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TITLED / UNTITLED

Over the past centuries, many known works of art have undergone various name changes. Sandro Botticelli’s 1482 ‘La Primavera’, for instance, was simply described as a ‘painting by Botticelli with nine figures’ in a sixteenth century account of the de’ Medici’s holdings. Two centuries later, the same painting turns up as ‘The Garden of the Hesperides’ in other accounts. Its final title is in accordance with the interpretation of the great Renaissance historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), who pointedly described its subject matter as ‘the arrival of spring’, ‘La Primavera’.

Often referred to as history’s first art historian, Vasari’s 1550 publication ‘The Lives of the Artists’, a kind of encyclopaedia of artistic biographies, is considered the blueprint for what was to become art-historical writing. Apart from a novel treatise on the technical methods employed in the arts, it also includes references to a variety of artworks and their creators, patrons, locations and themes, but the actual paintings and sculptures themselves bear no specific titles.

It was highly unusual in those days for an artist to give titles to his works. They were not deemed necessary when portraits and biblical or mythological scenes were depicted because everyone was familiar with the imagery and there was no need for any further explanation. Illiteracy was still widespread, so titles, if any, could not be read by everyone. The only thing close to a name an artwork had was its formal identification. However, as the market for art developed and a culture of criticism arose, a shorthand way to relate to the growing number of artworks had to be established. The more frequently a particular work of art was discussed, the more likely an agreement would be reached on what to call it.

Seventeenth century artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer were the earliest in supplying titles to their works when they started producing paintings that were traded by art dealers without the aid of patrons, a unique situation that first occurred during the ‘Golden Age’ in Holland. Not long afterwards, young artists began titling their own works when the academy system became institutionalized in France and Italy, followed by a number of other countries including Germany, England and Sweden. The academies helped artists emerge by judging their works and displaying them at annual exhibitions, the forerunners of the more famous nineteenth century Parisian ‘Salons’. The paintings were hung side by side from ceiling to floor on the walls of the exhibition spaces. This was where enthusiasts could view new paintings and sculptures. The names of the artists and descriptions of the works on display were offered in accompanying catalogues.

Essential to the development of titling artworks in the twentieth century were undoubtedly the metaphoric titles used by the Dada and surrealist artists from the 1910s to the 1930s. Marcel Duchamp was by far the most prolific of them all. He proclaimed that titles were like ‘invisible colours’ to him. His manipulated urinoir (Fountain), reproduction of the Mona Lisa (L.H.O.O.Q.) and perfume bottle (Belle Haleine - Eau de Voilette) come to mind, as does the caption ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ in René Magritte’s ‘La Trahison des Images’ (The Treachery of Images). As the century proceeded, titles became even more important as the imagery of paintings in general would become increasingly less evident. What would have become of Robert Rauschenburg’s 1953 erased Willem de Kooning drawing if it had not been for its title?

Although it is clear that titles really matter, some artists choose not to title their artworks to let the viewer undergo a personal experience without any literal interferences. A typical case of this kind are the paintings Jackson Pollock made between 1948 and 1953. He deliberately evaded the viewer’s search for figurative elements in his paintings by numbering them instead of giving them conventional titles. In order to tell them apart, the New York art critic Clement Greenberg, Pollock's staunchest supporter, eventually allotted quasi-poetic titles to his paintings that were totally out of sync with his character. His ‘# 1, 1950’, for example, became ‘Lavender Mist’, ‘# 30, 1950’ became ‘Autumn Rhythm’, ‘# 11, 1952’ became ‘Blue Poles’ and so on.

Nowadays, it is not wise to merely number one’s pieces without bothering to come up with decent titles. If someone searches for a painting on internet simply titled ‘23’, it will be to the artist’s disadvantage because search engines do not do much with numbers and it is unlikely that the artwork will ever be found. On the other hand, if it is titled more elaborately, search engines have more to go by and the chances that the painting will be found become much more likely. Potential buyers want to feel they are about to own one of the artist’s nicest pieces and will not be very interested if its title is totally vapid. A good title becomes part of the buyer’s narrative. A particularly good title will help sell the artwork. Sometimes ‘Untitled’ is a perfectly good title, but in general it is not a good solution. If used too frequently, it can make things very confusing to accurately refer to a certain work of art.

Online artwork titles can either make or break an artist - they spell the difference between thousands of people seeing one’s artwork or none at all. Search engines read words and do not see images. Instead, they look at all the words used to describe it, When people search the internet for a work of art, they use words to clarify what they are looking for. It is the search engine’s job, then, to find the top pages on the web for best matches. On his 1991 shark-in-a-tank titled ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, Damien Hirst commented that this title was just a statement that he had once used to describe the idea of death to himself. The shark and its title seem to compliment each other in this piece.

History of art, the science that writes on works of art - words on images - requires a fixed description for each and every artwork: its title. Art historians often resort to emergency names for artists whose names have somehow been lost through time and it becomes even more cumbersome when the titles of their previously untitled works are constantly being modified. Sometimes the title of an artwork is so interwoven with the artwork itself that it is practically impossible to separate them. ‘The Jewish Bride’ by Rembrandt van Rijn is a fair example. There is still an ongoing discussion with regard to the true identity of the embracing couple, but in reality it will not be an easy task to deprive this painting from the accepted title it has had since the early nineteenth century.

If you want to, please like, share, forward and / or respond by leaving a comment below.

Jon Eiselin.       

www.joneiselin.com

 

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