What's in a name?

November 24, 2019
Copyright: The Imperial War Museum
Copyright: The Imperial War Museum

Does the title of a painting matter? Well, consider that one of the most famous, and instantaneously recognisable, paintings in the world is titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No1. Or that one of the most expensive paintings ever sold, reportedly for $200m in 2015, is called Number 17A, or even that the most expensive painting ever sold without any kind of title at all sold for $110m at Sotheby’s New York in 2015. 


All of this would suggest that no, a painting’s title doesn’t matter – in fact it doesn’t even need to have one.  The artist behind Number 17A was Jackson Pollock, and he used to give paintings conventional titles but changed to numbering them, saying that the viewer should “…look passively and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for.” Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, said “Numbers are neutral. They make people look at a picture for what it is – pure painting.


I understand this argument, but disagree with it at a profound level. The very act of painting is personal, emotional, sometimes visceral. To leave a painting untitled, or with a banal title that gives the viewer nothing, disconnects the viewer from the painting, and lessens its impact. By contrast, a well-chosen title brings the viewer closer to both the artist and the painting itself, helps put the piece into context whilst still allowing the viewer to develop a personal relationship with the picture.  It is a well-known, and well-studied, phenomenon that the title of a painting influences the viewer – this seems to me to be indisputably a good thing.


Humans have a need to name things, to personalise them, so that we can become closer to the thing in question. It’s why Arrangement in Grey and Black No1 is universally known by its colloquial title, Whistler’s Mother and Basquiat’s untitled piece as Skull.


Now consider what happens when a great painting in its own right is combined with a great title to produce something very special. The best example in my view is We are Making a New World, a 1918 painting of the First World War by the British artist, Paul Nash.


The context is all important in understanding this painting. The Great War was the first where mass production techniques of military hardware clashed confronted battle tactics from a different era, with devastating consequences.  It is estimated that there were around 40 million casualties of the war, and on the first day alone of just one of the war’s many battles – the Somme – nearly 20,000 British troops were killed.


The trauma of the War produced some of the best art ever made, most notably perhaps in poetry. If you have not read – either at all or recently - Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, do so without delay, it is one of the most moving 218 lines words ever written on any subject.


Paul Nash himself had served as a soldier on the Western Front, before becoming an official war artist in 1917. The war affected him deeply, and he wrote to his wife: “I have just returned, last night from a visit to Brigade Headquarters up the line and I shall not forget it as long as I live. I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature, unspeakable, utterly indescribable … Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all though the bitter black night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease. They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave, and cast up on it the poor dead. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless.”


We are Making a New World started life as a drawing Nash made in France at this time entitled Sunrise: Inverness Copse. It was named after the site of heavy fighting in the summer of 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres. When he returned to England, Nash used the drawing as the basis for a new painting, depicting the aftermath of the fighting, showing a landscape consisting of mud and blasted trees illuminated by a pale-yellow sun.


The BBC describes the painting thus: “The rising sun in We are Making a New World breaks into No Man’s Land on the Western Front. This is a malleable landscape, constantly reshaped and redrawn by bombardment and attacks. Consequently, it is un-mappable, people are excluded, it is ownerless, dead and polluted. 


In Nash’s bitter vision the sun will continue to rise each and every day to expose the desecration and to repeat judgment on the perpetrators. This new world is unwanted, unlovable but inescapable.


If the title of the painting had remained Sunrise: Inverness Copse, this would still have been a magnificent war painting. Re-naming the finished painting to We are Making a New World made it a truly great painting.


That’s the power of a title.

About the author

Richard Pulford

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