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Melancholia: The Dark Side of Genius

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, unhappiness, or the spleen, which, by the way, is also the name of the organ where the black bile resides.

“Melancholia: The Dark Side of Genius”
By Bea Aaronson
Mon, Jan 30, 4pm
The Jewish Cultural Center Of San Miguel
Calle De Las Moras 47 (corner Cinco de Mayo)
For reservations call (415) 185 9191
150 pesos per person

Melancholia thus begins its life as a chemical imbalance. Bipolarity and manic depression, conditions that afflict many artists, are her children. The artistic temperament is unbalanced and, 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 sheet, 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 the 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 lead them to attacks of demonology. Acedia was indeed 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 “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 eighteenth century, the Age of Rococo, we find melancholia transformed into landscapes at sunset, heralding the Romantic era of “soul-scapes,” but also in portraits of women in love and longing for love. The blossoming of melancholia truly happens in the nineteenth 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 some of Degas’ works. 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 Odeon Redon developed melancholia in dreamy poetry.

With the twentieth century, we already met Modigliani, last week, “The Angel of Melancholy,” and we shall meet many others, from Picasso’s “blue” period, to Mark Rothko’s physiological color melancholia, to the loneliness of Edward Hopper’s urban melancholia, which exudes the hell of modern alienation. 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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