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Melancholia: the dark side of genius; metamorphoses of the artistic temperament

By Bea Aaronson

Melancholia is not an emotion. It is a mood that may lead to emotional disorders. But these emotional disorders are the fertile humus from which artists, poets, writers and musicians draw their creative power. Once defined as an abnormal state attributed to an excess of black bile, characterized by either a pensive mood, irascibility, depression or dejection, melancholia is more familiar to us as “having the blues,” despondence, unhappiness, spleen (which by the way, is also the name of the organ where the black bile resides.)

“Melancholia: the dark side of genius; metamorphoses of the artistic temperament”
Wed, Jan 22, 4:30 & 6:30pm
La Ostra Roja
A Casa Verde Annex
San Jorge 45
Colonia San Antonio (off Refugio)
130 pesos per person
Reservations: 121-10-26 or

Melancholia thus begins its life as a chemical imbalance. Bi-polarity or manic depression, a condition which afflicts many artists, are her children. The artistic temperament is imbalanced, moody, but this “moodiness” will enthrall the creative juices. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch or Soutine, would not have created their masterpieces if they had not touched the bottom. Excess builds up different kinds of energy, ranging from apathy and sadness to violence and rebellion. These energies get transferred to the canvas, the stone, the music paper, the poem, the book, and mate with matter, mind and soul. This tensed organic process gives the work of art its power and authenticity.

As far as melancholy is concerned, I will show you hundreds of images from antiquity up until today, to illustrate her pictorial and sculptural metamorphoses. The melancholic pose has become an iconographic standard: head bent, resting on one’s hand, and a gaze lost into an endless horizon.

I shall reveal for you all the mysteries of Melancholia, from its Hippocratic beginnings with the discovery of the black bile –melas, dark, and cholé, bile- and the famous theory of the four temperaments or humors, to the Christian Acedia describing a state of torpor or negligence, not caring about anything, which poisoned the spirits of the monks and led them to attacks of demonology. Acedia was considered a sin, fueled by a devilish uncontrolled imagination.

The most famous representation of Melancholia is of course Dürer’s Renaissance engraving “Melancholia I” –the “I” standing for “imaginativa.” I shall decode for you most of its symbols. During the Baroque Age, Melancholia seems to grow into a meditative awareness of mortality represented by the presence of skulls. In the 18th century, the Age of Rococo, we find Melancholia transformed into landscapes at sunset, heralding the Romantic era of “soulscapes,” but also in portraits of women in love, longing for love, The blossoming of Melancholia truly happens in the 19th century with the Romantic mal de vivre, and also with its association to madness. The dark side of genius assaults the senses and Imagination is made “queen of faculties” by Charles Baudelaire, the poet of The Flowers of Evil.

With impressionism, Melancholia leaves the stage, although she shows her face in the work of Degas. She powerfully reappears in the Victorian era with the Pre Raphaelites. The fear and the desire of the unknown, the melancholy of bitterness also invaded the soul of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon who developed a Melancholia of dreamy poetry. With the 20th century, we meet Modigliani, “the angel of melancholy,” Picasso and his “blue” period, and so many more. As the 20th century progresses, Melancholia becomes a locus of hell and alienation, I think of Edward Hopper for example. I invite you to discover the power of Melancholia, a mood without which the history of art would be very shallow indeed.


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