The title of a painting," said Marcel Duchamp, "is another colour on the artist's palette." He also talked of treating the title "like an invisible colour". Duchamp's remarks were part of his ongoing argument with the art of painting.
His point was that painting should not be understood as a purely visual or optical or (to use his favourite jibe), "retinal" art. That was the state to which Impressionism had reduced it. But painting should mobilise all its resources of meaning, among them the title. This verbal component shouldn't be neutrally descriptive, nor be seen as something extraneous. It could be an integral effect, like another colour.
Comparing titles to colours was, of course, provocative, because colour is often considered the least verbal, the most inarticulate and untranslatable factor in a painting. But Duchamp's phrase is more than a tease. It suggests that the title should be liberated. It should be used, not as a caption that presides over the whole picture, but as one more ingredient in the mixture, an active element in the picture's drama.
Titles were to be given free play. Duchamp's own were often spectacularly lateral, puzzles and mini-poems in their own right. There was Tum'. There was The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even. And other 20thcentury artists, Dadaist, surreal, abstract, conceptual, took up the challenge, putting the oblique title through all its possible paces.
But the device itself was not the invention of modern art. In the 19th century, while Impressionism flourished in France, another kind of painting had sprung up in England, which would later be criticised, not as "retinal", but on the contrary as "anecdotal". In the works of the pre-Raphaelites and their contemporaries, the title of the picture was often made to do crucial extra business.
The Last of England, The First Cloud, The Awakening Conscience, Our English Coasts - these titles are vital ingredients. They introduce story, symbolism, state of mind and always something more or something other than what the picture shows. They make the viewer's mind jump from the image to an idea behind or beyond the image. And sometimes the jump itself, the sense of distance between the title and the rest of the picture, is where the work's real power lies.
John Byam Shaw's The Boer War is far from being a great work. But it's a work that understands the rich possibilities of the oblique title. The ways that its title performs in the viewer's mind, both connecting and disconnecting to the image, makes it a kind of masterpiece.
The painting shows - well, what it obviously doesn't show is the Boer War, or any individual episode from Britain's Imperial war in South Africa, which had ended the year before this picture was painted. But the likely link between words and image isn't hard to find. A lone woman stands by a stream at the bottom of a field or garden. She was the fiancée or wife or sister of a man killed in the war. She's lately heard the news, and gone off on her own. Or she's been in mourning some time, but the place - this is where they used to walk, and never will again - calls out a sudden pang of memory and grief.
The Boer War is her back story, then, her motivation, the reason for her state of mind. It is the content of her invisible thought bubble. It is, in a sense, a perfectly straight descriptive title for this picture. For how do you show the Boer War except by depicting scenes from the war? And why shouldn't those scenes include, not only battlefields and sieges, but also the scenes of bereavement and desolation that were the immediate consequence back home?
So the title fits. But at the same time, clearly, we're to feel a great rupture and estrangement between those words, The Boer War, and the scene before us. And this distance can stand for and stress the various other distances - geographic, experiential - that the work evokes.
There is the distance between peace and war. There is the distance between the green English countryside and the dusty South African veldt. There is the distance between the woman and the man who was absent far away and is now absolutely dead and gone. There is the distance between the woman, with her mind fixed on loss and death, and the burgeoning natural world around her - further emphasised by the way her figure slightly sticks out against the landscape like a piece of collage.
The classic pre-Raphaelite manner of Byam Shaw's painting, with its manic eye for the proliferating detail of nature, contributes to this effect. You can see it as how the woman herself sees her surroundings. Shock and grief can cause the mind to become blankly transfixed by the minutiae of the physical world, seeking something clear and particular to hold on to - as the narrator in Tennyson's poem "Maud" focuses on a tiny sea shell after his world has fallen in.
Or again: the way the title, The Boer War, fails to "mean" the picture is like the way those words might become a malignantly empty phrase in the woman's mind, words she must continually reiterate to herself and to others - the Boer War, the Boer War, he was killed in the Boer War - but which call up nothing and have no purchase on her loss.
Reading things into it? Yes, exactly. That's what this kind of picture, this word image-juxtaposition, invites you to do. Reading things in, letting scene and title interact in the mind, is the way it works. In more than one way, Byam Shaw's painting about a remote Imperial war has a rather contemporary feeling.
John Byam Shaw (1872-1919) was the second wind and last gasp of true pre- Raphaelitism. By the end of the 19th century, the movement had moved away from the Ruskin-Millais ideals of intense observational realism and moral commitment. It had drifted towards an airy-fairy religiose symbolism. Byam Shaw recovered some of the old ground - just at the point when this kind of art was about to go completely out of fashion, even in Britain. His name is now too small to get into all but the very biggest artdictionaries. But it is preserved in the north London art school that he founded, The Byam Shaw, which exists to this day.
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