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Melancholy and abstraction

"Melancholy: Genius and Madness in Art" is now showing in Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie. Laszlo Földenyi traces the strands that make the show the foremost of its kind.

For years now, a postcard has been sitting on my shelf, propped against some books. It shows a 5,000-year-old Egyptian alabaster baboon. It is said to be the most ancient animal sculpture in Berlin's Egyptian Museum. This statuette, 52 cm high, is connected with Narmer, the last king of the Pre-Dynastic Era. Squatting down like a human being, with its legs tucked underneath it and a protruding snout, this creature stares into space with a look of unutterable indifference.

Baboon sculpture from Berlin's Egyptian Museum

I am certain that were I capable of peering like that I would see nothing at all. My gaze would penetrate everything it met, adhering to nothing. Or I might instead perceive everything, while simultaneously sensing its sheer futility. The baboon's gaze is "bestial". Welling up within it, nonetheless, seems to be a presentment of other horizons, those that have always evoked yearning in the human soul, presumably because people were never able to conceptualize these intimations. Since the beginning of time, we have been tormented by the incomprehensible. In the form of melancholy.

Regardless of its appearance, this primate is hardly distinguishable from a human being. All that is missing is the raised paw, the elbow propped on the knee, the head resting on one hand in order to endure, somehow, the unfathomable prospect before it. 5,000 years later, in 2000, the London-based Australian sculptor Ron Mueck produced a work entitled "Big Man." The nude, well over life-sized figure is seated in a position similar to the baboon, its legs tucked up, its body similarly flaccid. Although Mueck's figure looks directly forward and not out into the distance, its gaze is indistinguishable from that of the baboon. But it supports its left elbow on the left knee, and its face rests on the left hand. This outstanding work of Young British Art consequently makes a distinctly archaic impression.

Ron Mueck: "Big man". Hirshorn Museum, Smithonian Institution, Washington

Long before him, many heads have been supported on many hands. Not only Rodin's "Thinker" comes spontaneously to mind, but also, for example, one of Vincent van Gogh's last paintings, the portrait of Paul Gachet, the artist's physician, finished shortly before the artist's suicide. We might also recall a far older statue from the time of Augustus showing Ajax. This Greek hero had been unjustly deprived of the weapons of the fallen Achilles, or so he believed. He was then defeated by Odysseus in a contest for their possession. Seized by madness, he slayed himself, as did van Gogh, in this case by falling on his sword.

Ajax's gaze too is expressionless ("inhuman"), focused on nothingness - like the baboon's, which by this time was two and a half thousand years old. This gaze not only dissolves space, but time as well, which is why the baboon seems like a contemporary of Ajax, who in turn seems like a contemporary of Paul Gachet, and the physician himself a contemporary of Ron Mueck.

Vincent van Gogh: Portrait du Dr Gachet. 1890. Musée d'Orsay, Paris; Ajax

Of course a lot more works belong to this confraternity. For example there is Domenico Fetti's St. Peter of 1613. Or the pipe-smoking young man painted by Pieter Jacobsz. Codde around 1627. Or Francisco de Zurbaran's Mary, who contemplates her child in his chamber in Nazareth as he plays with a crown of thorns. Contemplates? Actually, she stares right through him, her gaze focused directly at his future: at the Passion, the Resurrection, and everything the human eye finds so difficult to compass.

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

And of course one outstanding member of this populous fellowship is the female figure in Albrecht Dürer's engraving "Melencolia I" of 1514. In the early 1930s Alberto Giacometti based a sculpture on this work. To be sure, he did not reproduce the figure with her head resting in her hand. Instead, he moulded a plaster version of the singular-looking polyhedron in Dürer's composition. And in so doing he further complicated the narrative of this by now almost hopelessly entangled portrayal of melancholy, before passing it on to posterity.

Alberto Giacometti: Cube. 1934

In 1989, for example, Anselm Kiefer, also a sculptor, positioned the same figure on the right wing of a large fighter plane made of lead. The polyhedron sits on the wing, as though the bomber pilot were expected to drop it onto the people below. As though civilization were to be bombarded with melancholy. Not destroyed, but rather rendered susceptible to a mode of vision, an outlook that was typical of previous societies. This melancholic polyhedron is now deprived of any human form. Nowhere is the head supported by the hand. Consisting exclusively of mass and weight, it is nonetheless no less oppressive than the gaze of Ajax, of Doctor Gachet, of the Big Man. Or of the archaic baboon.

Anselm Kiefer: Lead airplane with crystal tetrahy. Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Donald and Doris Fisher.

But the weight of this burden is perhaps mostly borne by the soul, which at the same time must be the lightest and fleetest of foot. Perhaps this is this challenge that weighs so heavily on it. Once again, the melancholic temperament. Or more precisely: melancholy. A single word, a noun. Like the title of the book "Melancholie", which I am so fond of recalling even if it would never occur to me to pick it up and read it again.

There has always been a melodramatic undertone in the inherent solitariness of the word "melancholy". And this gives the concept its currency. Not long ago, in October 2005, Jean Clair – the now retired director of the Picasso Museum in Paris – stressed this aspect when, after ten years of preparations, he inaugurated the most all-encompassing exhibition to date on the theme: 'Melancholy: Genius and Madness in The West' in the galleries of the Grand Palais in Paris.

As a motto for his exhibition, Clair adopted the same question invoked by everyone preoccupied with the topic: "Why do all of the extraordinary men of philosophy, politics, literature and the arts turn out to be melancholics?" The question is as old as the syndrome itself. An answer has been sought ever since, without results. Attributed to Aristotle, if not actually originating with him, this question associates melancholy with those who are favoured by fortune. In this way, the philosopher kicked off a tradition as old as European culture itself. Its mutations have become so ramified with time, so contradictory that soon one could no longer say just what melancholy was in the first place. Yet we all have a feeling for what it is being referred to, a sort of enormous black (or better, grey) abyss which contaminates and sucks up everything in its vicinity.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Autumn. 1573. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Departement des Peintures

Little surprise, then, that melancholy has become increasingly amorphous with time. Precious little cannot be linked to it in one way or another. Including its apparent antipode, lightheartedness.

Not only is it infectious; it deprives the sufferer of everything. The pre-eminent characteristic of melancholy is its capacity to undermine even itself. It remains ceaselessly in motion. It is difficult to catch red-handed, and scarcely easier to repress. Eliminate it here, and it is bound to crop up over there soon enough. Bury it in one location, it will inevitably germinate in another. It is as tough as any weed. Vigorous and viable. A powerful emotion. A condition? A perspective? A disposition? Yes, and even violent when it takes hold of those who want to evade it. And it is adept at dissembling. Cunningly, it dons the mask of feebleness, of passivity. Its victim is forced into a yoke of passion. Of all this, however, he senses only exhaustion. It offers knowledge, while the sufferer perceives little more than emptiness. It promises connectedness to everything, but the result is merely frustration. Coitus absconditus, absent intercourse. It seems to make fertile, while rendering infertile.

Can this peculiar manner of channelling the energies of the soul be depicted at all? Can we objectify something whose existential element is movement and unfathomability? To be consistent, I would have to say "no." But that would be extremely one-sided. For the approximately 300 works that are presented chronologically in this show seem to have concretised melancholy in a highly precise manner, giving it objective shape, as though saying: look, here is melancholy, there is no impediment to identifying it as such. Index finger and fingerprints. But as authoritative as these might be, they never fail to raise doubts when it comes to identifying the perpetrator. That is the feeling I get when confronted by the "objective proofs" of melancholy.

Auguste Rodin: Thinker. 1881-1883. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie

Everything testifies to the presence of melancholy, to its being highly amenable to representation, to being nailed down. Yet all the while, a nimble, an agile melancholy keeps up its guard. That must be why each time I catch a glimpse of melancholy in this painting or that sculpture, it instantly plays dead. And the result is often half-hearted: with most of the paintings and statues in question, I no longer see the melancholy itself at all, but instead only the demand that I should perceive it there. But where?

Of course, everything has its history. In this case, it's one lasting more than 2,500 years. Among many other things, the (to my knowledge unparalleled) current exhibition on the theme makes it possible to follow the evolution of this "diagnosis" historically. A grand history of Europe emerges with the chronological ordering, allowing us to read melancholy like a novel. Its plot might be summarized as follows: approximately until the late Renaissance, melancholy is to be found almost exclusively in representations that are not themselves melancholic. Subsequently, however, melancholy thrives primarily where it can hardly be said to be the ostensible object or theme. And it is generally the case that where it can be identified in the strict sense, we encounter only its empty husk.

The milestone, the most celebrated depiction of melancholy, is Dürer's engraving of 1514. This image displays all of the classical traits and emblems of melancholy. The manner of depiction, however, cannot be clearly identified as melancholic. Although endowed with an incomparable affinity for melancholy, Dürer maintains the detachment of the savant. To be sure, he knows melancholy from the inside, yet he clearly had no intention of identifying with it inwardly. In this respect, he inherits a tradition running from the Greeks down to the 17th century. This tradition elaborated the iconography of melancholy to the smallest detail. This explains the fact that mere hints were enough for the intended viewer, who could both see and understand the image, realising immediately that it dealt with melancholy.

Skull with snake and lizard. Ca. 1620. Amiens, Musee de Picardie

Having recognised, for example, a sickle, a scythe, a broom, an oar, ankle shackles, a crutch, or even an old man preparing to devour a child, the viewer would immediately recognise Saturn, who, in turn, he would automatically associate with melancholy. If a picture contained devices alluding to geometry or mathematics, these too led back to the same theme, since in the Middle Ages, mathematicians and geometricians were regarded as melancholic. "The mathematician is a mirthless fellow," wrote Luther, and equipment related to that science is also visible in Dürer's engraving. And so on and so forth, beginning with physical props, continuing with certain flora and fauna (the bat, for example), all the way to specific gestures and body language. From antiquity to the Renaissance, melancholy assumed its position within the system of iconography, and was contained by it. This hindered the emergence of arbitrary and unregulated interpretations. Up to Dürer's time, in other words, melancholy is to be identified only where concrete references to it are found. In their absence, extreme caution is advised.

The turning point came sometime in the 17th century. Conspicuously present in the background of Dürer's engraving is an enigmatic, eight-sided, and up to the present inscrutable polyhedron, one whose very inscrutability makes it mysterious, even uncanny. This polyhedron not only alludes to melancholy, it also radiates it, so to speak. It is no riddle, but rather a mystery. Nonetheless, by virtue of this polyhedron, Dürer's image could be referred to as melancholic. In place of transmissibility, the inexpressible aspect of melancholy moves to the foreground. In place of the concrete, the abstract. To this extent, this composition anticipates the future: henceforth, melancholy will be not merely the object of a given work, but increasingly, its connective tissue as well. Such works can no longer necessarily be connected with melancholy, even when it is their ostensible theme. Conversely, those pictures are often the most melancholic in which melancholy is not outwardly thematised.

The rapacious and occasionally even aggressive character of the visual arts in the modern era finds its expression in such a way that when melancholy installs itself in the work, it no longer needs to cloak itself in its traditional accessories, or take a form familiar from antique or medieval representations. Walther von der Vogelweide could still insert every conceivable accoutrement of melancholy into the illustrations for a codex produced between 1305 and 1340. But from the 17th to the 19th centuries, such costuming already seemed heavy-handed. When, in a 17th-century painting by Domenico Fetti, a young woman rests her head in her hand, this can be interpreted far more freely than the same gesture performed by Demokleides on a Greek funeral stele from the 4th century B.C. The man depicted as a wolf, appearing in the early 16th century in works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, for example, can still be directly associated with melancholy. But Charles le Brun's wolf figures of 1690 can only be referred to as exaggerations of the melancholic.

Herr Walther von der Vogelweide. From: Codex Manesse, 1305-1340. Buchmalerei auf Pergament. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg; William Blake: Nebuchadnezzer.

William Blake's Nebuchadnezzar as a man-animal (1795) has nothing whatsoever to do with melancholy. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, the binding force of traditional iconography progressively disintegrated. As a consequence, such motifs as the head resting in the hand or the wolfman were no longer necessarily connected to melancholy, just as, conversely, melancholy was no longer necessarily accompanied by the iconographic symbols traditionally associated with it.

A direct result of the modern "liberation" of painting is the increasing appearance of works which attempt to visualize melancholy while explicitly rejecting the traditional and binding modes of its depiction. Landscape painting emerged as particularly suited to such aspirations. The paintings of Albrecht Altdorfer, Hercules Seghers or Jacob Jordaens for example, in which landscapes are depicted, no longer represent melancholy, they exhale it. The prominence of landscape here is no accident. The modern sense of the infinite so closely associated with melancholy is at its most empathetic when it succeeds in discovering an object that itself seems infinite. The apparently infinite and hence melancholic landscape would become a favourite theme of the Romantics.

Caspar David Friedrich, Mondaufgang am Meer, 1822. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

This is why Caspar David Friedrich favoured the glazing techniques which allowed him to shift the backgrounds of his landscapes into an infinite distance. This is also why he was attracted to air perspectives, which offered him the means - in contrast to linear perspective - for rendering perceptible contrasts of light and dark, rather than simply the physical features of the scene. According to a dictum of August Wilhelm Schlegel, air perspective "is only really cultivated for the purpose of elevating landscape painting to the level of an independent genre. For by this means, the filmy obscurity and indefiniteness of the far distance is endowed with a value of its own, and one no longer strives for a clarity which is never actually encountered in nature."

During the Romantic period, the painterly depiction of melancholy finally emancipated itself from the authority of traditional iconography. Of course this also required a reinterpretation of landscape painting as such, one that would allow it maximum freedom. Philipp Otto Runge no longer regarded landscape as a branch of painting, but detected its innermost principle, now virtually unrelated to any realistically represented landscape. He anticipated the ideas contained in Malevich's Suprematist teachings by a full century when he recognized feeling, and not the object, as the crucial element of art. A painting has greater significance, he writes, when it is dominated by feeling. "All beautiful compositions tend toward landscape," he writes. "Everything is airier and lighter than previously, everything is propelled toward landscape," he explains elsewhere.

The enigmatic and melancholy polyhedron in Dürer's engraving is a forerunner of this kind of abstraction. This is worth emphasizing, for otherwise we might continue to search for untransformed melancholy in objects and themes. The point is that beginning with modern painting, and especially with Romanticism, we no longer contemplate a painting for the sake of what it depicts, but at least as much for the pleasure derived from losing ourselves in it. In cannot be denied that in the 18th, 19th, and even 20th centuries, melancholy continues to appear as an artistic motif. The paintings of Felix Vallotton and Giorgio de Chirico are among the most marvellous instances of the felicitous convergence of melancholy as a theme and melancholic modes of vision and execution. But if choice of theme is the exclusive consideration, then it is no longer a question of whether painting and melancholy are joined by some inner relationship, or of what its underlying logic might be. Runge and Caspar David Friedrich may have painted landscapes, but what they were feeling was a yearning toward melancholic endlessness.

Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1989. © The Museum of Modern Art

The truly great melancholic painters of the past century were those who inherited from the Romantics not an affinity for the theme, but a feel for the infinite. Where melancholy itself surfaces as a theme, the sense of joy - which can be thoroughly melancholic - is always clouded by something. This has always how I felt, for example, when looking at paintings by artists like Edward Hopper and Salvador Dali. On occasion, they compel us to take notice of melancholy in an almost coercive way. This leads me to focus on their injunctions rather than on melancholy itself. Melancholy becomes inward and profound only where it is not manifested as a thematic choice. Some of the best known instances are Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. Because when I contemplate Dürer's enigmatic polyhedron, the question arises of whether there might not in fact always exist a secret yearning toward abstraction in every painter who aims not to illustrate, but to penetrate melancholy's inner core so as to peer out from the inside. Not at melancholy, what's more, but at us, the beholders. In order to attune us to melancholy. For why, otherwise, would he paint, if not to render tangible that sense of the incomprehensible, an intimation of which was already in the gaze of that ancient baboon?

The exhibition "Melancholy: Genius and Madness in Art" can be seen in Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie until May 7, 2006.


The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on March 25, 2006.

Laszlo F. Földenyi (born 1952) is an art theorist, literary scholar and essayist. He has worked as dramatic advisor at various theatres in Hungary, and translated works by contemporary playwrights into Hungarian. He is co-editor of a Hungarian edition of the works of Heinrich von Kleist.

Translation: Ian Pepper - let's talk european