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PARIS, Oct 13 (AFP) - Taking in the "Melancholie" exhibit opening Thursday at the Grand Palais in Paris -- surrounded by hundreds of glum, gloomy and downright deranged figures depicted in works spanning the entire arc of Western art history -- is not exactly an uplifting experience.
But it does offer an unprecedented window onto the evolution of that special kind of moodiness which, over time, has been associated with Satanic forces, genius, creativity, insanity and -- in the era of Freud -- plain old depression.
Composed of more than 250 works, "Melancholy: genius and madness in the West" brings together "masterpieces miraculously lent" by 50 museums in France and around the world, said curator Jean Clair.
From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Durer to William Blake, Goya to Delacroix, van Gogh to Picasso, and right on up to contemporary works from the beginning of the 21st century, the exhibit traces the evolution of the concept of melancholy as it was seen, and often lived, by some of the West's greatest artists.
It is a long story. Even the ancient Greeks brooded over the ambiguous nature of the dark mood that sometimes seized lesser and great men alike. Hippocrates attributed it to an imbalance in the "four humors," one of which was "melancholia" -- literally "black bile."
A century later, Aristotle noted a connection to genius and madness.
In the Dark Ages melancholy was seen as a sign of possession, a notion that lasted well into the 16th century when Protestant reformer Martin Luther -- who was most likely a manic depressive himself -- warned that it "prepared the devil's bath."
In the work of Albrecht Durer, especially the symbol-laden "Melencolia I" from 1514, new elements emerge: melancholy, while still troubling, is now linked with intellectual achievement and creativity. As the Renaissance took full bloom, being melancholic almost became fashionable.
By the beginning of the 17th century, dark humors were also taken to be a sign of mental illness, or outright madness, an interpretation that has persisted in one form or another until the present day.
It was also linked with the fear of death: in Domenico Fetti's 1623 "La Melancolie" a brooding young man cradles a human skull as he presses his brow in consternation.
For Enlightenment thinkers and artists of the 18th century -- hopeful and determined in equal measure that reason should prevail in human affairs -- melancholy became a dangerous expression of irrationality. The deranged were locked up in asylums, the keys more often than not thrown away.
Come the 19th century, melancholy was folded into the various strains of Romanticism that painted the artist as a tortured soul struggling with his creativity. Eugene Delacroix's 1850 portrait of "Michelangelo in his Studio" depicts the famously depressive artist seated in apparent despair amid several unfinished works.
Vincent van Gogh painted this state of mind, and lived it too.
With the publication of Freud's "Mourning and Melancholy" in 1917 -- which re-established the link with the fear of death -- the concept moved squarely into the realm of science and medicine, where they still reside today.
The exhibit (www.rmn.fr/melancholie) runs until mid-January, and will be shown again at the New National Gallery in Berlin from February 16 through May 7.
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