Titles

Three times today I’ve thought about the significance of titles.

(1) Van Gogh Old Man in Sorrow (below) (1890), which he alternatively titled On the Threshold of Eternity (or At Eternity’s Gate, depending on translation).

I’m currently reading Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings by Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzler, 1 and they say of this painting:

Van Gogh […] linked up with his own younger days, reworking a piece he had done in The Hague and given a rather portentous title to (On the Threshold of Eternity), […]

1024px-Van_Gogh_-_Trauernder_alter_Mann

Vincent van Gogh Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity) (1890) oil on canvas 81 x 65cm

I’m not sure if they mean “portentous” in that the title is a portent of Van Gogh’s own death, which followed just months after the painting was made, or that the title On the Threshold of Eternity is “portentous” in the sense of being pompous or overly solemn. Either way, for me this title is an odd match for the painting.

I assume the implication is that the man is weeping over the imminence of his own death, but that never would have occurred to me based on the image alone. He looks fit enough. How close to death is he? Is he weeping because he knows he’s going to die very soon, and if he knows that then how does he know? Is he planning to take his own life, or is he terminally ill? It makes me wonder what the average life expectancy was in 1890. In any case, I find that title raises more questions than it answers, and somehow I prefer the more open mystery of Old Man in Sorrow.

(2) Martin Kippenberger Ich Kann beim besten Willen kein Hakenkreuz entdecken (With the Best Will in the World, I can’t See a Swastika) (1984)

martin-kippenberger-swastika-1984-1422713088_b

Martin Kippenberger Ich Kann beim besten Willen kein Hakenkreuz entdecken (With the Best Will in the World, I can’t See a Swastika) (1984) oil and silicone on canvas 160 x 133.8cm

Gregory Williams writes this 2 in his essay Jokes Interrupted: Martin Kippenberger’s Receding Punch Line:

Ultimately, the unstable output of the joke machine that churned relentlessly in Kippenberger’s studio did not prevent him from occasionally offering a picture composed of a more traditional set-up/punch line structure. Perhaps the best example of such a work is the legendary 1984 painting Ich Kann beim besten Willen kein Hakenkreuz entdecken [With the Best Will in the World, I can’t See a Swastika]. A medium-sized canvas painted in oil and silicone, it forms a clear separation between the picture itself, which stands in for the narrative background, and the title that provides the punch line. […] Without a title to provide context, this picture would likely remain stranded in the realm of pastiche, one more example of Kippenberger’s talent for stylistic quotation.

(3) Jules de Balincourt Blind Faith and Tunnel Vision (2005)

JDB_blind_faith_and_tunnel_vision_2005

Jules de Balincourt Blind Faith and Tunnel Vision (2005) oil and enamel on board 198.1 x 147.3cm

I don’t know if de Balincourt has ever discussed his intentions for this painting or its title, but on reading the title, my first impression was pretty clear:

The derelict city is our troubled world. Travelling down this road would be hopeless were it not for the rainbow of colours ahead (or above?). It requires tunnel vision in order to shut out the destruction all around and focus on the colours, and it takes blind faith to believe in the optimism of those colours sufficiently to follow them into the horizon.

That was my interpretation, but it’s difficult to know how much of it would be shared by other people viewing this. Also, even within my own interpretation, I’m not sure whether de Balincourt is observing that this blind faith and tunnel vision is (unfortunately) necessary for us in order to keep going in this world, or whether he’s suggesting that the destruction is caused by people who have blind faith and tunnel vision, and that if they stopped following their causes and saw the devastation around them, things could be improved.

Either way, for me this title and image work together poetically in a way that neither could do alone.


  1. Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzler Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings (2012, originally 1990) Taschen GmbH. p.587 
  2. Gregory Williams Jokes Interrupted: Martin Kippenberger’s Receding Punch Line, in Martin Kippenberger (2006) ed. Doris Krystof and Jessica Morgan, Tate Publishing. pp.45-6 
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