Ttwo girls are playing on the beach. One dips her foot in a black pool of water left behind by an ebbing gray sea. Both are turned away from us, absorbed, as so many of Van’s subjects are, in thoughts viewers are unfamiliar with. I can’t help but project what I know of Yiadom-Boakye onto the picture, not least that she studied painting in Falmouth, so this cold study in grey, black and brown is probably inspired by Cornish beaches .
I look at the title for guidance: Condor and the Mole. What could this mean? Maybe the toe-topper is the condor – she swings her arms out like she’s a broad-winged bird ready to fly and her friend – is what? – an earthbound mole? But she’s not a mole – there’s nothing subterranean about her at all; in her orange skirt and white top, she is the light that disrupts the dark color scheme. Or maybe I’m wrong: maybe the mole is the pool of water rising to the surface, touching the condor girl’s toe as God’s finger touched Adam’s in Michelangelo’s famous work. And that leads me to wilder thoughts: maybe condor girl has struck oil in Cornwall and Jeremy Hunt doesn’t have to worry about reducing the national debt.
As I walked around Tate Britain’s seductive retrospective of the British painter’s work, I kept looking at the titles. Not because the pictures need verbal help – there is enough in her pictures of imagined subjects to feed the hungriest eyes. No, it’s because Yiadom-Boakye clearly gets a kick out of writing titles. And that pleasure is contagious. She calls her titles “an extra brush mark”, but not explanations: “Any attempts at explanation can at best be redundant; at worst completely inaccurate.”
All the way through the show, her titles rubbed me the wrong way in an intriguing way. Maybe it’s nonsense, or maybe, even against the artist’s intention, they send the viewer down a rabbit hole of misguided but fun interpretation. That’s certainly what I did with titles like Tie the Temptress to the Trojan; To improvise a mountain; and The Cream and the Taste. And then there was Alabaster for Infidels, one of a handful of new works not in the first, Covid-truncated iteration of the Tate Britain retrospective in 2020. It depicts two men, one seated, the other in striped trousers, holding a glass of water or perhaps milk. Are the two men the unbelievers, and are the two white items – the glass and the Morandi-like jug – the alabaster? Or are these men, calming to ponder, cool marbles for us unbelievers to contemplate? And if the latter, why am I an unbeliever? And you don’t have to look so smug. Presumably you are also an unbeliever.
In Yiadom-Boakye’s titles, words become detached from the painting. Which is fair enough, you might think: a painting that needs words to tell you what it is can’t be a very good painting. It must be a world intact, perhaps a visual expression of the unwriteable. That’s why, no doubt, so many artists floundered for anti-nominative puritanism, with artists as diverse as Donald Judd and Jean-Michel Basquiat among those who called some works Untitled. But while the anti-title of Judd’s Row of Rising Shelves sculpture seems justified, as it needs no further explanation, I would like to know whose skull Basquiat painted in a 1982 work that, although it has no untitled, comes with a hefty price tag: in May 2017, it sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s.
Yiadom-Boakye plays with the idea that what can be said in paint is in a different language than what is said in words and perhaps the former cannot be translated to the latter. She says: “I write about things I can’t paint and I paint the things I can’t write about.” But her oeuvre is, in a sense, a double dismissal. Her titles do not seem to connect clearly with the paintings; and, programmatically, her paintings do not connect with reality. “I learned how to paint by looking at painting,” says Yiadom-Bakye. She paints imaginary people, though they are no less powerful, endearing subjects for all that.
Paintings used to be simpler. They depicted reality and titles identified which piece of reality was depicted. But the latter is a recent development. In Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired their Names, Ruth Yeazell argues that before the 18th century in Europe, artists did not need to name their works because most art stayed in one place and depicted things that they owners did not need to mention. . If paintings did have titles, artists often did not write them. The Mona Lisa was not the name Leonardo gave to his portrait, but Vasari’s; what we know as Rembrandt’s Night Watch was originally called Militia Company of District II under the command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq.
It was not until the rise of auction houses and public galleries in the 18th century that titles became useful handles needed to organize submissions. But later something disturbing happened. Painting broke the compact with reality. One day someone complained to Picasso that he had to make pictures of things as they are. The person took out a picture of his wife from his wallet and said, “There, you see. It is a picture of how she really is.” Picasso looked at it and said, “She’s quite small, isn’t she? And flat?” Magritte’s 1929 painting of a pipe is titled The Treachery of Images and bears the legend Ceci n’est pas une pipe which, while true, is not very helpful.
These days, just as pictures are not very good guides to reality, so titles have become unreliable guides to paintings. Michael Baldwin’s 1965 deconstruction of depiction is called Untitled Painting. But the title is inaccurate: it is not a painting; it is a mirror that reflects you and most likely looks confused.
Consider the case of Matt Adrian. In one image, a pair of blue birds in acrylic paint sit very close to each other at the bottom of a wooden panel. Title? “She approached me drunk in a bar, asked if I’d do her a disservice – and your mother and I have been together ever since.” Hold on, Matt: are these supposed to be talking birds? In another photo, a bird stares with a predatory expression. Title? “Dakota recently declared that she is a reincarnated 15th century serial killer, so I am canceling all scheduled play dates until further notice.” Adrian also paints some lovely owls and possibly nods on their perches. Title? “The Terribly Delightful Existence of Semi-Spectral Things.”
That last title reminds me of one of Damien Hirst’s foremost contributions to art, his verbose titles. The title of Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living seems to advance a dubious philosophical argument rather than telling you what you’re looking at, namely a 14-foot tiger shark submerged in formaldehyde. Jake and Dinos Chapman, not to be outdone, arranged nine display cases in a swastika shape, each filled with thousands of plastic figures being bloodied, decomposed, suffocated, impaled or decapitated. The work replaced Hell, their installation destroyed in the disastrous 2004 Momart warehouse fire. Title? If Hitler had been a hippie, how happy we would have been. Of course it is.
Perhaps any disconnect between titles and their works is Marcel Duchamp’s fault. In 1919 he made a readymade consisting of a postcard of the Mona Lisa, on whose face he drew a mustache and beard and called the result LHOOQ. If you say those letters out loud in French, they sound like “elle a chaud au cul”, or, roughly, “She has a hot ass”. Which may be true, although given Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa four centuries earlier and you can’t see the sitter’s bottom anyway, it’s anyone’s guess how Duchamp came to that opinion.
In these very Tate Britain galleries where Yiadom-Boakye’s retrospective is on view, a quarter of a century ago I saw another retrospective dedicated to the late American artist RB Kitaj. They showed the dangers of verbosity. His paintings each came with not only titles, but explanatory notes that I spent more time on than the actual art. Even Kitaj’s titles were sometimes too many. Consider Desk Murder (formerly The Third Department (A Test Study)). As Oscar Wilde might have put it, having one set of brackets in a painting’s title can be considered an accident; two looks like carelessness.
Other titles are disruptively disconnected from whatever is going on in the mesmerizing paintings, such as The Apotheosis of Groundlessness or Where the Railroad Leaves the Sea or, the totally confusing, If Not, Not. I remember spending some time in front of a painting called The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin), not only trying to grasp the meaning of the title, but also the accompanying essay in which Kitaj, ever well-read and ready to show it, Flaubert quoted and described how Benjamin was banished from Paris in 1940 for his suicide. “Benjamin excites me because he is not coherent, and beautiful.” Perhaps this is true not only of Benjamin, but of the relationship between paintings and their titles.
Kitaj was devastated by British critics, damned for, among other perceived failings, that very verbosity. The artist took it personally, claiming that Brits had in fact murdered his second wife, the painter Sandra Fisher, who died shortly after the exhibition. In 1997 he made a painting called The Killer-Critic Assassinated by His Widower, Even which was shown in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. The title alone showed that the cultured Kitaj knew his history – that “even” is of course a quote from Duchamp, and the painting itself, depicting the artist shooting, is drawn from Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian. At the top of the picture he wrote TS Eliot’s comment “Art is the escape from personality”. But Kitaj crossed out the “from” and replaced it with “after”, as if, in symbolic revenge in painting, he had found who he was – an incorrigible babbler.
Yiadom-Boakye hardly talks too much, but I wonder if she’s quite right to suggest that a title is just an extra brushstroke. For me, her titles do more. They sometimes confuse, sometimes they help, but always invite me to take my appreciation of her beautiful photographs in unexpected directions, directions that might contradict whatever, if anything, she was trying to express. Because this is one fate of painting: the artist may get the last brush stroke, but not the last word.