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Monday, September 19, 2016

The Name Game

Copyright, Jim Lane
Fall in Winter, 1977, Jim Lane
There are many different types of creativity. Art is only one--visual (and traditionally static). Music is another--tonal/rhythmic. Motion pictures are audio-visual. Writing is literary. Acting is emotional/physical. Design is functional creativity. Add to all these instances where two or more types complement one another as in the cinematic arts when virtually all of them come together into the hands of a producer. We often think of painting as a solitary form of creativity, both in conception and execution. But in every case, a second type of creativity comes into play, at some point in time, before, during, or (usually) after a work reaches completion--the art of naming the piece. And just as painters are seldom equally adept at more than one or two forms of creativity, very often this "literary" effort is not one of them.
American Gothic, 1930, Grant Wood
As one who plows through thousands of painted images a year, I can attest to the fact that many, perhaps even most, artists are not very good at titling their work. They range from the astounding (in the best sense of the word) to the abominable (in the worst sense of the word). On the one hand we have the deeply insightful, thought-provoking American Gothic (above) painted in 1930 by Grant Wood, to that of Jackson Pollock and his No. 5, 1948 (below) painted in 1948, of course, the title of which is nothing more than a default serial number. At first glance Wood's title might seem to be a rather poor choice. Wood's inspiration came from the only slightly Gothic style window in the otherwise traditional Midwestern farmhouse. The woman is dressed in a colonial print apron evoking 19th-century (Gothic?) Americana, while the man, her husband (though he is often seen as her father), is depicted as a farmer holding a pitchfork. The plants on the front porch are mother-in-law's tongue and geraniums, which are the same plants as in Wood's 1929 portrait of his mother, Woman with Plants. American Gothic, became quite famous for many reasons, one of them most certainly being its unique title. Conversely, Woman with Plants, by the same artist, dealing with largely the same theme...well, not so much.
No. 5, 1948, Jackson Pollock
Painters find themselves especially challenged in titling their work when the work itself is so strange as to demand some type of explanation as to its content. The Spanish painter, Pere Borrell del Caso's amusing, fool-the-eye painting (below), from 1874, is one such work. Once we get past the shock of seeing the subject of the painting appearing to scramble though the frame into our own world, the immediate question arises--why? In titling his work, Escaping Criticism, del Caso not only answers that question in a literal sense, but also a figurative sense. The boy is seen to be literally escaping his own world (and perhaps the wrath of his mother); while in doing so he allows the artist to escape artistic criticism through flawless realism and the audacity of his presentation.
Escaping Criticism, 1874, Pere Borrell del Caso
Coming from the other side of the coin, the Belgian Surrealist, Rene Magritte's The Son of Man (below), from 1964, bears a title which raises far more questions than it answers. The artist painted it as a self-portrait, yet the man's face is largely obscured by a hovering green apple. Only one eye can be seen peeking around the apple. The title would seem to have a biblical reference as employed by Jesus Christ in referring to himself, but if that was Magritte's intention, then the relationship is obscure, at best. Then there's the apple, which may or may not make reference to that of Genesis and the Garden of Eden, though the man is most definitely not naked, lacks an Eve, as well as the presence of a serpent. The title serves to render an enigmatic painting even more enigmatic, while making it far most interesting than would otherwise be the case.
The Son of Man, 1964, Rene Magritte
The Snail is technically not a painting but a collage by Henri Matisse. The work was created over a period of months from summer 1952 to early 1953. It is made from pigmented paper (gouache), cut and pasted onto a base layer of heavy white paper. Different colors and shapes are arranged in a spiral fashion suggesting the origin of the painting's name, thus demonstrating that a title, even that of an Abstract Expressionist work, can be derived from its content. From the early years of the 1940s Matisse's health had begun to deteriorate to the point that by the 1950s, his arthritis forced him to stop painting altogether in favor of paper cutouts (which he directed assistance in arranging and gluing). The Snail is a major example of his final body of works. He died in 1954.
The Snail, 1952-53, Henri Matisse
--shapes, spaces, colors, and composition.
Paul Cezanne's Pyramid of Skulls (below), from 1901, is a painting which one might think would present a multitude of clever title possibilities. If so, they apparently never occurred to Cezanne. It depicts four human skulls stacked in a pyramidal configuration. They are exceptional in the artist's overall work in that never before had C├ęzanne place his objects so close to the picture plane, causing the bony visages to seemingly assault the viewer, very much at odds with the typical logic of his usual domestic still-lifes. Cezanne seems to have wasted a tremendous opportunity to display a different component of his creative impulses. How about "Skull Duggery," or maybe "Skulls along the Nile"?
Pyramid of Skulls, 1901, Paul Cezanne.
Some paintings almost literally name themselves. Long before it was finished, my painting Fall in Winter (top) from 1977, seemed to choose its own clever title. However, in lieu of the fact such titles don't usually "pop up" so easily, here are some broad guidelines artists might find helpful in coming up with something more creative than "Untitled No. 356." Virtually all titles can be classified into one of five categories: sentimental, numerical, factual, mysterious, or abstract, though some may fall into more than one such category.
1) Brainstorm a list of titles that reflect what your artwork is about. Think about the meaning of the artwork and how the title can convey that meaning.

2) Identify the motivation behind your work and its creative genesis. What story do you want to tell?
 3) Pinpoint the artwork’s focal point. What do you want people to focus on when they see the piece? Relating the title to the focal point can help people to better understand your work.
4) Consider what audience's need to know. Although titles help the viewer understand and interpret what they’re looking at, some artists prefer not to tell the meaning of their artwork, deliberately leaving the title ambiguous (as in Magritte's The Son of Man.
5) Make the title personally meaningful regardless of your reasoning for choosing it. As the artist, you made the piece primarily for yourself. In any case, the title should be "rememberable," bringing to mind certain details as to the inspiration and creative processes the artwork entailed.
6) Consider titles inspired by poems or quotations. Or, you might choose a passage from a book. The key is to keep it short and see that it adds to the artwork’s meaning.
7) Consult others--family, friends, or other artists to get suggestions. They may have interesting ideas that you would never have thought of.
8) Make reference to an artistic influence. I once titled a painting, Painted under the Influence of Norman Rockwell, 1953.
9) Study and observe how other artists have named their works of art. Explore titles for different types of artwork, including classical paintings, modern drawings, sculptures, and even video art.
Once you've arrived at a possible title, choose your words thoughtfully. Look up key words in a thesaurus to come up with synonyms or alternate words conveying the same thought. Then try adding descriptive adjectives or adverbs to give the title more depth. You might also try switching around the words you’ve tentatively chosen to improve their flow; however putting words in a different order can sometimes shift their meaning slightly.
Copyright, Jim Lane
A Dog's Eye View, Jim Lane.
A new way of looking at it.
Don't choose a purely descriptive title when you can delve into a complex naming process. I've always preached that a painting's title should be short, meaningful, memorable, clever, and (if possible) witty--in that order. If need be, spend as much time considering a thoughtful title (perhaps as you paint) as you do in creating your masterpiece. Don't get involved in translating a title into another language. In doing so you may fall victim to a whole host of problems involving subtle meaning variations. You might also want to do a little research on the Internet to see if some other artist had already chosen your painting title. You don't want to appear to be a copycat. Also, spellcheck your words, punctuation, and definitions. Any mistake along this line makes you look foolish, careless, ignorant, or all of the above.
Copyright, Jim Lane
No Nonsense, Jim Lane.
This old bird looks like he'd
take "No Nonsense" off anyone.


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