Symmetry In Art and Storytelling

Symmetry is one of those words whose everyday usage is a little different from the scientific meaning.

Everyday usage

a sense of harmonious and most appealing proportion and balance

Scientific meaning

In biology, the repetition of the parts in an animal or plant in an orderly fashion. Specifically, symmetry refers to a correspondence of body parts, in size, shape, and relative position, on opposite sides of a dividing line or distributed around a central point or axis.

SYMMETRY IN PROSE

The collection of images below are examples of symmetry and off-kilter symmetry. Images which are almost symmetrical — but not quite — can take readers into the realm of the uncanny. A standout text example comes from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Sundial.

The Halloran estate’s plans and set up are meant to be symmetrical, but the badly placed sundial disrupts this sense of stability. Like the door symbol in Hangsaman, the sundial is an inescapable presence: “Intruding purposefully upon the entire scene, an inevitable focus, was the sundial, set badly off center and reading “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?”

“Homespun” Horror: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Doubling by Hannah Phillips

Butterflies are one of the most beautiful examples of biological symmetry.

butterflies by Adolphe Millot (1857-1921), 1907-1910
butterflies by Adolphe Millot (1857-1921), 1907-1910
La Vidalita, Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen in 'Fireside Book of Folk Songs' Selected and edited by Margaret Bradford Boni. Simon and Schuster, 1947, symmetry
La Vidalita, Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen in ‘Fireside Book of Folk Songs’ Selected and edited by Margaret Bradford Boni. Simon and Schuster, 1947

Symmetry can be seen in animals everywhere, including under the sea. This kind of suggests aliens from another solar system would also be symmetrical, though illustrators have often chosen to depict aliens with, say, three eyes, or three heads, because something with three eyes or three heads is not symmetrical and therefore not of this world.

The Magical Man of Mirth symmetry fish
The Magical Man of Mirth

SYMMETRY IN ART AND DESIGN

Designers tend to create more symmetrical work than painters, who tend to switch it up a little on purpose.

SYMMETRY AND ART DECO

Art Deco design, which originated in Paris in the 1920s) is especially well-known for its symmetry. Art Deco is not just a graphic design movement, but applied equally to real-world, usable objects. Symmetry makes sense when it comes to architecture. (A symmetrical door is much easier to close… or to walk through.)

Art Deco is also easily recognisable for its heavy ornamentation. This ornamentation came from countries such as Egypt and what was known at the time as “The Orient”. Ornamentation from those cultures is geometric, so, naturally symmetrical. The entire page layout of an Art Deco poster is an outworking of the geometric shapes inside it.

Brazil’s Para Todos magazine, under the direction of José Carlos, epitomises the 1920s
Brazil’s Para Todos magazine, under the direction of José Carlos, epitomises the 1920s

Important buildings such as courthouses were built in Art Deco style. The symmetry conveys a sense of stability. These stand in contrast with what came before: the frivolous avant-garde art movement.

How to tell the difference between Art Deco and Art Nouveau

Both are symmetrical and feature heavy ornamentation. Art Deco is sharp and angular. Art Nouveau is all about the curves.

Which came first, Art Deco or Art Nouveau?

Art Nouveau was a response to industrialisation and reigned from about 1880 until just before World War I. Art Deco was a response to World War I and reigned in the 1920s, into the 1930s.

Illustrator Harry Clarke The Elf Hill 1916 art nouveau
Illustrator Harry Clarke “The Elf Hill”, 1916. An example of Art Nouveau.
Kay Nielsen symmetry creepy trees
Kay Nielsen was a fan of symmetry.
Gustave Doré for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Gustave Doré for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Since symmetry means “formal” and “important”, we know there’s something very significant about this ship. We can’t just ignore it.
Danses de Jadis (dances in times past) George Barbier for the cover of a High Life Tailor catalogue 1921 symmetry
“Danses de Jadis” (dances in times past). George Barbier for the cover of a High Life Tailor catalogue 1921
Brooklyn Bridge,1922, Joseph Stella
Brooklyn Bridge, 1922, Joseph Stella
Louis John Rhead, American, born England, 1857 - 1926 (1826)
Louis John Rhead, American, born in England, 1857 – 1926
Sen-sen breath freshening chewing gum advertisement
Sen-sen breath freshening chewing gum advertisement. I like the colours of this as much as anything.
Playbill illustration by Eugène Grasset, for ‘Esclarmonde’, an opera in four acts, ca.1889
Playbill illustration by Eugène Grasset, for ‘Esclarmonde’, an opera in four acts, ca. 1889. Note the emphasis on curves, making this an example of Art Nouveau.
You're Safe With Me symmetry
You’re Safe With Me. Modern digital art software allows artists to turn symmetry on and off as needed, and to set the number of axes. In the era of digital art, we can expect to see more complex symmetrical (or almost symmetrical) designs.
The Vinegar Works Edward Gorey cover
The Vinegar Works by Edward Gorey. The Gashlycrumb Tinies: or, After the Outing is an abecedarian book written by Edward Gorey that was first published in 1963. Gorey tells the tale of 26 children (each representing a letter of the alphabet) and their untimely deaths in rhyming dactylic couplets, accompanied by the author’s distinctive black and white illustrations. Edward Gorey’s symmetry suggests a formalism which juxtaposes against his parody of the heavy-handed didacticism evident the First Golden Age of children’s literature.
'Why Be a Goop A Primary School of Deportment and Taste for Children,' by author artist Gelett Burgess, 1924
‘Why Be a Goop A Primary School of Deportment and Taste for Children,’ by author artist Gelett Burgess, 1924. This is an earlier parody of the cautionary tales popular in the 1800s.
Zhang Zhen Qi, Glen (Heilongjiang Province, China, undated antlers symmetry
Zhang Zhen Qi, Glen (Heilongjiang Province, China, undated antlers. A contemporary example of symmetry.
Susan Jeffers  (1942-2020 USA) Thumbelina fox
Susan Jeffers (1942-2020 USA) Thumbelina. Symmetry usually happens along a single vertical axis, but when the image is a reflection in a pond, symmetry is happening along a single horizontal axis instead.
Dugald Stewart Walker, 1883–1937 from The Girl Who Sat By The Ashes, 1919 symmetry
Dugald Stewart Walker, 1883–1937 from The Girl Who Sat By The Ashes, 1919
Dugald Stewart Walker, 1883–1937 from The Girl Who Sat By The Ashes, 1919 goats symmetry
Dugald Stewart Walker, 1883–1937 from The Girl Who Sat By The Ashes, 1919
Trina Schart Hyman - The Serpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women
Trina Schart Hyman – The Serpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women
Olga Kondakova - Korolevich
Olga Kondakova – Korolevich
Victor Pivovarov - The Little Mermaid
Victor Pivovarov – The Little Mermaid
Hilde Kruger, Hurleburles Wolkenreise, Berlin 1926 symmetry
Hilde Kruger, Hurleburles Wolkenreise, Berlin 1926. This illustration is a good example of symmetry as well as of sharp, uncoimfortable angles.
Garth Williams (1953), The Very Best Home For Me symmetry
Garth Williams (1953), The Very Best Home For Me. Honestly, this feels more like the ominous gingerbread cottage of Hansel and Gretel, partly because of the ominous symmetry and partly because of the through-the-trees peephole view.
Gabriel Pacheco - Mexican artist & illustrator symmetry
Gabriel Pacheco – Mexican artist & illustrator. When illustrators emphasise the symmetry of dinner table scenes, there’s usually not that much love and comfort between the diners.
Jane Werner (1914-2005) and Cornelius De Witt (1925-1970) collaborated and produced this 1949 book called- Words How They Look and What They Tell digging hole in forest
Jane Werner (1914-2005) and Cornelius De Witt (1925-1970) collaborated and produced this 1949 book called- Words How They Look and What They Tell. This example isn’t particularly symmetrical but it’s done in collage sheet style and the items of the forest sit between ‘realism’ and ‘decorative border’.
Johfra Bosschart The Zodiac Series Aquarius, 1974-75 symmetry
Johfra Bosschart “The Zodiac Series”, Aquarius, 1974-75. More Art Nouveau influence. Clearly, Art Nouveau influences a variety of genres, from fairytale to sci-fi.
John Bauer Illustration for Harald Östenson’s The Tale of Day and Days and the Flying Troll on Skyberget
John Bauer,The  Cottage at the Foot of the Mountain, an illustration for Elsa Beskow’s  När trollmor skötte kungens storbyk, 1914
John Bauer, The Cottage at the Foot of the Mountain, an illustration for Elsa Beskow’s När trollmor skötte kungens storbyk, 1914. Isn’t the symmetry magnificent?
Rockwell Kent (1882–1971) Moonlight, Winter. A different kind of golden ratio.
Steven Vincent Johnson (born 1952) 1979 book cover illustration for Ringworld by Larry Niven
Steven Vincent Johnson (born 1952) A 1979 book cover illustration for Ringworld by Larry Niven. Clearly of an unearthly world. Off-kilter symmetry. When something looks almost symmetrical but isn’t, this falls into uncanny valley territory.

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