To south London and the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see an exhibition of woodcuts by abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler. It really is the ideal art gallery: essentially two parallel strips, one showing its admirable core collection of greats (Rembrandt, Murillo, Gainsborough, Poussin), the other for special exhibitions. Always something new to see, always something familiar, and just enough artworks so that you feel that you could and should see them all, and so you do.
The special exhibition, entitled ‘Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty‘, was excellent. It showed you how she adapted the forms and processes of the woodcut to her abstract ambitions, pushing at the boundaries of what could be achieved while showing the greatest of respect for the method and its tradition. We were shown finished works and the several draft versions, some of them blocks of woods brought together, some of them stages of print, that looked no less complete, and displayed together showed a process of thought each stage of which mattered. The works were singularly beautiful: rich in colour, delicate in effect. You wanted them in your living room. They would raise the tone of any space.
The influence of Japanese woodcuts was obvious. Some looked like transmutations of Japanese works; some looked like one patch of a Ukiyo-e blown up to study in intense detail. Several carried names that recorded this influence, with the point explained further by the labels.
Ah, the names and the labels. You cannot have an art exhibition without them, though it would be interesting to experiment with the absence of either. An artwork must have a name and an artist and a source and a date and the format – that feels reasonable enough. We want to know the artist is; either the artist or a subsequent custodian gave the work a name; the institution or individual that owns the artwork needs to be acknowledged; a date tells us where we are in the artist’s career; and format descriptions are satisfyingly technical. We can see that the curators have done their job.
But then they give us more, in this case hyperbolic descriptions of what we are seeing, the methods employed and the invariably exceptional results. Although at least two labels mentioned that the artist wanted the viewer to come up with own interpretations, clearly a need was felt to help us along the way. This is not easy with abstract works, which by definition should elude any instruction to see them in a particular way. This viewer gave up on the labels fairly quickly, instead prefer to see his fellow visitors obediently stare at each work, then bow to the right where the label hung next to the art work, then rise to look again, matching instruction to personal experience where possible. Aha, I can now see that the graduating geometric pastel pattern contrasts beautifully against the expressive linear dark wispy lines that grow organically out from the left corner. Handy to know.
And then there are the names. All artworks must have a name. Without a name it would be lost, unfinished in effect. Some creators of abstract works revel in the opportunities that a name provides to show inspiration or effect, sometimes teasing the viewer with opaque or confrontational reference. At other times, they rebel against being pinned down by words, and so we get ‘Untitled’, or a number, or there is no name and the gallery (or seller) must supply one of a suitably neutral nature.
The history of the naming of pictures more or less parallels the development of art itself. For centuries many artworks had no name because there was no reason to do so, as they were often held and seen privately. Then they were given names that said what they depicted: ‘Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq’ (The Night Watch), ‘The Hay Wain’, ‘The Fight Temeraire’. Then, as art began to deconstruct itself, so names firstly turned impressionistic (Whistler is said to be the author of the trend, coming up with ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1’ for the 1871 portrait of his mother), then confrontational (‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’), then literal in their non-depiction (‘Red on Maroon’), then facetious (‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’). The name stands in front of the work like the glass in front of Helen Frankenthaler’s works at Dulwich – letting you see through yet at the same time so reflective than they can prevent you from seeing clearly.
Frankenthaler was an artist who used names artfully. As one of those labels told me of her print ‘Japanese Maple’:
Its title comes from a tree outside her studio in Connecticut. However, as with many of her works, the print does not reveal a direct connection to its name. Frankenthaler used language to play with ambiguity and invite people to find their own meaning.
So it is that for she whose starting point may have been the thing she saw but whose end point was the thing, or the many things, she thought, the stages of prints for each title reflect that mental journey. In doing so, she makes we the viewers as much of the artistic process as herself. That’s the power that names have.
Names change artworks. We cling to words, because words are what we need to communicate. The confer meaning meaning, or make us question meaning, and so make us look closer, to resolve the name as best we can.
In the light of such things, I looked at what was trumpeted as the highlight of the Frankenthaler exhibition, ‘Madame Butterfly’, and wondered. It is a spectacular work (shown in two drafts and a final print), inspired by the Puccini opera, but (as the label tell us) once again the artist wanted the viewer ‘to bring our own personal interpretations’.
So I wondered what would happen to ‘Madame Butterfly’ if I gave it different names? Half a dozen are dotted throughout this post. It would be a beautiful work were it nameless, with a mystery in place before one learned that it was called and started to puzzle out why. Maybe it becomes a different artwork simply because of the power of naming that I chose to wield. Or maybe the exercise indicates that all naming is futile, because any name can be applied to anything we see, and that must make us see it in the light of that name. If not, then we might lose all faith in language.
All names of paintings must fail, so why not be rid of them? We’ll still have labels.
- For more on Helen Frankenthaler, see the handsomely-illustrated Helen Frankenthaler Foundation website
- For more on the history of the naming of paintings, see Ruth Yeazell’s book, Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names. She introduces her theme in an article for The Conversation, ‘How the painting got its name‘
- Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty runs at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 18 April 2022