in Part 1 on Contemporary Art, where the decaying apples indicate the frailty and the brevity of life and beauty in the tradition of the vanitas paintings.

Image result for decaying apple in art

Fig. 17 Still Life (2001)

As a conclusion I make an attempt at a table of the apples as signifiers and of their corresponding signifieds in the Figures examined.

Signifier        in Figure                                    Signified               

Apple              1                          means               beauty, love, fertility, sexuality

Apple              2                         means                beauty, love, fertility, sexuality

Apple              3                          means               sin, temptation, knowledge, fall

Apple              4                          means               perfection, immortality

Apple              5                          means                beauty, immortality

Apple              6                          means                redemption

Apple               7                         means                progress, defiance

Apple                8                        means                 youth, immortality

Apple                 9                        means                growing, innocence lost

Apple                10                       means                mystery

Apple                11                        means                good health

Apple                12                        means                good health

Apple                13                        means                sensuality, temptation, delicacy

Apple                14                        means                fertility

Apple                15                         means               nature, simplicity

Apple                16                         means               authenticity, good health

Apple                17                          means              brevity of life

I notice that in a table like this it is necessary to simplify since in reality meanings often overlap and intermingle in the same picture.

All in all it appears that the apple is a very rich and complex symbol that can take on several meanings (signifieds) in different contexts. They may seem very different on the surface but if we look closely they are born out of a common root. The beauty, freshness, roundness of the apple as a fruit may imply good health, simplicity, beauty, sensuality, fertility and immortality on a bright side and also turn itself into sin, temptation, frailty and looming death on a more obscure side. In many cases positive and negative values coexist or are connected.

List of illustrations

Figure 1. Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (1864-68) Venus Verticordia [oil on canvas] At:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25541895 (Accessed 17/02/17)

Figure 2. Mauch, Daniel (between 1530 and 1540) Venus Holding an Apple [boxwood sculpture] At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18794608 (Accessed 17/02/17)

Figure 3. Dürer, Albrecht (1507) Adam and Eve [oil on panel] At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150385 (Accessed 17/02/17)

Figure 4. (between 201 and 250 AD)  Hercules stealing the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria [opus tessellatum]

At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=666860 (Accessed 17/02/17)

Figure 5. Belli, Valerio (ca. 1520-30) The Judgement of Paris [rock crystal intaglio] At: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O89178/the-judgement-of-paris-intaglio-belli-valerio/ (Accessed 20/02/17)

Figure 6. Robbia, Luca della (1455-60) Madonna and Child (Madonna of the Apple) [glazed terracotta] At: www.conceptualfinearts.com/cfa/luca-della-robbia-madonna-and-child-madonna-of-the-apple-1455-60-glazed-terracotta-berlin-bode-museum/ (Accessed 17/02/17)

Figure 7. Apple Logo Evolution (1976-2003)

At: http://theopenscroll.blogspot.it/2011/01/part-12-see-its-i-of-horus-occult-apple.html (Accessed 17/02/17)

Figure 8. Penrose, James Doyle (1890) Idun and the Apples [print] At: http://www.art.com/products/p1775875143-sa-i4208586/james-doyle-penrose-idun-and-the-apples-illustration-from-teutonic-myths-and-legends-by-donald-a-makenzie-1890.htm (Accessed 17/02/17)

Figure 9. Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [print] At: http://dopey1937.disneyfansites.com/english011.html (Accessed 20/02/17)

Figure 10. Magritte, René (1952) The Listening Room [oil on canvas] At: http://www.renemagritte.org/the-listening-room.jsp (Accessed 20/02/17)

Figure 11. Band-aid advertisement

At: s3images.coroflot.com/user_files/individual_files/original_385224_zBHG9zHIEQ4zRGMqlrDfQlyCf.jpg (Accessed 20/02/17)

Figure 12. Illustration in blog At: http://www.healthyfoodhouse.com/apples-health-benefits/ (Accessed 20/02/17)

Figure 13. Currin, John (2015) Maenads [oil on canvas] At: http://artdependence.com/issue/august-2016/article/symbolism-in-art-the-apple (Accessed 20/02/17)

Figure 14. Macke, August (1909) Portrait with Apples [oil on canvas] At:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Macke,_August_-_Portrait_with_Apples_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg(Accessed 20/02/17)

Figure 15. Cézanne, Paul (1878-9) Bowl with Apples [oil on canvas] At: http://www.infobarrel.com/Apples_in_Art (Accessed 20/02/17)

Figure 16. Blue Mountain advertisement At:  http://www.antiquelabelcompany.com/store/BLUE-MOUNTAIN-Washington-Apple-crate-label-art-in-FRAME-p75.html

Figure 17. Taylor-Wood, Sam (2001) Still Life [35mm film/DVD, duration: 3’18’] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJQYSPFo7hk (Accessed 20/02/17)

Introductory concepts to Project 3

Key terms and basic research


Creative Arts Today, page 122

‘Structuralism, developed in the 1950s, proposed that human culture can be understood through its relationships within underlying structures such as language’.

Source: http://www.shmoop.com/structuralism/

Structuralism aims at ‘identifying and analyzing the structures that underlie all cultural phenomena—and not just literature’. Structuralists ‘want to understand the “deep structure” of football games. Of families. Of political systems. Of fashion. Of chemistry classes and of theory study guides … Structuralists got the notion that everything could be analyzed in terms of a deep structure’

‘According to structuralist theorists there’s some sort of structure underlying all cultural phenomena. Language has a deep structure, families have a deep structure, literature has a deep structure.’

Source: Palmer, Donald D. (1997) Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners. Danbury (USA): For Beginners

‘Structuralism is … a method of studying language, society, and the works of artists and novelists … it is a philosophy … that provides an ORGANIC as opposed to an ATOMISTIC account of reality and knowledge … reality is composed not of “THINGS”, but of “RELATIONSHIPS”‘.

‘An object … is determined by its relation to the whole system of which it is a part … and the total system is present in each of its parts’.


Creative Arts Today, page 122

‘Late twentieth-century post-structuralists critiqued and deepened the idea of structuralism and brought to it many of the concerns of postmodernism, such as acknowledgement of bias and the possibility of multiple interpretations’.

Source: http://www.shmoop.com/poststructuralism/

‘One of the basic assumptions that shapes poststructuralist thinking is that every aspect of human experience—our modes of communication, social habits, values, wallpaper preferences, even our personal identities—are textual. That means that everything we think we know about our selves and our world is based on language.

In fact, poststructuralists believe that our realities are created by the languages we use. Poststructuralism takes us well beyond the world of New Criticism, which asks us to think about “the text and nothing but the text.”‘


Creative Arts Today, page 122-123

‘We draw meaning from images or from language through systems of signs.’

‘Semiotics is the study of how signs are constructed and interpreted


‘A sign is composed of a signifier – the form the sign takes – and the signified, the concept to which it refers or represents … Signs operate within systems of other signs that give them value and meaning’.

Source: Hall, Sean (2007) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King

Cultural signs are those that we have invented to communicate with each other in complex ways … we have to understand the convention that is being used in order to grasp the meaning that is being communicated. All of these signs, then, reflect aspects of the society in which they are pieces of communication’. (page 10)

‘In the case of human beings, signs are shaped by the sources and resources that are used to make them, formed by the cultural structures into which they are woven, communicated through a series of diverse channels, and understood in terms of the nature of the societies that created them.’ (page 8)

In the Introduction to his book, Sean Hall organizes the study of signs under the following headings:

Sources of Meaning = where the message comes from –  two basic sources, the first natural, the second is cultural

Ways of Meaning = what kind of message it is – signs can be literal, analogical or metaphorical

Structures of Meaning = how the message is framed – signs are given meaning by the way they make use of certain structures that may be surface structures or deep structures

Contexts of Meaning = where the message is situated – signs take their meaning from the contexts in which they are produced and consumed

Channels of Meaning = how the message is communicated – channels are important because they are the delivery systems for signs

Types of Meaning = how the message is communicated – signs can be divided into two basic types: those that appeal to our rational side and those that appeal to our emotional side