Tropes Exemplified in Works of Art 4: Synecdoche

by Mark Staff Brandl

This week, I am continuing my short series of fine artworks exemplifying major tropes. This is the fourth entry.

The list of major tropes I am referring to I published on this website a while ago, “A List of the Most Important Tropes and Their Definitions”; here is the link:

As I said in parts 1, 2, and 3, over the next several weeks, I will take each trope from the list and link it to a major work of art. This will include artworks from a large variety of time periods and in many different media, if I am successful. Generally, I will be looking for artworks that embody the trope under consideration within their formal elements, clearly showing a trope in visual use. I have discussed metaphor and metonymy. This week, Number 4:


What is the definition of synecdoche?: A trope in which a part is used to represent the whole (for example, ABCs for alphabet) or the whole for a part (“England won the World Cup in 1966”). “There were hundreds of faces at the event.”

My choice for an artwork displaying sophisticated use of synecdoche is a painting from a series titled that: Synecdoche (1991–present), by artist Byron Kim (Link: Kim’s series is a somewhat conceptual project, wherein he has now painted more than 400 panels, each a monochrome color. The first hint of their synecdochical meaning lies in the fact that the hues only range from yellow-pinks through shades of brown — obviously skin colors — in oil paint and wax, each on a separate 10 x 8-inch panel. The title Synecdoche, as well as the subtitles, which are the names of the sitters, are unneeded to this eye, yet make the work didactically more humanistic.

As is clear, yet delightfully striking when seen in person, Synecdoche’s panels are a mere “piece” or sample of the whole of the person for whom it stands. Yet this sample hue is one which is used repeatedly and viciously within our, and many earlier, cultures to label humans, enslave them, put them in categories, give or deny them privileges. Racism, in short. In a simple yet sophisticated fashion, Kim creates seemingly abstract paintings that are synecdoches not only of real people but of brutal ideas of identity in society.

Next time: Litotes.