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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. Usually 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, despondency, or unhappiness.

“Melancholia: The Dark Side of Genius”
Wed, Mar 4, 4:30 and 6:30pm
La Ostra Roja
A Casa Verde Annex
San Jorge 45
Colonia San Antonio
130 pesos
Reservations: 121 1026,
152 3730, or

Melancholia begins its life as a chemical imbalance. Bipolarity or manic depression, a condition that 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, and Soutine would not have created their masterpieces if they had not touched 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 sheet, the poem, the book, and mate with matter, mind, and soul.

This tense organic process gives the work of art its power and authenticity. I will show you images from antiquity up until today to illustrate melancholy’s 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 the mysteries of melancholia, from its Hippocratic beginnings with the discovery of 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, which poisoned the spirits of the monks and led them to attacks of demonology.

The most famous representation of melancholia is Dürer’s Renaissance engraving Melancholia I—the I standing for imaginative. 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.

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 rebellious souls of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, while Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon developed 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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