A work of art, a ‘painting’ in the context of this text, has forever been considered a medium of communication, a language.
Similar to any stated written or spoken language/a dialect ‘constructed’ through vowels and consonants arranged within linguistic rules to create words and sentences, a painting is also ‘constructed’ through various elements, such as lines, texture, colours, value, techniques, treatment of space, and so on, within certain framework of some surface, like canvas, which are however arranged minus rigid structural rules.
Similar to any linguistic expression called ‘artificial’ as various combinations of words and sentences connote meanings above and beyond the literal meanings of linguistic components considered separately, the ‘form’ of the painting constructed through various elements has meanings and connotations beyond that would connote each discrete element employed therein. It is in this sense that the painting has been described as ‘unreal’.
The fascinating datum remains that both linguistic expression as language and paintings as language involve an audience to share an idea with…
However, as concerns a linguistic expression, the audience has a limited liberty to conceive and interpret meanings apart and above the literal meaning of a sentence presented, depending on the context, situation, locale and such factors; the painting on the other hand permits the viewer to enjoy complete liberty to interpret the meaning of the form. The ‘semantic barriers’, which refer to the misunderstanding between the sender and receiver arising due to the different meanings of words, and other symbols used in communication through a dialect are not applicable in a painting, given that paintings are eternal statements produced by the artists, and perceived by various audience in different milieus, in different moments/periods through the history, wherein passing through the dimension of time, every element of the painting undergoes change in connotations, implications and undertones.
Nevertheless, while the viewer’s enjoy a complete liberty to understand, interpret, and react to a particular work of art in subjective capacities, depending on the background, time of conception of the work, the context and factors alike, the artists do try to employ methods and methodologies with intend to communicate their ideas in all possible efficacy, especially if their intend is to call for reactions on part of the audience, with a view to a modification in socio-emotional or societal organisation, for instance.
Amongst various methods and methodologies employed by the artists to determine the perspective of the viewer, one interesting example is the thematic presentation of artwork/s or ‘the title’- the basic and foremost technique to enable the viewer to connect to the work and to understand the depiction from the connoted angle or desired perspective. The point of view of the viewer inevitably revolves, voluntarily or involuntarily, around the title given to the work of art, and the perspective of the viewer is inevitably determined by the same.
The most glorious examples of the title playing a major role in paintings are the artworks by contemporary Indian artist Raja Ravi Verma (1848-1906). Indians owe the imprint of the idea of Hindu deities and episodes from mythology to his paintings. The Gods and Goddesses mentioned in Hindu philosophy, religion and scriptures were not quite relatable or were less worshipped till the time they became fascinating and significant when Raja Ravi Verma painted them as human forms, giving them names in Titles. It was until then difficult to comprehend or perceive, for example, a Goddess Lakshmi, whom one could portray, through his paintings, in all beauty, draped in a red sari standing on a red lotus in a lake with swans or Goddess Saraswati playing Veena, emitting wisdom of, holding knowledge in objects like pustaka (book) symbolic of Vedas and so on. Similarly the initial perception of the scenes from Mahabharata or episodes from Vedas came from his depictions illustrating episodes under various titles… 7000 paintings to his credit, which would enlighten all generations ahead about the roots of Hindu/Indian culture and belief…
The titles of the paintings have also been instrumental in expressing the intent of the artist and communicating it to the audience. Consider the painting entitled ‘Bharat Mata’ (1905) by Indian painter Abanindranath Tagore (1871 – 1951).
The work depicts Bharat Mata, or Mother India, in the style of a Hindu sadhvi as godess: a saffron clad figure of a woman, with four arms, holding a white cloth, a garland, paddy sheaves and a piece of white cloth. This image is known to be the first illustrated depiction of the concept of ideals of Swadesh, and became immensely popular and valued amongst the nationalists during the Indian Independence movement.
The phenomenon can be deliberated under aesthetic theories like that of Freud (1856–1939), Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis. In his theory of dream and fantasy, Freud stated that art was based on the artists’ psyche, which was capable of representing an absent object or situation through a painting. A particular painting was capable of communicating to the viewers by opening a scenic space in their mind just because the depicted unreal objects had the capacity to make appear the products of the desires in the mind of the viewers. In this context, the Indian viewers, deeply rooted in spirituality, faith and belief, because of titles, could ‘see’ in the forms depicted that which they truly desired to see. The titles gave face to the gods and Goddesses and produced dramaturgical scenes or episodes from Indian myths and mythology in movement on canvas.
The titles of the paintings have been influential much further, by not just communicating ideas, but also motivating reactions on part of the viewers. In 2009 M F Hussain (1915-2011) painted a nude woman in pungent hues of matte red and in all denial M F Hussain gave to its entitling as ‘Bharat Mata’ (due to loud controversy this depiction of a suffering figure on the canvas was creating), this painting is still remembered under the same title; Many signs and symbols in the painting like Gujarat written on the chest supposedly symbolise white revolution, mountain like strokes emerging on the head remind of Himalayas and a symbolic circle on arm reminding of Ashok Chakra and so on give affirmative proof of the idea of the artist in painting a depiction of the denied title. This painting might have implied the enslaved state of India after the colonial impact and today, the uneasy expressions of the face and the distorted uncomfortable position of the figure would evoke in mind of just anyone of the plight of the Indian woman passing through rough social, emotional or demonstrative status – possibly painted on part of the artist as a question to the state and status of India/Indian woman, probably with an intension to trigger an evolution of thoughts for benefit of the same.
There remains a heavy fact that the viewers, according to their own knowledge, sensibility, and sensibility have known to read the paintings beyond the titles given or erased. A painting has ever been read in the realm of universality of human thought, experience and emotion, beyond boundaries of culture, social milieu, time period, and like factors.
Taking an interesting example from the western world, a famous work entitled ‘A lady in her bath’ in 1571 by Francois Clouet (1510-1572), a French Renaissance miniaturist and painter official painter to French royalties, Francis I, Henry II, Francis II and Charles IX
The title of the work mostly identified it as the picture of the most famous and beautiful females of the 20th Century – Diane de Poitiers (Diana of Poitiers) who wielded much influence and power at the French court as King Henry’s chief mistress.
However, even inspite of the title, the opinion of the viewers about this depiction remained markedly contentious:
Sylvie Beguine, an author and art critique from the school of Fontainebleau (School of Fontainebleau, centred on the royal Château de Fontainebleau 1530–1610, refers to two periods of artistic production in France during late Renaissance) presented deep speculations about the title of the painting in question.
‘The lady….. Francois Clouet treated her as a portrait; is it Marie Touchet, mistress of Charles IX (1560-1574) rather than Diane de Poitiers as one once thought?’!
Marie Touchet, infamous for her involvement in various conspiracies against Henri IV had an obvious role in history of France and the (mis)title, according to Sylvie Bequin was to hide true identity of the portrait to avoid melodrama in the court.
The contemporary world witnesses’ ample paintings entitled ‘Sans Titre’ (without title/No title), giving complete liberty of interpretation to the audience. However, it cannot be denied that not just the titles but even the absence of titles forms a strong valid links between the mind/ intention of the artist and the viewers by creating impressions capable of inducing specific perceptions and conjuring various reactions on part of the viewers. Inhere, function of painting as language, is fulfilled as viewers inevitably pass through mental revelations through idea depicted, prompting them to either accept the situation put to question by the artist voluntarily or inadvertently or rejecting the same. The artist and the viewers, with painting as medium of communication become instrumental / influential / participant in supporting the conservation of some present state of affairs or in calling for a change, at personal or social level.

Simret Singh

About Simret Singh