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Titles of artworks can obstruct how we interpret artistic meaning

1 February 2016

Editor’s Letter from the February issue of Apollo: subscribe here

Damnatio memoriae is all the rage. Few readers will have missed the hullabaloo surrounding the campaign to topple a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the High Street façade of Oriel College, Oxford. A group of students, led by a Rhodes scholar, have demanded the removal of the figure on the grounds that Rhodes’ unquestionably racist ideas and activities invalidate continued commemoration.

At the time of writing, the college has just launched a six-month ‘listening exercise’ that will help it to decide the fate of the statue. But in a sense, following weeks of circular debate, both the campaigners and their critics have already succeeded. The latter have rightly made the case that the statue should be retained, partly for architectural reasons but more forcefully because of how the memorials of the past become the admonitory touchstones of the present; and the former have now drawn so much attention to a long unnoticed statue as to have reconfigured its context without needing to depose it.

In Amsterdam, meanwhile, the Rijksmuseum has announced that it has changed the titles of some 200 works in its collection, substituting neutral descriptive words in place of terms that are now considered racial slurs or deemed otherwise derogatory. A canvas by Simon Maris, for instance, which was formerly catalogued as The Little Negress, will now be known as Young Woman with a Fan.

This programme has drawn criticism from those who claim that the museum is engaged in erasing history. But in this context, such an argument is fallacious, since in the majority of cases the abandoned titles have no innate relation to the artworks in question. They are not ‘original’ titles asserted by their makers, nor instructions for how to look at the works. Instead, they are descriptive labels, often appended centuries after a work was created, which were once deemed helpful and may now seem comic or offensive – and as such, they can in fact obstruct how we look at and interpret artistic skill and meaning.

Of course, the history of previous titles is information that remains fundamental to scholars, since historical changes to a picture title, or semantic shifts that may have occurred during translation, can easily lead to confusion about the work under discussion. It can also be a decisive marker of how a painting has been received, and the contexts in which it has been interpreted in any period (which is why the Rijksmuseum rightly continues to list historical titles in its online catalogue).

That titles are somehow intrinsic to all artworks is an idea that is mistaken but frequently espoused. Welcome clarification of this fact comes with Ruth Bernard Yeazell’s new book, Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names (Princeton University Press). This is an important study, which sets out the grounds by which middlemen, from dealers and notaries to printmakers, were until the late 18th century responsible for almost any written description of a painting that we would now dub its ‘title’. For early sales cataloguers or the compilers of the livret at Salon exhibitions, ‘the language of classification rather than of naming’ was paramount.

Yeazell writes instructively about how, as artists increasingly began to name their own paintings from the late 18th century onwards, descriptions given to historical works solidified into their ‘titles’ and the perceived relevance of the language attached to paintings grew significantly. It is here that the tradition emerges of viewers reading, in Yeazell’s terms, ‘by’ or ‘against’ the title: looking at artworks in a reductive way, whereby the thing itself only seems to confirm or deny how it has been labelled. ‘This is not an X’ became one of the most common critical formulations of the 19th century.

Besides, as Yeazell demonstrates, those painters who have assertively paid attention to the titles of their works – such as Turner and Whistler – have often done so as a way of setting out their programme for painting itself rather than summarising what they have depicted in a particular canvas. Such titles are part of the intellectual content of the work, and should never be tampered with. But changing a title that is little more than a quirk of history? It’s hardly the same as pulling down a statue.

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