What do your pictures say about you?

Alison Kidd,The Prospectory, February 2002

Glance around your sitting room at the pictures on the walls ….. what made you choose those particular pictures? And, if a friend or stranger enters your home for the first time, what do these pictures say to them about you, your interests, personality, taste, philosophy and relationships?

Animals mark their territories with scent, secretion or excretion. When we first move into new territory, we mark it with paint, fabrics, furniture, books, ornaments and pictures. A study in an American University showed that 88% of students had decorated the walls of their dorms within 2 weeks of arriving. Students who became socially isolated during the term and subsequently dropped out of University were often the ones who had not identifiably `marked’ their rooms on arrival.

A couple of years ago, I surveyed 40 homes around the Bristol, London and Cambridge areas to find out what people hung on their walls. In 10 of these homes, I also asked the owners to tell me the story behind each picture – what prompted them to buy it, what did it mean to them and why did they choose to hang it there? The homes were mostly owned by professional people, often with families, but most were people who had no specialist interest in art. The results were intriguing….

The average household had 45 pictures displayed (including paintings, photos, posters, postcards and children’s art). This corresponded to an average of 80 square feet of wall space – pretty extensive territory marking! By far the highest proportion of paintings were of  landscapes – often previous places of residence or places visited on holidays or honeymoons, “it’s all about remembering the Lake District – where we had our honeymoon”. One might have expected photographs of landscapes as well but these were extremely rare. Almost all the displayed photographs around the house featured family or friends.

As people led me around their houses, telling me the stories behind each picture, it became clear that the pictures fulfilled 3 different functions for people: aesthetic appeal, emotional symbolism and expression of identity.  Comments about the aesthetic appeal of pictures, “it’s a very pleasing thing to look at – lots of symmetry and shape and a very unusual colour”, were remarkably rare. Most owners could not even name the artist and didn’t mind that they didn’t know. Most people talked instead about the emotional symbolism of the painting, for example, “it’s a watercolour of Burford priory – it’s a symbol of a sure world, a constant world…” or “for me, that boy is like a sort of stillness .. a kind of waiting, I think”. In a few cases, people were conscious of their use of pictures an expression of their identity, “I’m creating a visual context to be in .. I feel free to put up what expresses who I am and where I am and what interests or affirms or lifts me”. Teenagers, not surprisingly, were very conscious of using the posters in their bedrooms in this way but their awareness seemed to stem from their anxiety to use these markers to differentiate themselves from the family and express conformity with their peers.

In their living rooms and bedrooms, most adults opted for paintings which symbolised relaxation, restoration or simply escape from the dullness or stress of their everyday lives, “I have the Monets in the bedroom because they’re so peaceful”. But, elsewhere in the house, some had deliberately picked paintings or images which challenged or disturbed them, “that’s a poster of a sculpture display I went to – it was the most stunning piece of art I’ve ever stepped into. I’ve never felt so agro phobic, I felt as if I was alone in the middle of the Pacific – it was enormously powerful”. Another commented, “I’m not sure what this is but I like it as it sort of reminds me of the dark sides of life – I had a dream once where I went down into a dungeon and came back but it was something I had to explore on my own…”.

Interestingly, they usually placed these disturbing symbols either in hallways or stairways almost as if these in-between areas corresponded to the Jungian shadows of their lives. Certainly, hallways and stairways are the chillier, darker parts of the house and we hurry through them on our way to lighter, more welcoming rooms. On the other hand, the paintings which challenged them (“this says broaden your horizons, you can go bigger”), were more likely to be placed in their bathrooms or studies. I can understand the studies as they are linked to ambition and the invading challenges of the outside world. But the bathrooms make you wonder….. could it be because the combination of nakedness and mirrors challenges our image of ourselves, asking us uncomfortable questions? The interesting point is that different spaces and nooks and crannies of our home are powerfully different in the emotional symbolism they hold for us and we may not even be aware of it.

Irving Goffman, the famous 1950’s psychologist said, “the home isn’t an entirely private place, it’s the stage on which people project the most intimate images of themselves to the world.” But, paradoxically, Goffman also recognised that we use these projections to others as the principal way to discover for ourselves who we are and what is important to us. There are, if you will, two separate audiences for every staged performance!

Some people seemed both aware and relatively relaxed about expressing their identity through their pictures, “these are bits of myself I hung on these walls”; whereas others seemed altogether less conscious of this `gallery’ aspect of their home. Maybe it varies depending on how comfortable you are with the messages about yourself which you are reading there?

In one home, the walls of the living room were decorated with beautiful formal photographs of the couple’s graduation and wedding ceremonies alongside posed studio shots of their two children. A few minutes earlier I had entered from an untidy kitchen where the walls were littered with the relaxed and casual snapshots of the same children (although one had to peer closely to see the resemblance)! When I commented on the difference, the proud mother explained that it was important to her that in the “proper” photographs in the lounge the children were clean, tidy and wearing matching outfits. She shook her head in horror at the idea of introducing any of the kitchen snapshots into this environment – “oh no, those are just for us to see”. It was important to her that a certain image of her family was portrayed to the outside world through the living room and she did not seem concerned if this was strikingly different to the one they enjoyed within the intimacy of the family-only rooms. She also seemed genuinely and delightfully unaware of manipulating these perceptions – expecting her children to behave in a clean and tidy manner (consistent with the projected images!) whenever they ventured into the living room.

Communication of any kind depends on a shared symbol system.  So, how effectively do pictures and other home decoration work as shared symbols through which we communicate our identities? In a study in the 1980’s, homeowners were asked to complete psychological tests which assessed their personality profiles along four dimensions: intellectual/non-intellectual, family oriented/non-family oriented, individualistic/conformist and extroverted/introverted. Strangers were shown photographs of these people’s houses (both inside and outside) and asked to assess the owners’ psychological profiles along the above 4 dimensions. The strangers’ assessments correlated strongly with the profiles provided by the homeowners especially in relation to the interior photographs. This suggests that, as homeowners, we communicate our identities (or at least our intended identities!) very effectively through our interior decoration.

So, as wander around your home, you might want to reflect what identity you are communicating so effectively to all and sundry incomers. You can ponder whether your pictures, ornaments, furniture and arrays of books or magazines express family intimacy or separateness, cosiness or challenge, intellect or intuition, ambition or self-acceptance, individualism or conformism – or maybe a happy balance between these poles? And how conflicting are these messages as you move from room to room? Doing this study brought home to me that each of us is a playwright directing the scenes on the stage of our homes. But, at the same time we are also the actors discovering and developing our selves through the plays we choose to act in and the way we’ve designed the scenes.


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