Friday, December 03, 2010

The Fine Art of Coming Up With a Title

The Forever Winter
5.25 x 6 inches
watercolor and gouche on 140 lb. cold press paper

Naming a work of art can be just as challenging as the act of creating it.  The right title can make or break how it's perceived; just as a man introducing himself as “Buddy” might be regarded quite differently than, say, “Xavier Chesterson III”.

How does an artist go about naming their work? Do they stare at their canvases until something miraculously pops into their head? (Yes.) Do they lift lines from films and works of literature? (Yes.) Do they plead with their long-suffering friends for ideas? (Yes.) Do they secretly pay a professional? (Maybe.)

It's a difficult business.  Sometimes, when all else fails, a simple description will do.  Think Rodin's The Thinker, Munch's The Scream, Klimt's The Kiss, VanGogh's Starry Night or Sunflowers.  Succinct, brief words; the rest is left up to the imagination.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are titles so long that they're almost bizzare. And ocassionally that's the point.  Salvador Dali perhaps hold the record: Gala Looking at Dali in a State of Anti-Gravitation in His Work of Art 'Pop-Op-Yes-Yes Pompier' in Which One Can Contemplate the Two Anguishing Characters from Millet’s 'Angelus' in a State of Atavistic Hibernation Standing Out of a Sky Which Can Suddenly Burst into a Gigantic Maltese Cross Right in the Heart of the Perpignan Railway Station Where the Whole Universe Must Begin to Converge.

The museum database must choke on that one.

What's interesting is that, even if an artist doesn't title their work, people will eventually name it for them.  Just as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” filled the vacuum left by Prince's unprintable symbol, DaVinci's unnamed portrait became widely known as the Mona Lisa.  For some reason, we humans demand verbal context for things – even random numbers will do in a pinch, a la' Jackson Pollock's  Number 1, Number 5 and No. 32.  It's a very, very rare famous work indeed that's just known as, Untitled.

As for myself, I will sometimes not name a painting for several weeks or even months.  I might refer to it as, “The (insert subject matter) painting” , but hold off on a formal name until it goes out into the world, much as some cultures name a child with a temporary, “protective” name until they reach adolescence. Other times, the perfect title will spring immediately to mind– but this is far less common.  In several instances, I've re-named works repeatedly, usually because I put them online or in shows too quickly after their creation, and didn't get a good feel for what I'd created. 

When naming a painting, I usually ask myself the following questions: “Deep down, what am I truly trying to say or depict?” “Does it detract from the work in any way?” “Is it too similar to other titles I've used in the past?”  “Is it too boring/pretentious/gimmicky?” and not least importantly, “Is it easy to spell so I can find it later in my filing system?” 

Of course not every title is equally memorable or ideal; but then neither is every artwork.  But as in most situations, the more you attempt something, the more you increase the odds of getting it right.

No comments: