New exhibition traces influence of melancholy in art


A show at the Dr Guislain Museum in Ghent explores how artists have portrayed the feeling of melancholia throughout the ages

Myriad representations

Melancholy is associated with black bile, but it has also produced an endless amount of great artworks. “All melancholics are geniuses,” Aristotle wrote some 24 centuries ago. Though that’s perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, history has proven him mostly right; melancholia has produced great art, be it books, film or music.

Melancholy has also been a great source of inspiration for the visual arts, as the exhibition Dark Chambers: On Melancholy and Depression proves.

Ghent’s Dr Guislain Museum had good reason to mount this show. Depression is mostly talked about in negative terms today, but “melancholia” has been a state of being with a positive connotation for centuries. It’s been around since the Greek physician Hippocrates characterised it as one of the four temperaments, which were each linked to a bodily fluid.

For the sad and moody temperament, that was black bile, which translates as melancholia in Greek.

Aristotle believed melancholics were both intelligent and sensitive. These days, “depressed people are relegated to doctors’ surgeries and hospitals,” note the Dark Chambers curators in the exhibition catalogue. They go on to quote Swedish professor Karin Johannisson, author of the study Melancholy Rooms, who said that “melancholy is the opposite of what is expected of the modern ego: strength and health, control and enthusiasm, living in the here and now”.

Desolate landscapes

The exhibition serves as a showcase for how melancholic feelings can be translated into art first and foremost. And those representations can be quite diverse, it turns out. You might associate melancholia with gloomy images, but there are many other ways to visualise the feeling.

One of the most striking early examples in this exhibition is “Melencolia I”, an etching of a brooding artist by German Albrecht Dürer in the early 16th century. Or take the portrait of St Jerome, which may or may not have been painted by Flemish artist Quentin Metsys (its origins remain unclear): the priest, his left index finger resting on a skull, seems to be in a state of acedia (now referred to as burnout).

Melancholy is the opposite of what is expected of the modern ego

- Swedish professor Karin Johannisson

It’s only in the second half of the 19th century, when the seeds of modern art start germinating, that artists try to capture the melancholic feeling in how they paint and draw. A striking illustration of that evolution is “Meditation”, a particularly gloomy drawing by the Brussels symbolist Xavier Mellery, whose oeuvre is steeped in melancholy. The same goes for “Jeune femme de dos assise sur un tabouret” (Young Woman Sitting on a Stool), a painting by his Ostend colleague Léon Spilliaert.

Twenty-first century works comprise more or less half of Dark Chambers, and, instead of showing as many different contemporary artists as possible, the curators have opted to present multiple works by a smaller group of artists.

Among the most impressive modern artworks in the show are those by Tinus Vermeersch. His desolate landscapes, devoid of human life, painted and drawn in muted browns, greens and greys, seem to portend disaster, though it’s unclear what that calamity will be. Vermeersch, who turns 40 next year, is indisputably one of Flanders’ most promising lesser-known artists, and his works here beg the question if it isn’t time for a solo exhibition.

Vermeersch shares a certain colour sensibility with Marc Vanderleenen, though that’s where the parallel begins and ends. The latter has been dubbed the most pessimistic painter of his generation and a dark, yet witty work like “Man Falling Forward” shows why. A similar combination of humour and melancholy can be found in Ruben Kindermans’ “Playing”, in which the video artist performs seemingly useless actions.

A void that can’t be filled

The Dark Chambers curators focused on a very specific part of the oeuvre of the rising Polish artist Wilhelm Sasnal: paintings inspired by rock bands like Sonic Youth and Einstürzende Neubauten. The melancholy in these works mainly stems from the colours, or the lack thereof. Also included are three pieces from the complex, extended series Drawings of Old Trees that landed Flemish artist Patrick Van Caeckenbergh an invitation to the Venice Biennale two years ago.

But the most impressive – and most melancholic – work in Dark Chambers is “Zeeberg” (Sea Mountain), a recent painting by Thierry De Cordier. It looks like a black mountain shrouded in clouds, but it’s actually a sea, painted as a looming force. It seems overpowering at first, but when you stare at it for a while, the image begins to shift and reveals its hidden vulnerability.

The works included in this exhibition are quite diverse – from the monumental, brightly coloured painting “Sinn bleibt Viech” by German artist Jonas Burgert, to the circumspect abstraction of Karel Dierickx, and from Marie-Françoise Plissar’s black-and-white nightscape of a rundown, Brussels building, to Gilbert Fastenaekens’ photos of post-industrial landscapes and sculptures by Juan Muñoz.

Still, they all seem to share one trait: They hint at a void that can’t be filled. Melancholia, after all, is a mourning for a loss or the pain that stems from longing for something that is unattainable. It can come as a chilly feeling when you’re alone in a dark room, but, as Dark Chambers shows, drinking in other people’s melancholia can have a soothing effect.

Or, in the words of Joni Mitchell: “There’s comfort in melancholy.”

Until 31 May at Dr Guislain Museum, J Guislainstraat 43, Ghent

Photo: Erwin Olaf, Irène scene, from the 2007 Grief series
©Fondation Francès, Senlis