When it appeared in 2011, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, was billed as “a beautiful film about the end of the world”. The story was apocalyptic, the narrative slow and moody, reflecting the way sensations are muffled by depression. Tell a depressive the world ends tomorrow, and the reply might be, “Whatever”.
Some of Von Trier’s movies are barely watchable, but Melancholia is breathtaking, perhaps because it was so deeply personal. Although inspired by the director’s experience of depression his approach is not at all clinical. If “depression” sounds like a medical condition, “melancholia” is a term with dark, romantic overtones. As we sink into another month of lockdowns and warnings about our mental health, it’s worth remembering that feats of heightened creativity have emerged from the psychological doldrums.
Melancholia was wellknown to the ancient Greeks, who thought it was caused by an excess of black bile (melania chole). It attained a cultural presence during the Renaissance, with the appearance of Dürer’s famous woodblock print, Melancholia, in 1514. Shakespeare’s “melancholy Dane” would strut the stage in 1611, while Robert Burton’s monumental treatise, The Anatomy of Melancholy, was published in 1621.
The symbolism of Dürer’s image has posed a never-ending challenge for interpreters. Although the winged figure resting head on hand is agreed to be the personification of melancholy there have been countless discussions about carpenter’s tools, geometric solids, an hourglass, a bell, a set of scales, the rainbow on the horizon. It’s one of art history’s most over-determined images. The only thing that can be said with confidence is that Dürer saw melancholy as a phenomenon with many roots and branches.
Dürer’s print provided Lucas Cranach with the inspiration for his own Melancholy (1532). In this painting the winged figure on the right is retained, although she is now a distinctive ‘Cranach girl’, shown whittling away at a stick while keeping a close watch on three pudgy babies who are trying to manoeuvre a ball through a hoop. In the top left-hand corner we see a group of sinister figures riding goats and a pig.
If Dürer’s winged woman looks gloomy, Cranach’s seems positively cheerful. The putto in Dürer’s image sits moping but Cranach’s three babies are keeping busy. There’s a new emphasis in this painting, almost certainly due to Cranach’s association with Martin Luther, himself a depressive, who saw melancholy as “a bath of Satan”. Dürer presents the state as a complex spiritual and intellectual malaise but Cranach suggests it is born of idleness. Whittling sticks or playing with a ball and hoop is a devilish waste of time that may provide a moment’s distraction but will confer no lasting benefits on body and soul.
By the late 18th century work was forgotten in favour of sentiment, as Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), had all of Europe shedding “floods of tears”. For the Romantics that followed, melancholy took on a morbid glamour. In Ode on Melancholy (1819), Keats lamented “Beauty – Beauty that must die”.
Despite the title of Goethe’s best-seller, melancholy should not be equated with simple sorrow. One can be sad about any number of things, but melancholy has sources that can’t be precisely identified. Freud thought it was mourning for a loss buried deep within the unconscious. If we imagine this in pathological terms it becomes what biologist, Lewis Wolpert, calls “malignant sadness”. Yet there’s also a poetic, creative aspect to melancholy in the way an artist, writer or composer adapts to life within in a grey cloud. By embracing the condition, trying to give form and definition to a pervasive blankness, the artist finds a way to overcome its ravages.
When Gerald Manley Hopkins writes: “No worst, there is none”, or Coleridge: “A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear”, they are giving verbal form to an inchoate feeling. In String Quartet No. 6 (Op.18), Beethoven wrote the subtitle La Malinconia (AKA. Melancholy) over the final movement. The first movement of his String Quartet No. 14 (Op.131), written 26 years later, may be even more melancholic.
Beethoven was bipolar, given to extremes of rage, paranoia and enthusiasm, but regardless of incessant physical and mental ailments he had a superhuman ability to channel his energies, both positive and negative, into his work. One of the reasons we find the “melancholy” movements of his string quartets so deeply affecting is that they bear the stamp of the composer’s own suffering
An exhibition on melancholy held in Paris and Berlin in 2006 featured Caspar David Friedrich’s The Monk by the sea (1808-10) on the cover of the catalogue. In this painting we see the tiny figure of a monk standing alone on a promontory, beneath a huge, blue-grey sky. Set under the infinite span of the heavens, and by implication, God, the monk is an insignificant figure. The melancholy of the picture comes from the realisation of our own insignificance, of the vanity of all human strivings and ambitions.
We know that Friedrich was a depressive, described by his protege, Carl Gustav Carus, as “surrounded by a thick, gloomy cloud of spiritual uncertainty”. This must have been a common enough feeling among those brought up in the Lutheran faith, but it took a great artist to express those feelings in landscapes imbued with an almost palpable sense of yearning.
In the works of later artists God’s absence is taken for granted. Edvard Munch’s Melancholy (1891), which uses the conventional motif of the hand supporting the head, was based on a friend’s failed love affair, but it was a theme to which the artist would often return. This is hardly surprising as Munch’s entire life was a study in misery and melancholia, leading to his temporary hospitalisation in 1908.
In Melancholy a figure with a vacant expression sits alone by the seashore. His still, sombre presence is at odds with the swirling forms of a landscape in which light and dark are in lively competition. This is characteristic of melancholy, which renders the sufferer oblivious to everything outside the self and can strike in the light of day as well as the night. Mourning the end of a love affair is a worldly matter, but it may trigger the state of sustained numbness and indifference with which Munch himself was so well acquainted.
In the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, melancholy takes on a very different guise. The Surrealists admired De Chirico, but he was contemptuous of their antics and repelled by the very idea of Modernism. He declared himself the founder, and possibly the only true exponent, of Metaphysical Painting. It’s not easy to define this style, which set out to use concrete images to capture things that lie beyond the visible. De Chirico’s motifs – statues and mannequins; empty piazzas raked by long shadows; biscuits and gloves – are imbued with his own version of melancholy, reflecting his consciousness of a culture in decline.
The motifs in so many of De Chirico’s paintings allude to his idolisation of the classical world, which appears in his work in the form of dream-like fragments. The awareness that this golden age is long dead produces a sense of melancholy with nostalgic overtones. It is a delicious – rather than malignant – sadness, to be savoured by those of a saturnine temperament, like De Chirico himself.
This feeling can be detected in pictures such as Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914), The Melancholy of Departure (1916), even The Melancholy of the Politician (1913). These paintings are not documents of depression but wilful enigmas, intended to loosen the viewer’s hold on everyday reality. De Chirico’s version of melancholy is unsettling in a mildly pleasurable way, like a mystery story we find simultaneously disturbing and compelling.
For De Chirico it was a matter of taste. He preferred mourning the Greeks and Romans rather than being co-opted into a club he had no desire to join. His melancholy was that of the perpetual outsider, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 September, 2021