A crown is never just a crown. Its bearer, its layered symbolism and its various interpretations, all these things are an inherent part of such a regal item. Historically, crowns have played a major role in society. They are symbols of unchecked power, the expected headdresses of individuals that wield such power. Crowns speak of conquest, dynasty and even divine right.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of oil pigment portraits depicting monarchs and royal family members who ruled over many lands for many centuries. See them in gilded frames, draped in their long robes and fine jewellery, perched on their thrones as representations of a higher existence. They stand proudly in lavish surroundings, their excess representing the wealth of their realm, and of course, heavy crowns are rarely absent, glittering from dignified brows or velveteen cushions. And, often, there lies the true subject of royal portraiture. Grandeur and control, not pale-faced princes, are the sparkling focal point of most state commissions.
Haloes are similar objects decking the foreheads of significant people in art history. A halo is a circle of light, often rendered in eye-catching gold leaf, glowing around or above the head of a saint or holy person to represent their sacredness. Classical religious art teems with variations of curly-haired angels adorned with haloes, painted hundreds of years ago as perfect, otherworldly role models for mere men. My question is, what if a halo is painted on canvas surrounding an ordinary individual with no claim to godliness? Is that average mortal automatically imbued with the heavenly characteristics of martyrs and archangels? Would a sixteenth century kitchen boy appear majestic if painted dripping in Charles II’s crown jewels?
In New York City, during the 1980’s, a young artist by the name of Jean-Michel Basquiat pilfered stately crowns and haloes from the galleries of art history and brought them down to earth. Slighting aristocracy and ruffling feathered wings on high, Basquiat began to paint crowns atop nameless, generic silhouettes, which sometimes took form as dinosaurs and words. He also crowned his own personal heroes, jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, along with some of his favourite athletes.
One nice example of this is seen in his composition Trumpet (1984), in which the semiotic elements of the image include a trumpet, an onomatopoetic melody and a pointed crown. Visually we see a coloured abstract figure that has no distinguishable features but arms, which attach directly to the instrument without need of hands. The face of the figure is painted over in flat black, thus giving a portrayal of a person of African origins. An equally black crown hangs weightily over the figure and next to it are lyrics of a sort that implies the throaty sounds of scat. If viewed through Charles Pierce’s semiotic triangle, the painting is seen to be a sign that both alters and upholds the time-tested symbolic meanings discussed above.
The trumpet acts as icon, seen quite literally for what it is and what noises it produces. The index is the abstractly-rendered figure blowing into the trumpet, which allows the viewer to easily recognise a musician at work. The crown is the symbol, not naturally linked to ideas of musicians, but pulled from the storehouse of cultural knowledge to indicate a very special musician indeed. Together, the index, icon and symbol comprise a painted reference which clings to correlations of crowns and ultimate pre-eminence, but also goes so far as to grant that noble status to a humbly born jazzman.