In my last article of 2023 https://www.artfullyabstractedblog.com/post/shoot I invited suggestions, as I have done before, for future subjects for discussion.
One of my readers came up with the following:
“I was talking about abstract art with friends and we disagreed on the concept of leaving a work unnamed. I thought that the artist might not want to influence the viewer by loading the experience with a particular meaning (from a title). But my friend was not convinced. She did not respond well to untitled works. What are your thoughts? To title or not to title? that is the question!”
I like this question. I find it a pertinent one across diverse branches of the arts. To summarise before developing the subject further, I would really rather not title paintings at all, or rarely. At most, I like to offer titles that pique the imagination and lead to questions, rather than deliver answers on a plate.
As most of you know, I am a musician as well as a painter, though I am no longer an executant in the former capacity. I am perturbed by the modern obsession with attributing cute, spurious titles to classical music works that were deliberately left untitled by their composers.
Fryderyk Chopin composed two sets (plus another small, simpler, supplementary one) of Etudes for piano, which are pinnacles of the pianistic canon. None were given titles by Chopin, despite the penchant for programmatic titles or subtitles by other composers of the Romantic era. Why should they bear names? They are not idealised vignettes of poetic absolutism, and they are not intended to evoke a scene, or a mood. They are simply, and supremely, a collection of pianistic constructions of a technical complexity so precise and elevated that my own piano teacher Peter Feuchtwanger stated: “You do not learn the Chopin Etudes to get a better technique – you wait until you have the technique, and then you study them.”
In modern times, the TikTok and Instagram schools of classical piano have seen fit to affix ridiculous soubriquets to almost all of the Etudes op 10 and op 25, viz: op 10 no 1 “Waterfall”, op 25 no 12 “Ocean” (I think...and shudder) and, most appallingly, op 25 no 5 “Wrong Note”. There are precedents, of course – Robert Schumann likened the sound of op 25 no 1 to that of an Aeolian Harp, and the nickname has stuck. Similarly, op 10 no 12 has for years been known as “The Revolutionary”. The subtitle inherited from Schumann at least holds some significance, and is evocative; it is probably with the “Revolutionary” that the rot set in.
I could continue – Chopin is by no means the only one to suffer these irrelevant labels – but we are here to talk about painting!
Figurative, representational paintings have traditionally borne titles. Landscapes, portraits, flower paintings and so on might be deemed not to require labels as to what they are – bizarrely perhaps, for they are the paintings that usually receive them. Thus we have Manet's LE DEJEUNER SUR L'HERBE, Constable's THE HAY WAIN and Van Gogh's SUNFLOWERS.
LE DEJEUNER SUR L'HERBE - Edouard Manet, 1863
THE HAY WAIN - John Constable, 1800
VASE WITH TWELVE SUNFLOWERS - Vincent Van Gogh, 1888
The social subtext of Manet's painting, however, contains far more subtle and scandalous allusions than its anodyne title would suggest, and Van Gogh's various sunflower paintings are surely more than just flowers. In these pictures, we gaze on silence and visual riot, movement and frozen stasis, the throbbing heat of life and the chill of death. In THE HAY WAIN, what you see is of course what you get, though the painting is no less special for that, and looking at Constable's paintings with my artist mother is one of my earliest and most precious memories.
I understand why art consumers are sometimes nervous about unlabelled paintings, but let me return to my reader's very reasonable observation that “the artist might not want to influence the viewer by loading the experience with a particular meaning”. Indeed we (I) do not! Often, collectors report that my paintings tell them a different story according to the time of day, the season, or their mood. To posit a painting as 'untitled' is not to abdicate responsibility for its message, but to stimulate the imagination of the viewer from a starting-point of nothingness. Some things, some experiences, some sensations need no name, and they cannot be described. Therein lies their beauty.
On receiving the painting they had commissioned from me, one client wrote: “To me it hints at a landscape, tumultuous and deep. The sun appears to glimpse through a stormy sky and is reflected on some form in the mid-ground and possibly, the sea. Every time I look at it, I see something new, like the reflected shapes on the right. Maybe a far-off mountain, caught in the fading sunlight? That said, I love its ambiguity. It isn’t an obvious landscape. In essence it is an exploration of colour, tone, light and shade.” It is worth noting that this painting very enigmatically titled.
This is really what it is all about; exploration – exploration on the part of the painter, and discovery on the part of the viewer (and the artist too, if they are lucky!)
If I never titled my works, you would be left with, as a rough estimate, some eight hundred “UNTITLED”, to sift through!
Be thankful, then, that I do give you something to hold onto, at least most of the time; while at least aiming to perpetuate The Allure Of The Enigma.
IN PRAISE OF THE FLEETING - Haydn Dickenson, 2024
Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2024