Part of the experience of visiting an art museum is squinting at those little plaques beside the artworks. As you know, they have a lot of information in tiny type: The artist’s name, when the work was done, what materials were used, and so on. It also includes the title of the work, which can often be helpful.
Oh, if you’re looking at a painting of a baby in a stable you can probably guess the subject matter without looking at the title, but if you’re looking at a group of men wearing tights, it’s reasonable to wonder who the heck they are.
Let’s say the plaque informs you that the title of this Velázquez painting is “The Surrender of Breda”. Unless your major was Spanish History, you may still wonder what you’re looking at, but at least you have a hint. It’s possible to surmise what the artist was intending to convey; how we, as viewers, are encouraged to see it.
To put it another way, there’s a reason that Velázquez titled one of his other paintings “Philip IV on Horseback” and not “Paco the Horse with Some Guy Riding Him”. It’s primarily about the king, not his transportation.
What I’m suggesting is that the title of a painting or sculpture can provide clues to what the artist was hoping to communicate, and it’s my view that art is — or should be — a way of expressing thoughts and emotions and experiences, a means of inviting the viewer to share the artist’s insight.
That may have been easier to do when painting was representational. As noted before, in religious scenes or portraits of royalty, visual cues were supplied. In the era of abstract art, however, it’s more difficult to know what’s on the artist’s mind. That’s why it annoys me when the little plaque next to a canvas or sculpture says “Untitled”.
Painters like Picasso and Miró, who were pioneers in the new style of art, still gave us titles. Some of them were doozies, too — Miró called one of his “The Lightning Bird Blinded by Moonfire” (see above). You’re not likely to look at it for five seconds and say, “Oh, sure, I get that,” but it at least gives you a point of departure.
Let’s face it — an artist who calls a work “Untitled” is just being lazy. I’m aware of the argument that by not naming a piece, the artist is allowing the viewer the freedom to interpret it any way he or she wants. To which I say, “C’mon, artist, you must have been thinking about something while you were creating it. What was on your mind?”
Perhaps there are artists, though, who simply have trouble thinking up titles. That’s why I’ve come up with the following suggestions, which are available to any painter or sculptor who is stuck for a title. Help yourself; these are free of charge, and just might express what you were hoping to communicate during the act of creation:
Flow Chart of the Entire Universe
Ex-Girlfriend with Mustache and Blacked-out Tooth (a.k.a. “That Bitch”)
If Smoke and Shadows Were Orange
Stuff I Found in the Trunk of My Car
First Attempt at Homemade Tattoo
Victory March of Trapezoids Down Michigan Avenue
A Dream — Or Was It?
PTA President Thanks Cafeteria Workers, 1957
Squiggly Lines, Part Four
Grandma Calls Them Her “Girls”