Where Do Titles Come From?
Names are fascinating and diffcult. Anybody who has ever tried to think of a name for something – a child, a boat, a band – knows that naming can be surprisingly hard. It is easy enough to think of a nice name, but what if you have to fnd a name that is original, longlasting, memorable, suffciently layered and even rolls off the tongue easily?
When an artwork is just labelled Untitled, does it imply that the artist’s treasurehouse of words is empty? Or can the lack of a title in itself be intentional and therefore meaningful? Some artists may not want to give any clues for interpretation, others can feel the title is unimportant.
Entitling works ’untitled’ has also been an extreme modernist phenomenon, part of an ideology of art which states that a work does not, and should not, point to any reality beyond itself. For example, a painting must only be a painting, addressing such issues as colour, form, texture and composition, and nothing more. According to this strategy, inventing a title for a painting leads the viewers’ imagination astray instead of leading them to focus on the essential, the painting’s intrinsic reality.
Often, however, a work of art does have a title. Many artists name their work after the idea or motif that originally inspired it. Some may give a clue as to infuences.
For the Norwegian artist Olav Christopher Jenssen, titles are extremely important. The titles of his paintings usually develop organically, as part of the process of making the painting. At best, the title emerges automatically, springing into mind from the work itself, as if the painting were ofering the title to the painter, not the other way round. Sometimes, however, Jenssen has to hunt for a suitable name, working well into the night, or even longer.
The title of Olav Christopher Jenssen’s exhibition in Kiasma is Panorama, after a series of ten paintings in the show. According to Jenssen himself, the title evolved slowly during the painting process. It is hardly a coincidence that the northern end of Kiasma withits foor-to-wall landscape window is also known as Panorama. Perhaps Jenssen was already thinking about Kiasma when he painted the series, standing in his mind in the upcoming show, looking out of the window at the panoramic view over Helsinki...
The idea of Panorama embodies the notion of a broad view, an encompassing, unbroken horizontal perspective. Although Jenssen has lived in an urban environment most of his life, no one ever forgets to mention his afnity to nature: he is from northern Norway, where the landscape is absolute and incontrovertible. Perhaps the title derives from Jenssen’s inner landscape, the childhood mindscape that he says he always carries within him.
THE TITLE IS A CLUE FOR THE VIEWER
It is difcult to persuade Jenssen to tell me anything more about this. He says he would prefer not to explain his works; that the best way for him to explain his paintings is to paint them, and the best way to understand them is just to look at them.
The paintings in the Panorama series also have subtitles or parallel titles. Panorama/Massimo; Panorama/ Insulan; Continental, Esplanad, Phonetica, Environment, Solution, Preface, Recognition and Begonia. The titles seem to describe moods suggested by the paintings to Jenssen. They are associative, playful and even a bit random, yet they ofer the viewer one end of a string they can start to follow if they want.
Jenssen’s titles are usually in a foreign language, Latin or English – rarely Norwegian or German, the artist’s languages. The use of foreign titles probably involves the aim of extending the meaning to a more general level. Sometimes they are place names (Verona), sometimes the title seems refer directly to colour (Grenadine Painting), sometimes it has to do with language and its forms (Idiom). The titles are juicy and meaningful and give rise to new associations that complement the visual stimulus of the painting itself. Moreover, Jenssen’s titles are often quite pleasing phonetically, like beautifully sounding miniature poems or aphorisms.
Collecting names and their meanings is for Jenssen like the process of mixing paint: the smallest change can alter the tone. The etymological dictionary is a muchused book in his studio, something that carries Jenssen away into an endless chain of associated meanings and signifcation.