Great Works: The Groom or The Bellboy, 1925-6 (98cm x 80cm), Chaim Soutine

Centre Pompidou, Paris

What's in a title? So Much. Or so little. Some painters love playing with them. Others call all their works "untitled", which is singularly unhelpful to the critic, whose job it is to identify, describe, and then sort one work from another. You have to forgive them though, those who opt not to opt for one. It requires a certain imaginative reach to find a good title, one that will both resonate with the work, and somehow extend our understanding of it in interestingly serendipitous ways. Some artists opt for the baldest of descriptions: "Gillian, with a Lemon", for example, or "Jeune Fille Lisante". Others can go to amazing lengths of obscurantism. You can understand why though, given our fallen state. Artists desperately want to associate themselves with great thoughts and great thinkers. Other people's, that is. If you can hitch your rackety wagon to a star that is eternally blazing in the firmament – try Nietzsche or Kierkegaard on for size today, sir – you rise all the higher in your own and other people's estimation – provided that the work you are striving to talk up is not too much of an embarrassment. Then you risk looking an idiot. And who chooses the title in the first place anyway, and when exactly does it get chosen? Gillian Ayres often lets her friends do the choosing, after the painting is made. Other works die untitled, and then find a posthumous identity thanks to a thoughtful curator or A.N. Other.

What exactly is going on here though? How can a work have two titles? And what exactly does it mean when that happens? Let us guess. Let us think about the mental state of Chaim Soutine, labouring in his small, wedged-shaped studio in Montparnasse. Soutine was a depressive, and his state of mind often seems to be present in his paintings, which are often – the buildings especially – subject to a terrible vertiginousness. So much is always wonky or askew. Nothing feels sturdy or solid. It seems to the onlooker that Soutine was always straddling, spindly legs on the quake, the San Andreas Fault, fearing the worst. And so it is here too. There is a terrible uncertainty about this painting, and that, in part, explains its power. It seems to mirror back at us our own uncertainties about the human state, the individual human's identity. "Who am I anyway?" this painting seems to be saying. "What am I doing here? Am I a bellboy or a groom? Or both?"

The first suggests long days of near obsequiousness, a human being at the beck and call of the importunate snap of the fat, beringed finger. The other suggests something more ritualistic and prideful, the groom, sanctified by society, raised up, set apart for the briefest of moments, by the ceremony of marriage. So is this uncertain man raised up or let down? He seems to be scarcely a man at all, so slack and marionette-like that body seems to be. Is it being danced by the manipulator of invisible strings? Is this a dance or a walk or merely a particularly defiant way of standing? It could be a posture – left leg extended to the full, right drawn back – from a choreographed sequence.

The face looks so strangely pallid, so ghostly, so clarted and smeary in its pallor, as if caught in lurid vaudeville lights. This face has been made up for the occasion – why otherwise would those eyebrows be so high-ached? The head sits oddly upon that thinnest of necks, tilted slightly askew, precarious in its positioning, as if it might just fall off. The lips are bunched and of a surprisingly fierce redness. The ears are comically rubbery. They are the joke ears of a Mr Potato Head. We could exchange them for a slightly different set if we chose to laugh in a slightly different way. Is this desperately thin man a figure of fun then? Not at all. His posturing looks desperately, desperately sad. That is why he both does and does not meet our gaze. He is not happy being his various selves.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all