Naturally, novelists take great care in naming their works, and we all have our favorites. Some are borrowed: All the King’s Men, The Sun Also Rises, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Seductively pithy: The Big Sleep, Fifth Business, Atonement, Beloved. Vaguely intimidating, hinting at doorstop girth: The Corrections, The Recognitions, War and Peace, Gravity’s Rainbow. Funny: A Confederacy of Dunces. Declarative: Their Eyes Were Watching God, Things Fall Apart, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Impossible: The Man without Qualities, Infinite Jest, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Lofty shouts: Absolom! Absolom! and O Pioneers!
I once had a novel taken from my office at another job, or borrowed indefinitely, and I always thought the compelling words on the spine, I Am One of You Forever, played a part in the disappearance.
So what about naming visual art? Many contemporary and Old Master titles alike seem fittingly unobtrusive. Six Women. Blue Panel. Two Figures. Madonna and Child. Still Life with Flowers. One of our curators speculates that more interpretive titles in Western art started appearing in the 19th century, probably the invention of romantics, titles “suggestive of the proper mood for viewing” or relating “visual experience to other art forms, especially music.”
As an editor, I confess to preferring the more interpretive title, and many belonging to works in our collection do have a moody or literary tone. I’ve always liked Silence of Thought, Venice without Water, Face-Pink, and The Quintet of Remembrance (soft spot for the downright Proustian). I was curious whether our curators had any favorites, so I asked them:
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Kinsey Katchka: Flying Apartment Flotilla, “Because it has elements of whimsy and militance at the same time.” Lines That Link Humanity, “Because it is universal and strikes me as optimistic, though there is a dark underbelly to those links.” Cabbage Worship, “Because it’s goofy.”
I was surprised to learn when I first began working in an art museum that, in addition to restoring lost stories to works of art, curators are responsible for naming works without titles. One curator estimates that in the NCMA’s collection, approximately 99 percent of the art before 1950 was originally unnamed. Even Monet didn’t title his works. “That was usually left up to his dealers or the collectors of his paintings,” said David Steel.
Quite often it’s about revising older, erroneous titles that have been floating out there in the art market for centuries. “First, you only retitle a work of art with just cause,” said John Coffey. “Panama Girls became Panama Dancers when I determined that Kirchner’s original title of the picture was Panamatanzerinnen.”
When Dennis Weller retitles a work, he tries “to better reflect the subject matter depicted, or to correct misinformation, such as the name of a sitter in a portrait or the identification of the biblical scene.” As works change hands and titles are revised, how do curators keep it all straight? “Minor differences in titles appear often in the literature, sometimes due to translation, and sometimes due to the whim of a curator,” said Weller. “Still, if the location, size, support, etc., remains constant, there tends to be little confusion.”
I wondered if there was ever any temptation to get creative. “Oh, please, no,” said one curator, the rest concurring. Hence the snoozy (forgive me) An Extensive Landscape with Cottages near a Lake or the startling Peasant Spreading Manure. Necessarily prosaic, these titles tell it like it is. And some seem to have a curious appeal on their own:
The Triumph of Chastity. Sawfish Headdress. Stag Hunt in a River. Mercury About to Behead Argus. A Man Scraping Chocolate. The Dentist. A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms. Costume for a Female Diviner.
Part of me is relieved curators feel no need to get fancy on us. Why detract from the uncommon experience of standing before an original Van Dyck?