Blue, blue art

18th October 2005, Comments 0 comments

Are you feeling blue? If you're not now, you might after taking in the 'Mélancholie' art exhibit just opened at the freshly renovated Grand Palais in Paris. Marlowe Hood reports on the bluest art in town.

Caspar David Friedrich's 1810 painting 'The monk before the sea'

Going to the 'Mélancholie' exhibit -- which opened last Thursday at the Grand Palais in Paris -- means being surrounded by hundreds of glum, gloomy and downright deranged figures depicted in works spanning the entire arc of Western art history.

It's not exactly an uplifting experience.

But it does offer an unprecedented window onto the evolution of that special kind of moodiness that, over time, has been associated with Satanic forces, genius, creativity, insanity and -- in the era of Freud -- plain old depression.

*sidebar1*A short history of an ancient complaint

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, Dürer 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.

Ajax feeling down. A first-century BC bronze

It is a long, and of course, a sad 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 humours,' 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."

All is vanity says Philippe de Champaigne in 'Allegory of human life'

In the work of Albrecht Dürer, 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 humours 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 Mélancolie" a brooding young man cradles a human skull as he presses his brow in consternation.

Back to life with Klimt's 'Judith II' from 1909

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.

*sidebar2*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 other side of the gallery

If 'Mélancholie' is just too heavy for your spirits, the Grand Palais is also hosting another exposition somewhat more attuned to voluptuousness than anguish.

'Klimt, Schiele, Moser, Kokoschka: Vienna 1900' is devoted to a particularly fertile artistic era in the Austro-Hungarian empire and focuses on the eponymous artists, brought together in Paris for one exhibit for the first time.

The exhibit makes a point to include Moser, as with 'Le Marcheur'

The exposition includes 91 paintings and 55 drawings created between 1890 and 1918, the year that Gustav Kilmt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka all died. The collection gives a succinct overview of the art movement, led by Klimt, that would be known as the Viennese Secession.

The show's curator made a special effort to include works from Koloman Moser, an artist little-known in France, who played an important role in the Secessionist movement.

October 2005

Copyright AFP + Expatica

Subject: Living in France

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