Artfully noted

News item: “Titles of works of art seem to matter, but it is not clear why,” writes Daniel Grant in the Wall Street Journal (6/3/11). James McNeill Whistler, for instance, originally named his most famous work, “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” The public wasn’t responding well to the piece and the Royal Academy of Art in London was about to reject it, so Whistler added, “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother,” and of course the rest is Whistler’s Mother history.”

History is a fickle and easily manipulated flame. Recent evidence has uncovered that many of the world’s major works of art have not only changed names as they changed ownership throughout the years, but that in many cases, the artists original name and/or intent were far removed from what we think we know today. Surprisingly, many of the works of beauty we know today began as commercial endeavors – and not just commissions from wealthy patrons. A few prime examples:

Michelangelo’s David was actually the prototype for something he referred to in his journal and correspondence as ‘statua per la visualizzazione dei vestiti artistically’ or, in English, ‘statue for displaying clothes artistically’. Michelangelo’s original design was for a small chain of Italian department stores. The store owners, concerned with overhead, found the marble-based concept to be too pricey, and as they noted in a rejection letter to Michelangelo; “Hey, togas are togas. People will buy them just fine off the rack.”

Oddly enough, centuries later in 1970’s America, the Sears Roebuck Company copied  Mike’s design in modern fiberglass and for years used it to effectively display and sell Levis and jean jackets. Look carefully today and some remaining replicas and their distinctive pose can still be found in some older Sears stores, mostly in the sportswear department.

In what has conclusively been proven to be Leonardo DaVinci’s own handwriting, notes accompanying his early drafts of the original Mona Lisa state the paintings true purpose: ‘Design for Alfonso L’s new pasta packaging. Alfonso wants an ‘everywoman’ look so he can expand her use to his full product line.’

Mona Crocker, perhaps?

Turns out that Alfonso was undercapitalized and his company never took off. Had Mona been ubiquitously staring out from packages in every Italian pantry, would she have become as famous as she is today?

It is food for thought.

In a more contemporary vein, Pablo Picasso’s famous ‘The Dream’ was originally titled ‘Why the chiropractor left town’ – a much more evocative, but Picasso believed, depressing title  – that left little room for the viewer to devise their own interpretation . As Pablo rhetorically asked his mistress, “Who the hell dreams sitting up? Maybe in her last life she was a horse.”

On a final note, Vincet Van Gogh’s famous ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’ was never about advertising or marketing, but rather a grand practical joke pulled off by Vince. Look carefully at the painting and you’ll see that what appear to be the reflections of starlight on the water are actually lights coming from the opposite shoreline. What Van Goh was painting are actually the kerosene lamps of French carriages parked along the riverbank across from Asylum at Saint-Remy in 1889 where Vince was a patient.

The carriages were filed with French teenagers parked on something called ‘baiser et péninsule d’animal familier’ – or what we might know in modern times as a ‘makeout point’ or, musically, ‘Blueberry Hill’ (even though it was a peninsula). Van Goh spent many nights sitting, watching and listening to the sounds of the teens cavorting from across the bay before he ever put the story on canvas.

How the painting acquired its more socially acceptable backstory is simple; museum proprietors are a conservative bunch, and a painting about teenagers frolicking in the backseats of carriages figured to be ‘beneath’ most of their clientele.

”L’art pour l’art” indeed.

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