The art of renaming


Recently, a painting by artist Vincent Van Gogh was renamed almost 135 years after it came into existence. According to reports in the media, when a Dutch chef, Ernst de Witte, visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam last year, he believed that the still life painting was incorrectly titled ‘Red Cabbages and Onions’ (1887) when it should have read ‘Garlic’ since that is what was represented in the work. He subsequently went on a mission to prove his theory with detailed analyses including comparisons with Van Gogh’s other work ‘Still Life Around a Plate of Onions’ (1889). The museum’s research team was convinced by his evidence and later renamed the painting ‘Red Cabbages And Garlic’.

Interestingly, it turns out this is not the first time that a work of art has been retitled. But first, let us take a look at how titles came about. The practice of assigning a title to artworks is fairly new, and before the 18th century, most artworks in the West were untitled. However, when artworks began to be moved around for exhibitions and exchanged hands, it meant documentation assumed importance and thus, it made sense to assign titles. It was in the 18th century that the movement of art increased as a result of art museums being constructed across Europe with the Louvre also coming up in 1793. Simultaneously, during this period, the art market began to grow with auction houses getting established: both Sotheby’s and Christie’s were founded around this time.

It is a well-known fact that many artists prefer to keep their works untitled, in order to keep the artwork open to interpretation, and to avoid offering any clues or points of visual references in viewing. However, a collection of untitled works can be a logistical nightmare — in terms of cataloguing, documentation and tracing provenance, to mention only a few of the many challenges such works pose. This is one of the many reasons why gallerists, dealers, critics and historians find it useful to have titles for all the works. For the viewer too, having a title offers context, which may contribute towards making the artwork more accessible.

Despite this, several artists continue to keep their works untitled, believing staunchly that the work should speak for itself. This trend is more evident in the case of nonrepresentational or abstract works. In fact, ‘Untitled’ as a title also finds favour with artists while sometimes either serial numbers or additional short descriptions in parentheses accompany them.

Imagine if the Mona Lisa was untitled. Well, it so happens that the painting acquired an official title much later, after Leonardo da Vinci’s death. Picasso’s ‘Le Bordel Philosophique’, painted in 1907, was renamed in 1916, when it was presented before the public at André Salmon’s Salon d’Antin, and came to be known as ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ — a less shocking title than the original and more palatable for the public. 

In more recent times, Picasso’s ‘The Girl With A Red Beret And Pompom’ a 1937 painting, which depicts his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, was renamed ‘Annabel’ in 2018. The buyer, Richard Caring, added this label after his nightclub where the work was displayed.

The author is a Bengaluru-based art consultant, curator and writer. She blogs at Art Scene India and can be reached on [email protected]

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