At the Yale University Art Gallery this past Friday, English professor Ruth Yeazell GRD ’71 talked titles.
In a lecture titled “Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names” after her recently released book of the same name, she explored the history of titling as well as titles’ effects on understanding and interpreting works of art. After, introducing questions about where titles come from, what functions they serve and how they interact with the art objects they accompany, the talk presented a few of the responses proposed by Yeazell’s book, drawing on examples that ranged from 17th-century Dutch oil paintings to abstract work by contemporary artist Jasper Johns. She noted that her book, partly inspired by her own fascination with titles, explores the influence titles can have on the understanding of a work of art, and seeks to debunk notions of there being “something illicit about reading rather than looking.”
“I’ll start with a confession,” Yeazell said. “I am the sort of person whose eyes always drift down to the label next to the image when I go to a gallery, almost before I even look at the image itself.”
Her discussion examined how a title can influence what one sees in a work of art, a phenomenon Yeazell terms the “hermeneutic power of titling.” Exploring this power in relation to pieces like British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner’s “Keelmen Heaving in Coals at Night,” she explained how titles, which have the power to influence viewers’ interpretations of the narrative a work presents, can be entirely manufactured by the “middlemen” who handle a piece throughout history, and not its creator. In the case of the Turner painting, Yeazell said that the work’s current owner, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., changed the painting’s original title to “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight.” Yeazell noted that while she questions the morality of the choice to change a title from that given by the artist, she thinks that such modifications are often inevitable.
“If you are an artist who wants that title to stick, you have to really push for it,” Yeazell said.
Kar Jin Ong ’17 said he was intrigued by Yeazell’s description of how titles changed through history as they passed into the hands of auctioneers, curators and private owners, adding that he was particularly interested in who serve as today’s “middlemen” and whether titles might be something imposed on works of art, rather than something that reflects an artist’s autonomous choice.
Olivia Armandroff ’17, an art history major, who said she was perturbed by the National Gallery’s title change, had similar concerns.
“As someone who wants to work in a museum someday, the question is what is the morality of changing the titles?” Armandroff said.
The Yale University Art Gallery is located at 1111 Chapel St.