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February 20, 2018

For most people who have attended a museum or a gallery, a label with the inscription, Untitled, is not surprising or unexpected. But the museum or gallery goer may wonder, "did the artist just not title his/her artwork?", "is the title of the artwork, Untitled?", or "why didn't the artist title the artwork?". Ruth Bernard Yeazell addresses these very questions in her book, Picture Titles: How and Why Paintings Acquired Their Names. Ruth explains that before the 18th century, most paintings did not have titles but the advent of the public gallery changed the titling practice.

 

Ruth writes, "Under modern circumstances of display and reproduction, in fact, Untitled, too, is a kind of title: a word that routinely accompanies the work as it circulates in the culture and that instructs us, if only by negation, how to view it. But if we attend to the history of the paintings on our museum walls rather than to the labels that accompany them, the problem of the untitled work appears quite different. For the vast majority of European paintings before the eighteenth century, the absence of a title testified not to a deliberate refusal of prevailing custom but to the default condition of artistic practice. That these are not the works we presently designate as Untitled has more to do with reception, broadly understood, than it does with production. Such pictures have their names, but we do not owe those names to their makers. With rare exceptions, the work of baptizing them has been the province of middlemen."

 

Read more excerpted passages from Ruth Bernard Yeazell's book here

 

*image: Willem van Haecht, Wikimedia Foundation 

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