The emoji library is not entirely lacking in art references, and there are some really impressive ones: the Moai emoji 🗿, for instance, which alludes to the Rapa Nui’s ancient carved stone head statues in Easter Island; or Face Screaming in Fear 😱, likely modeled after Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893). (The Scroll📜 also gets an honorable mention.) But for those of us who wish to recreate our college art history textbooks in 32 x 32 pixels, there is much work to be done.
We’ve already pitched a shortlist of brand-new, art-related emojis as part of our ongoing celebration of World Emoji Day, but we also put together a few ideas to transform existing emojis into the classic icons of Art 101, with just a few simple tweaks.
Merman 🧜♂️ as the Farmer in “American Gothic”
Grant Wood’s iconic pastoral of bucolic Midwestern life, “American Gothic” (1930), depicts a farmer alongside his daughter in front of the eponymous house in Eldon, Iowa. In it, the farmer famously carries a pitchfork. You know who else carries one, too? The merman emoji. Well, his attribute is a trident, to be exact, but let’s be generous with our suspension of disbelief here.
Woman Tipping Hand 💁♀️ as the Mona Lisa
Have you ever wondered what the emoji awkwardly known as Woman Tipping Hand really means? Its most common usage is as an expression of sass, a sort of visual hair flip, but a closer look reveals the figure’s hand turned upward as though holding a tray, muddling the sassy girl interpretation. Its true significance may be just as mysterious as Mona Lisa’s smile, making it the perfect fit for Leonardo’s timeless masterpiece.
Man in Business Suit Levitating🕴️and Apple 🍏 as Magritte’s “Son of Man”
Aside from being one of the most recognizable surrealist paintings, Rene Magritte’s “The Son of Man” (1946) gives us an opportunity to use one of the strangest emoji in the lexicon: the unexplainable Man in Business Suit Levitating, which you may not have noticed until now. According to one report, which traces the bizarre figure to the history of ska music, the emoji ranks among the least popular and has long stumped smartphone users (an article in the Paris Review blog describes it as the “floating face of capitalism.”) Whatever the case, juxtaposing the handy and much less confusing green Apple emoji on the face of the suited man produces a rather faithful allegory of Magritte’s painting.
Baby Angel 👼 as Raphael’s Putti From “The Sistine Madonna”
The generous world of emoji gives us not one but two distinct angelic emoticons: the Smiling Face With Halo 😇 and Baby Angel 👼. The latter, who is conveniently winged, is particularly well poised to stand in as one of the two Putti resting on a balustrade at the bottom of Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” (1512-1513) altarpiece. In the Renaissance master’s original, the pudgy cherubs, which have acquired cult status of their own, glance upward at the scene with expressions of boredom. In this emoji remix, Baby Angel looks out at the viewer with a seemingly sarcastic smile that is sure to delight your art lover friends and permanently creep everyone else out.
Hot Beverage ☕ as Meret Oppenheim’s “Object”
Ah, the Hot Beverage emoji: it could be coffee, it could be tea, it could be a cup lined with gazelle fur that symbolizes themes of femininity, perversion, and material deception in the lineage of oneiric surrealist sculpture. Indeed, when Meret Oppenheim created her iconic “Object” (1936), she famously said that “one could cover just about anything with fur.” Her words ring true in this appropriation of a quotidian emoji that you may never be able to look at the same way, which is exactly what Oppenheim intended when she took an innocent vessel made for relaxation and comfort and turned it into the object of our worst nightmares.
Water Wave 🌊 as Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”
“Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura)” (ca. 1830-32), from Katsushika Hokusai’s stunning series of woodblock prints “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” is a shoo-in on this list. Many have already pointed out the uncanny resemblance between the majestic Japanese seascape and the Water Wave emoji, which took obvious inspiration from the famous print. However, adding the sacred Mount Fuji mountain in the background adds a bit more context — some curators argue that the artist was actually mocking the public’s reverence of landmarks by making the mountain tiny in relation to the towering crest.
Canned Food🥫as Andy Warhol’s “Campbell Soup Cans”
A simple overlay of the Campbell’s logo transforms the Canned Food emoji into a ubiquitous emblem of Pop Art. The iOS version already features a red-and-white composition and helpful tomato for context. You could use it alongside the Eyeroll emoji 🙄 and the phrase “Did we need another Warhol show?” — or, if you prefer, as a sly critique of commodification culture.
Banana 🍌 as Itself in Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian”
This one is for all the people out there who went to the Miami Basel fair last year just to take a picture of art prankster Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian” (2020), the infamous banana duct-taped to the wall whose first two editions sold for $120,000 each. If this emoji were real, it would likely be used by that person you just matched with on a dating app when you tell them you work in the art world, followed by the question, “So, do you like Kaws?”