A name is a placeholder for something. A title is another version – albeit a tiny one – of a work of art. What makes a great name? In the baby books they warn parents to be to stay clear of names like Hercules and Atlas as these names, these shoes are too large to fill by anyone, especially a child. Inversely, names like Barbie and Candy seem to carry the opposite problem. What if the child wants to become a nuclear physicist? Will a name like Barbie give her pause? Does it matter?
When we name a child we attempt to do so before he or she has even arrived. We do not know who they are or who they will become. It would make much more sense to name people more towards the end of their lives so the names could relate to who they actually became and where the course of their life lead.
This is more how it goes for naming paintings. (Or any art for that matter.) You do it at the end, once you know what you have made. I always look at the titles of paintings. Some work and some just seem to fall flat.
I like to think of the naming of a painting as an opportunity for the artist to illuminate in a new way, at least in feeling, what he or she is after in the painting. Sometimes, and these are the names that fall flat for me, the artist literally restates what we already know, what we can already see in the painting. This often happens in Western Art – cowboy paintings come to mind. There is a forlorn looking cowboy hunched over in his saddle with the sunset behind him, head down – clearly he is pooped from rustling cows (not sure you can rustle a cow but still) and the title of the painting will be “The Long Ride Home” or only slightly better: “A Long Days Work.” The title is basically saying what we all already know and as a result, at least for me, doesn’t give one anything new to think about.
Great titles usually not only offer us something related to the work but also a new possibility, a new aspect to consider. A name that when presented next to the art is almost a juxtaposition, a bit of information that when combined with the painting offers us a new feeling, a new portal that we as the viewer can enter and ponder. If a painting feels monumental, or incredibly complex then just the most basic title can work. Picasso’s “Glass, Bottle and Fork” cubist painting from 1912 is an example of pairing a highly abstracted still life with the most pedestrian of names. The two are so different that when paired they become interesting.
When there is a greater space and a less literal connection between the actual art and the artist’s chosen words depicting that work then there seems to be more possibilities for the viewer’s interpretation. It is almost as if the artist is allowing the viewer room to have a go at their own interpretation.
In a way, a painting, once it is created, is like a person. Like a child leaving the artist’s home once fully formed, it goes on to live a life of it’s own. It does so for possibly generations, occupying the drawing rooms, living rooms, bedrooms and hallways of other peoples’ lives.
The story of its making, the artist’s reasons for its creation dim with the passing of time. The title, however, given to the art at its birth, travels forward with the art. If it is given with intelligence and thoughtfulness, the title will forever illuminate and give clues as to not just the artist’s life and purpose but ours as well.
Do you have any titles – be they for works of art or songs even – that have resonated particularly with you? I would be interested to learn what they are below.
the founder of Art2Life.
With over 20 years experience as a working artist and educator, I’ve developed a systematic approach that brings authenticity, spontaneity and joy back into the creative process.