Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ruth Bernard Yeazell's "Picture Titles"

Ruth Bernard Yeazell is the Chace Family Professor of English and director of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University. Her books include Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature and Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Picture Titles includes a picture as well as text and thus demonstrates a central theme of the book: the way in which visual images in Western culture are mediated by language. The picture comes from a famous painting attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder and shows two legs sticking out of the water. Those legs are a tiny detail of the canvas as whole, which is titled on its frame (in French) Landscape with the Fall of Icarus; but guided by that title, both ordinary viewers and scholars alike have taken them as the focus of the painting. Without the title, the legs could just as easily belong to a swimmer or diver as to the mythical boy who plunged into the sea when he flew too near the sun; with the title, they become not only the legs of Icarus but the emotional center of the painting—a painting that has inspired more poems over the past century than any other. In the best known of these, W. H. Auden‘s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” the discrepancy between the rest of the canvas and those “white legs disappearing into the green / Water” prompts a meditation on the human capacity to ignore the suffering of others.

But while almost everyone who approaches the painting reads it through its title, that title did not, in fact, originate with the painter. Like many of the pictures included in my book, the work we know as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus acquired its name from those I call “middlemen”—in this case, from the twentieth-century scholars and curators who sought to identify the work after it surfaced at a London sale in 1912. Rather than an authoritative guide to the artist’s intention, such a title is an act of interpretation after-the-fact.

Picture Titles begins by exploring how this practice of titling paintings arose out of earlier modes of identifying and describing them. Page 99 appears in the section of the book devoted to the ways in which such titles have in turn shaped viewers’ experience—sometimes with far-reaching cultural effects. I conclude with case studies of painters, from Jacques-Louis David to Jasper Johns, who have sought to control such interpretation by aggressively engaging in the business of titling.
Learn more about Picture Titles at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue