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Melancholy – drama between ratio and emotion, by Mirelle Thijsen, 1990, (English, part I)
Mirelle Thijsen is an art historian and a former art critic for the Dutch newspaper
Het Financieele Dagblad
photo : Exhibition A Chamber of Mirrors, with works from the series Melancholy, curator Reinhold Miessebeck (curator photography & new media in Ludwig Museum in Cologne),
The Netherlands Photography Museum in Sittard, NL, 1994
The endless variety of the human psyche was for the first time classified into four temperaments by the Greeks. In the 5th century BC, Hippocrates established that the health of the human mind was determined by the equilibrium between four bodily humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Atristotle started from the Platonic idea that mania was the fountainhead of the greatest mental creations. According to him, the character-shaping force infused into them by Mania was determined by the black bodily fluid produced by the gallbladder. Aristotle was the first to link an exceptional talent in the arts and sciences with a melancholic character; to link genius with ‘homo melancholicus’. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the temperaments were linked to psychology. Dominance of one of the tinted bodily humours would result in, respectively, the sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric or melancholic character. The black bile, so people argued in the manner of Aristotle, would balance and temper a person, while simultaneously allowing him to perform great deeds, and would label the person as a melancholic (melanos = black). In the 15th century it was Marsilio Ficino (De Vita Triplici, 1482) who eagerly resumed Aristotle’s vision and associated the ambivalent temperament of those born under the sign of Saturn with Plato’s divine mania. Saturn is the planet of the agriculturalist, the gravedigger and the melancholic. Thus a melancholic character is Saturnian, meaning bitter, raw, dry and dark by nature. Saturn is characterized by a marked erraticness and polarity, by which the melancholic is also afflicted. On the one hand he excels in being faithful, having enlightened ideas and losing himself in contemplation, on the other he lapses into obtuseness, sloth and deceit. Saturn carries the sinister, sublime nimbus of having been entrusted with the mens contemplarix.
The melancholic character
In On Melancholy Timothy Bright sharply characterizes the frame of mind of the dark temperament: “He is cold and dry, inclining to hardness, firm in opinion, suspicious, in affection sad and full of fear, not easy to be reconciled, envious and jealous and out of measure PASSIONATE. From these dispositions of brain and heart arise solitariness, mourning and seeking for delight in obscurity”. While in the Middle Ages the negative, moralistic traits of the morbus melancholicus were emphasized, in the Renaissance on the contrary the brilliant power of creation of humans was linked with the striving for religious gratification and forged into a unity. The furor melancholicus reigned supreme. In it, the forms of expression of melancholia were hierarchically integrated: the imaginatio (imagination: I), the ratio (reason: II) and the mens contemplarix
(the pondering mind: III). According to Cornelius Agrippa these were the three levels of the imagination, the highest being the imaginatio (intuition, abstract imagination). The artist made dramatic attempts to reach this level, but mostly remained stuck at the level of geometrical visualisation. The furor melancholicus covered the area between earthly things and the universe, between religious truth and mystic contemplation. Thus in the 16th century Europe was flooded with melancholic behaviour, which corresponded with the romantic concept of Weltschmerz, but the melancholic artist got outdated in the 17th century.
Masters such as Bernini, Rubens, Rembrandt and Velasquez were never characterized as melancholic. Not until Romanticism, with artists such as Casper David Friedrich, did melancholia emerge again as a condition of mental and emotional catharsis. By characterizing an artist as a melancholic, the Aristotelian, Ficinian point of view was implicitly accepted. Thus in the mid-19th century, melancholia was still considered to be the temperament of contemplative creatures.
The Northern European artist who most answered to the 16th century conception of the furor melancholicus is Albrecht Dürer. We find prove of his character analysis in his famous copper engraving: Melencolia I. The number ‘I’ refers to Agrippa’s aforementioned highest level of the abstract imagination; the unobtainable absolute level is represented by Dürer. The work embodies the Saturnian-melancholic view. As it happens Dürer represents the noble melancholic; the pondering creator in isolation and nocturnal seclusion, deep in thought, waiting for enlightened inspirations.
Art and geometry
The seven liberal arts were attributed to the seven planets. Saturn was assigned astronomy, the highest and most certain of the liberal arts. The ‘well-ordering’ principle is characteristic of the typically Saturnian professions, i.e. professions based on geometry. Geometry was the fifth liberal art and the science par excellence of the 16th century and of Dürer. “I shall take measure, number and weight as my objective”, Dürer said. And with that objective he meant the concept of art, in the sense of ratio, geometry, perspective and resemblance.In fact, the winged Melancholia is its personification equipped with symbols of the profession (ladder, polyhedron, writing materials, compass and numerical square) and the attributes of melancholy (the wreath, the magical abacus and the facies nigra). Her thoughts and actions take place at a level of spatiality. For against the background of the perception of space, theoretical discoveries were made and the manual arts achieved mathematical and practical results. The typus geometriae is often represented with the practical attributes of her theoretical discoveries – with a pair of compasses, a sextant, a compass etc. –and highly resembles the winged person in Melencolia I. Dürer paid tribute to mathematics, but also recognized its limits. More than half of his life he studied the art of mathematics and concluded that it would never provide the gratification of a metaphysical and religious revelation. He was certain that mathematics would not lead to absolute beauty. “But what beauty is. I do not know”, he wrote, being aware of his own limitations. In fact Dürer was the first Northern European artist who raised the depiction of the melancholic temperament to a fundamentally other and allegorical level. If we may believe E. Panofsky, Melencolia I is in fact a self-portrait of Dürer’s own frame of mind. The divine rapture of the melancholic genius was not unfamiliar to him. Dürer chiefly tried to depict the polarity, the essence of melancholy; the precarious balance between passionate productivity and complete apathy. Agrippa’s description of Melancholia in his Occulta Philosophia fits Dürer’s engraving to a T. He said: “Melancholia is creative and at the same time sunk in depression, is prophetic and directly caught in her own limitations”. The copper engraving of 1514 is also the reflection of the late-medieval mind; troubled by apocalyptic visions, highly fascinated by astrology and in pursuit of the insubstantial: the sublime. At the same time it is the product of a hopeless struggle between endless musings, dissatisfaction and the reluctant achievement of perspectival and architectural results. Melencolia I is universal and a typical example of an abstract concept, deservingly symbolized in the human figure. The concordance between abstraction and a concrete image. In her photo works Krystyna Ziach also expresses the Supreme in terms of rational ordering, based on the rediscovery of the meaning of the Sublime in art. Like the early-Renaissance artist Dürer, she works after the exemplum, in terms of tradition and secondarily after reality. Only the traces of a research of perspective refer to this intention to equal a pictorial realism. Classical examples by Dürer, Da Vinci and Malevich are not reinterpreted in the sense of being copied, but are modified while the ideal character of the prototype is preserved. The striving for the Absolute – for ‘the skeleton of infinity’ as Ernesto Sabato so aptly put it – which these great masters had in common and the passion on which it was based, are essential to Krystyna Ziach. This melancholic drama between emotion and ratio is what fascinates her, not the theoretical treatises which justified the discoveries. Like the aforementioned geniuses of art history, Krystyna Ziach is obsessed by proportions, striving on the one hand for perfect clarity, order, beauty and meticulousness, while on the other hand being drawn to irrational, subjective and phantasmagorical phenomena. In her series, for this very reason entitled Melancholy, she realized transformations of abstract scientific diagrams in images having an archetypal character. But the psychological condition of her models, shown by their facial expressions and gesticulation, is often far from melancholic. They personify tensions in an anachronistic monumental setting, filled with anatomical and geometrical attributes and relics. The works Transparant Body, Atlas of Atonomy and Human Geography together constitute a triptych. These works are based on the scientific, anatomical studies of Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci also fits in with the tradition of the melancholic artist and scientist: enthralled by the furor melancholicus. Indeed in the Renaissance this character was again, in accordance with the positive classical interpretation, associated with the genius, instead of with a pathological condition. In his anatomical experiments, Leonardo attempted to capture the ‘spirit’ of a human being after death, by performing autopsy immediately after the decease of a person. In this triptych Krystyna Ziach made collages of the image of Da Vinci’s homo universalis, as well as of drawings of dissected body parts and floating foetuses. Fragments created by the Renaissance genius are being used as objets trouvés. The archaic character of the work is enhanced by dabbing the collages with sepia and it seems as if traces of blood are left in a few dashes of red. Then she basically leaves her own body to the occult medical science, in the frontal pose of the homo universalis placed in a mandala. This really is the leitmotif of the series, not to be understood as an aesthetic highlight, but as the expression of a scientific, passionate striving for the Absolute, for infinity. Also the execution of the lines, the perspective search for one vanishing point, is connected with this urge and is kept alive by Ziach throughout the entire series. That the works are interrelated appears from the choice of prototypes made by Ziach for the series Melancholy. Dürer, Da Vinci and Malevich are mathematicians, driven by passion, possessed by the conceptual, balancing on the edge of genius and obsessed by the intangible; divine beauty, infinity and absolute supremacy. Black Cross of Malevich refers to the ideal form: the magical square, the religious icon of the universe. The black cross is the sum of five black squares and according to Malevich symbolizes pure feeling. The warm white background, constituted in fact by four squares, reflects nothingness. In the painted, monumental setting of the black cross, Ziach situates her model (who physically hardly differs from herself) and as an anachronistic homo universalis she carries the magical black square on her belly. Dürer’s Melencolia I is of course the prototype for Melancholy after Dürer. The forms which refer to the obsession of the Northern European artist with geometry, are represented within a cosmic black universe.
Part II on the next page.