In Alexander Dovzhenko’s last silent film, his masterwork titled Earth (Zelmya) 1930, a tragic and violent narrative of the Soviet collectivization is set within a lyrical rural mise-en-scène and realized in profoundly poetic cinematography. In one of its many shots extolling the Ukrainian landscape, is featured the Mammoth (Russian) Sunflower. Apparently this glorious, or perhaps even monstrous, anomaly was cultivated in Russia and was brought into North America in 1880. It produces a single golden flower that grows up to 10″ across and is filled with edible seeds.
The Mammoth Sunflower is no innocent incident of nature. Being ‘man-made,’ it occupies the space between nature and culture. Despite its beauty, however, it is no mere vanity, it is a food crop. I suggest that, in Dovzhenko’s Earth, it is the perfect or complete symbol. It represents, the ethos of the narrative, at the same time, standing for nature per se as well as for its cultivation, its industrialization and even its collectivization, in the course of human civilization.
Incidentally, Dovzhenko is the only early Soviet era director whom the great Andrei Tarkovsky cites as a predecessor, “If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone (in Soviet cinema), it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” It must be said, in the context of this notion of ‘atmosphere’, that Tarkovsky himself eschewed the ‘symbol’ in cinema, and spoke instead of a more open and less intentional cinematic ‘image’ which he defined in terms of the notion of the metaphor, “A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite.’ (Interview Le noir coloris de la nostalgie with Hervé Guibert in “Le Monde”, 12 May 1983 )
In my own view, symbols are as malleable and as variable as the mind and worldview of a given viewer or community of viewers. As such Tarkovsky’s dichotomy, essential though it is to our understanding of art, is not an inevitable duality. An image must, in my understanding, contain many symbols that come forth as the viewer, or artist, determines, or designs. If, like Tarkovsky, the viewer finds that the ‘image’ satisfies in its latency, then it will be left unread and no symbol will arise. However, perhaps as a result of having more of an intellectual than a poetic inclination, I see symbols in all images. I see them even as I relish the ‘atmosphere’ of Tarkovsky’s own indefinite images! I suggest that, in art, the question – ‘image or symbol,’ is less about the essential quality or nature of the work and more about the perspective of the viewer or the approach of the artist.
This Sunflower was grown by Jane Frankish on our allotment in the plot shared by members of the Jonathan Rogers gardening collective in Mount Pleasant Vancouver, Summer 2021.