Some musings on a Lewis Carroll quote, the function of names, and titles

“Must a name mean something? asked Alice doubtfully.
Of course it must, Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh. 
My name means the shape I am - and a good handsome shape it is too. 
With a name like yours, you could be any shape, almost.”
Lewis Carroll

The chapter of Through the Looking Glass that contains that quote is about the difficulty of names, or more exactly, words.  My favorite line by Humpty is “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”  Of course a name must mean something: that is its one job (or as Humpty would say, what it gets paid for.)  A name is the purest form of symbol: it exists solely to refer to something else, particularly when that something else happens not to be around.  The name of a thing or person allows for classification in our memory, which then permits communication regarding that person or thing.  Lacking words, we could also remember things solely by what they look like, but it would be much more difficult, both for our minds and for communication.  In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a plague of amnesia befalls the whole town of Macondo and everyone begins to forget the names of things.  Aureliano Buendia comes up with the idea of writing down each name and attaching it to its corresponding object so as not to forget what it is called.  Then Aureliano thinks that the town could forget what the object is for, so he adds a description on the note regarding its use and purpose.  He then realizes that, soon, this will not suffice, since the words would “escape irremediably when they forgot the values of written letters”.

Despite what Humpty Dumpty claims, names are not always directly tied to the form of the thing signified.  The word “moon”, with its two middle circles, certainly suggests a sphere, even when spoken; the word “sun” not at all.   With art works, a title often becomes intimately connected to the work and its meaning, but sometimes arbitrarily so.  The title Mona Lisa, as it’s known to English speaking people, does suggest a certain secretiveness and inscrutability.   But in Italy it’s known as La Gioconda, which means the “mirthful” or “joyous” one, a very different connotation.  Some works need to have a title and could only be name what they are; Guernica is probably the best example.  In many of his paintings, Magritte points out that a word is not the object it refers to (This is not a pipe), rather a symbol.  At the same time, he also comments on the “aura” that names carry in and of themselves and the effects they have by their being attached to objects or people.

Before I talk about names in regard to my own work, l have a confession to make: I have two names.  To almost everyone I am known as Tony.  My parents and my Italian aunts and uncles in this country know that I go by Tony, but prefer to call me Silvio (it’s a long story.)  In Italy, my relatives only know me as Silvio, not Tony.  So I can testify to what it’s like to have two designations.  The main thing is that those two referents do represent, in some way, different people.  When I hear “Silvio” called out in my presence, my mind goes into a kind of shift.  The language part of my brain gets ready and starts to access my Italian; I would probably guess that in subtle ways I also begin to “act” differently, turning to more “Italian” mannerisms and expressions which most of the time lie dormant.  So, in that sense, the Silvio me “means” differently than the Tony me.
I don’t always title my work.  Because I arrange images in a manner that is similar to language (or try to), a title seems redundant: it seems to be adding symbols to symbols, in a way.  Of the three paintings I am working on at the moment, only one has a potential name, and even that one is not certain.  When I do title a piece, it usually occurs to me in the middle of working on it or after I’ve completed it.  I rarely refer to the form of the work, rather to the imagery or symbology which seems to be speaking the loudest or, conversely, seems the most subtle.  A painting I did of a childhood scene has the title It’s Magic.  Most people looking at the painting would assume I am referring to the enchantment of childhood, and that’s partly true, but really it’s the name of the cat which is the focus of the figures in the painting.

Sometimes I find the name of a piece by accident.  For example, I completed a painting which combined four images: the edge of a house with a green lawn, a close-up view of an eye, the pyramids at Giza, and a detail of the blurry motion of a runner.  The work had no title for a long time, until one day I was cleaning out a closet and found a dusty copy of a book titled “Ancient Mystic Rites”.  I immediately knew that it would be the name of the painting; it just seemed to fit. When I try to conceive a work based on a title it never seems to work out and I usually abandon it.  There’s just too much referent right from the start, and that doesn’t work for me.  I want to allow some free association, and don’t want to know exactly where the thing will go, what images I might bring into play, so a title is too defining.  Untitled is itself a title, of course, but I get the feeling it’s mainly tacked on by galleries and museums so they don’t have to show a blank space on the wall plaque.  To avoid using Untitled, I have sometimes used the “Series” designation, as in Diamond Series No.3, or Square Series No. 1.  In these cases, the name does directly speak about the primary shapes of the images, plus it places the work in a sequential context, so you know there’s other pieces similar to the one you’re looking at (one of my favorites of this type is Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series.)

When speaking about my paintings, I frequently say that they come from “collage.”  I looked up the word, and the main definition is “An artistic composition of materials and objects pasted over a surface…”  Many of my paintings do have materials and objects pasted on them, or contain images from previous collage works repainted in oils.  But the pieces I am working on now come from compositions done on the computer, and the paintings themselves have no pasted elements: the name “collage” is not really correct.  So, to avoid being like Humpty Dumpty and not have words mean just what I choose them to mean, I should come up with my own word for these paintings, just as Rauschenberg did when he originated the word  “combine.”

Anthony Silvio D'Aulerio
Art  &  Architecture
©  Anthony Silvio D'Aulerio  /  Art  &  Architecture
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred
Years of Solitude.
New York: Harper Collins, 1998. p. 52.