A study of symbolism in art is based on two fundamental points of view, namely those of Aristotle and of Plato. The Aristotelian philosophy contains a strong literary element, because language is its medium for communication. By means of language, images are evoked. The metaphor becomes an instrument for establishing an association between images and language. New links are formed between images and language, by means of which contrasting concepts are later connected with each other, resulting in paradoxical statements. Mysterious categories of interpretation are formed, which again tied up with the Platonic philosophy.
According to Plato, there are two worlds, namely a sensory-perceptible and an intelligible or higher world. The higher world cannot be defined in terms of the sensory-perceptible world, hence symbols had to be created to represent this higher world, and in doing so the symbol became synonymous with Higher knowledge.
The symbolic use of images in the work of Mason-Attwood comprises aspects of both of these philosophies. Her literary interest ties up with the Aristotelian view, in that she creates metaphors which unite images and language. Phrases become metaphorical of the painter herself.
The Platonistic philosophy can be seen in themes by means of which the painter tries to find an answer to deeprooted problems. The seemingly meaninglessness of human existence is dealt with in the theme, "The Gospel according to Judas" (1982). There, the artist's continual search for truth is represented. Understanding the symbolism used in the work of Mason-Attwood is a complex matter. A single symbol could be representative of so many categories of interpretation that it requires an in-depth study of the theme of the work and the period during which it had been done in order to understand the symbols fully. The thematic structure underlying her paintings is of such significance that, in the thesis, the symbols were examined on the basis of particular themes.
In her religious themes, she questions the meaning of religion and underlines human suffering and pain. She uses Christian iconography and the dynamic form of the cross for "Sandwich-boardman III" (1972), and immortalizes death in the painting, "Four horsemen of the Apocalypst.'' (1983). Literary and philosophical statements stimulate the artist.
The poetry of Dante, Eliot and Smart served as an inspiration for works such as "Notes of a Nightingale" (1975) which is based on the work of Smart. Snakes, apes and lions are some of the animals which Mason-Attwood uses in her paintings. In each new painting an animal is given a new symbolic meaning within the text.
All these symbols are dealt with in the text.
Myths are used to explain human existence and form the Basis of the mythological themes. The Indian god Shiva becomes metaphorical of the creative process, while the Ibis in Egyptian mythology symbolizes transitoriness. Primitive symbols communicate eternal truths such as loneliness, despair and isolation. Paintings containing these symbols originated in sharing her archaeological travels.
Feminine desire, the demands of motherhood and femininity, as opposed to the intellectual side of the artist lead to conflicting emotions. This emotional tension is portrayed in autobiographical self-portraits, as well as the conflict between husband and wife and lack of communication. The complexity of Mason-Attwood's paintings sometimes make them impenetrable. Here an understanding of the code (system of symbols) is required before the work can be fully understood.