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    Joy in painting: Why sadness always creeps in

    December 04, 2019



    Is it possible to create a work of pure joy – one entirely free from any trace of trouble or sadness? Henri Matisse believed it might be. “What I dream of,” the pioneering modernist painter explained to an interviewer in 1909, “is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter... a soothing, calming influence on the mind.” That same year, Matisse began work on a canvas that is widely admired not only as one of the most joyous in all of art history but also one of the greatest: La Danse (1909-10) – that pulsing apotheosis of rhythm and form in which a quintet of nude figures gyrate rapturously, hand-in-hand, in a circle for eternity.

    Commissioned to adorn a staircase in the Moscow mansion of the Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin, Matisse’s famous work is actually a blow up of a relatively small detail of a group of six dancers seen in the distance of a compositionally more complex painting that the artist created a few years earlier: Le bonheur de vivre, or The Joy of Life (1906).

    Matisse’s 1909-10 painting La Danse has been described as ‘a whirl in ecstasy’ (Credit: Getty Images)
    “I imagine a visitor coming in from the outside,” Matisse explained in an interview with the critic Charles Estienne in 1909, describing how he expected Shchukin’s guests to experience La Danse: “The first floor invites him. One must summon up energy, give a feeling of lightness.” Described variously by critics as “a whirl in ecstasy” and “the most beautiful painting of the modern world”, Matisse’s La Danse is surely proof positive that a work of unqualified joy is indeed possible. Or is it?

    Look closer and something begins to unsettle the painting’s cheery choreography near the very centre of the canvas, knocking its blissfulness off balance – an awkward tug of gravity that tethers the “feeling of lightness” for which Matisse was aiming. The joyous suspension that Matisse intended to evoke is dramatically tripped up and brought crashing down when our eyes finally fall on what is easily overlooked amid the exuberant whirl of music and muscle: the grip that has suddenly slipped loose between the hand of the figure in the centre foreground of the painting and the backward reach of the dancer to her (and our) left, who seems unaware of the calamity about to unfold behind her.

    Once spotted, the chink in the chain is impossible to unsee as the ecstatic electricity that only moments before seemed to whirr without end through Matisse’s work begins to short circuit. The figure in the foreground no longer appears to us in graceful command of her spinning body. She lunges desperately to regain connection while her left knee begins to buckle, bracing for what promises to be a bruising fall. Rather than be locked in an orbit of endless grace and gaiety, the dancers we realise are forever frozen on the verge of perilous collapse. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the inevitable (and, ultimately, fortunate) fate of every great work of art that seeks to grasp the unseizable: a moment of unalloyed joy.

    Different strokes

    If you think I’m being unnecessarily negative, consider another example: Paul Cézanne’s luminous still life Apples, Bottle, and the Back of a Chair (1902-6), a late watercolour by the post-Impressionist pioneer, whose lucent strokes seem emphatically to affirm life’s potential for joy. In his celebrated study of modern art, The Shock of the New, the historian and critic Robert Hughes insists Cézanne’s watercolour belongs to “the most joyous part of [Cézanne’s] life’s work”. Of the technique with which the painter magicked joyfulness from thin air and thinning pigment, Hughes passionately observed: “One can almost see the swift dabs of transparent red, yellow, and blue drying on the sketchbook in Provençal heat, fixed by the sun so that they could be rapidly worked over… Watercolour let Cézanne record aspects of the landscape that the weightier medium [of oils] could not so promptly fix” – namely, according to Hughes, “the mistiness and iridescence of light”, from which such joyfulness springs.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    According to the art critic Robert Hughes, Apples, Bottle, and a Chairback belonged to ‘the most joyous part’ of Cézanne’s life’s work (Credit: Alamy)
    For all its visual vibrancy, however, the work’s true power lies elsewhere – in its quiet comprehension of loss. What at first seems a ‘joyous’ celebration of inner light is, on further reflection, a luminous meditation on loneliness. The painting, as the art historian Carol Armstrong writes in her book Cézanne in the Studio: Still Life in Watercolours, is aware of all that has come before it and looks back to “Cézanne’s wild early years, when he painted orgiastic banquets”. As Armstrong sensitively notes, tuning into the subtle frequency of solitude that electrifies the work, it’s “as if someone has finally been invited for dinner or dessert in the studio and even been offered a seat at the table… And yet, poignantly, there is nobody there at all”, as the superficial joyfulness of ebullient abundance is ultimately tempered by the realisation of a deeper emptiness.

    The pivot from joy to sadness that intensifies the meaning of Cézanne’s work chimes with the writing of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, whose understanding of “That sweet mood when pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind” helped shape cultural consciousness. In his influential poem Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798), Wordsworth holds in eloquent equilibrium both an acknowledgement of “the still sad music of humanity”, against which our being in the world is soulfully set, and “the deep power of joy”, that enables us “to see into the life of things”.

    (Credit: Wikimedia)
    In the 18th-Century Rococo painting The Swing, a young man is hidden in bushes as he watches a young woman on a swing; an older man seems unaware as he pushes her
    Sadness is the axle against which the spokes of joy spin. It rotates in even the seemingly giddiest of paintings, such as the French Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s much-adored The Swing (c 1767) – a work that, at first glance, seems utterly unencumbered by the tethers of sadness. “Fragonard charged the whole painting,” the critics Hugh Honour and John Fleming observe in their book The Visual Arts: A History, “with the amorous ebullience and joy of an impetuous surrender to love. In a shimmer of leaves and rose petals, lit up by a sparkling beam of sunshine, the girl, in a frothy dress of cream and juicy pink, rides the swing with happy, thoughtless abandon.” She may be thoughtless, but we’re not. Her pendulating joy is bracketed by an allegory of time’s uncurbable elapse: the reclining young man with rosy cheeks who holds his hat out to her in the lower left corner of the work and the ageing man he will soon become, standing in the shade behind her, desperately trying to rein in the ropes of time. Joy isn’t an endless perpetual motion we can take for granted, but one ephemerally propelled by perishable muscle.

    A powerful painting helps us cope with sadness by offering us a way out of the pain, not by pretending sadness doesn’t exist

    No one understood better the synergies of joy and sadness than Vincent van Gogh, whose work and psyche were invigorated and unsettled by the irresolvable friction between those contrary feelings. “It is not true that Van Gogh never sold a work,” the critic Laura Cumming says of an underappreciated milestone in the artist’s career in her brilliant survey of self-portraiture A Face to the World: “a young Scotsman he met in Paris bought a picture directly from him – a basket of apples, surging like a plucky raft on a sea of brushstrokes so exuberant the canvas is practically overflowing: joy in all things”.

    (Credit: Kröller-Müller Museum)
    In his painting of a basket of apples, Van Gogh balanced vibrant gold with a moodier shade of blue (Credit: Kröller-Müller Museum)
    Interrupting the surging exuberance of yellow strokes and giddy gold dashes that hoist the basket and propel it forward into our imagination, however, is an undertow of bruising blues to the left of the woven raft that trouble its trajectory. “For years,” Simon Schama says, reflecting on the inseparability of sadness and joy in Van Gogh’s work, “he had struggled to realise a vision of total absorption within the vital surge of nature, a sensation so electrifying that it would make the loneliness of modern life disappear”. Schama concludes: “For poor Vincent, however, sometimes extreme joy was indistinguishable from extreme pain.” Ultimately, the menacing undercurrent that begins to gather and threaten Van Gogh’s still life does not diminish the work’s power but rather raises the stakes and establishes an impending peril that impels our eyes to cling to the raft all the more urgently.

    The truth is, we don’t want paintings of unmitigated joy: because life itself is never so pure. A powerful painting helps us cope with sadness by offering us a way out of the pain, not by pretending sadness doesn’t exist or by erasing it from the surface of being. Matisse’s work is greater because it shows us life as it really is: a short step away from disaster. A great work of art helps us prepare ourselves to pick up the pieces when things fall apart. It doesn’t expunge from existence all trace of pain and suffering. Such a work, even if it were possible, wouldn’t be beautiful because it wouldn’t be true.

    (Credit: Getty Images)
    Art The Art of Feeling
    Art of Feeling: Why we should celebrate anger
    From 14th-Century frescoes to 21st-Century short films, artists have shown the reality of rage, writes Kelly Grovier.

    By Kelly Grovier
    13 November 2019
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    There is an art to anger. From a furious Christ pummelling merchants in a 14th-Century fresco by Giotto to a window-smashing spree in Beyoncé’s 2016 music video Hold Up, cultural history is punctuated with punchy images that are more than a little hot under the collar. Such works see wrath and rage not as the shameful antitheses of composure and control but as raw and vital in comprehending who we are. Rarely as celebrated or adored as works devoted to love and affection, these studies in abject aggression are no less profound in their meditation on the full palette of pigments with which we paint ourselves into being. Anger may not be angelic, but it is human and deserves some respect.

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    For every Klimt Kiss that our hearts know by heart, there is a snarling lip or a tightening knuckle seething in a gallery somewhere, waiting to give us a piece of its mind. But where are these irascible masterpieces and how can we appreciate their aggressive grace? As an eruptive inner energy that consumes our physiques and contorts our faces, anger was slow to show itself in visual art. Even figures traditionally equated with uncontainable fury, such as Euripedes’ (and later Seneca’s) Medea – whose rage so blinds her that she murders her own children in meting out revenge on her husband – seem cool and collected in early representations. In a 1st-Century fresco of the tragic character found in Pompeii, the temperature of Medea’s inner rage is set on the lowest of gentle simmers. Were it not for the dagger that she squeezes in her hand, as she stands coolly beside the children she is about to murder, we might assume Medea is merely lost in an innocent daydream.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    Delacroix’s Medea About to Murder Her Children shows the character from Euripedes’ tragedy taking revenge on her husband for his unfaithfulness (Credit: Alamy)
    The fully fuming Medea we’re accustomed to seeing, who wears her hate on her sleeve in portraits such as Eugène Delacroix’s Medea About to Murder Her Children (1838), won’t show her wrathful face for centuries. In the meantime, anger, as a concept, underwent something of a metamorphosis in Western cultural consciousness thanks in part to the theorising of a 4th-Century ascetic monk, Evagrius Ponticus, to whom we owe the notion of ‘deadly sins’. In his treatise Logismoi, written in 375, Evagrius identified eight patterns of evil thought from which sinful behaviour emerges (a schema the Catholic Church went on to abbreviate to seven in the 6th Century) and set anger apart from the other unsavoury emotions of which we’re capable. Evagrius argued that all other sins could be grouped into broader categories: those that stem from lustful desire (including greed, gluttony, and fornication) and those that issue from a corrupt mind (pride and vanity), while sorrow and discouragement together sat somewhere in the middle. But anger was different. It belonged to its own class of ‘irascibility’ or ‘ire’ – a word derived from the ancient linguistic stem ‘eis-’, which carried connotations of divine passion. A close cousin of holy fire, anger was equated by Evagrius to being possessed by a demon and was proof, he concluded, that humans shared a sacred nature with angels.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    Giotto’s murals of the vices and virtues were done in grisaille – entirely created with grey or a neutral greyish tone (Credit: Alamy)
    The influence of Evagrius’s thinking on cultural consciousness is discernible in a seminal depiction of anger in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, celebrated for its ethereal fresco cycle by the late medieval Florentine master Giotto. In addition to his famous depictions of lamentations and adorations set against an evaporating blue, Giotto also includes in his design a sequence of 14 personifications of vices and virtues expressed in sober grisaille, or shades of grey and cerebral brown. Among the seven vices he portrays, Giotto’s ‘Ira’, stands out for its intensity. It depicts a woman violently tearing away the material layers that restrict the outward flow of her inner incandescence. The heavenward thrust of the female figure’s exposed chest and the strain of her anguished face to be recognised by the firmament above her, aligns rage with an awkward yearning to commune with something higher. Rage is ugly but it’s real.

    Anger isn’t anti-social if it’s righteous and divine

    Anyone in any doubt about the artist’s sympathetic attitude to anger needs merely look above the personification of Ira in the chapel to Giotto’s portrayal of Christ punishing a scrum of greedy money changers that he has stumbled across in the temple. Throughout cultural history, the New Testament subject has been a favourite of artists keen to demonstrate that they could capture the human countenance and form in a wider array of moods than merely devotional calm. Tackled by everyone from Pieter Brueghel the Elder to El Greco, the subject allowed painters the opportunity to flex their brushes without appearing to glamorise otherwise unsavoury behaviour. Anger isn’t anti-social if it’s righteous and divine.

    (Credit: Getty Images)
    Giotto’s fresco cycle at the Scrovegni Chapel was completed around 1305; the murals show the lives of Christ and of the Virgin Mary (Credit: Getty Images)
    In almost every version of the incident by Old Masters, Christ is shown with arm raised, wielding ‘a whip of cords’ in faithful conformity to the language of biblical accounts of the story, as he thrashes the merchants who have turned a place of worship into one of worldly profit. But Giotto’s take on the story is striking. At first glance, the outraged Christ appears to go full Fight Club on his target as he dispenses with the swinging lash in favour of bare-fisted justice. “The raising of the right hand, not holding any scourge,” according to a 19th-Century traveller who chronicled every inch of the chapel’s glorious interior, “resembles the action afterwards… of Michelangelo in his Last Judgement”.

    For Giotto, anger is an organising energy; everything in his work orbits around the centrifugal force of the juddering fist that is forever about to blow

    Look closer, and there may be a slight suggestion of a time-faded whip after all, suspended like a skein of heat vibrating from Christ’s hand-grenade knuckles, which grip our eyes at the centre of the fresco. For Giotto, anger is an organising energy; everything in his work orbits around the centrifugal force of the juddering fist that is forever about to blow. Livestock leap from the imminent blast as a young child, hiding behind a cloak on the left side of the painting, tries desperately to shield from the unfolding violence a white dove, a symbol of tranquil spirit. By serving us anger two ways (both as a vice and a virtue) feet from each other on the same wall of the Scrovegni chapel, Giotto sets the table for all subsequent portrayals of this complex emotion.

    Shades of grey

    The ensuing centuries saw the emergence of an intriguing tradition of works that seek to understand more fully the nature of rage as an energy that is neither wholly damnable nor divine. From a slapstick allegory of wrath as a tipsy spat between two drunkards in the witty wheel of morality attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (1505-1510), to the apocalyptic vision The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3) by the Romantic doomsayer John Martin, the full spectrum of anger is mapped.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    Enraged by the loss of his beloved, Achilles draws his sword to kill Agamemnon – but is stopped by the goddess Minerva, who holds him back by his hair (Credit: Alamy)
    Wrath establishes itself as an electric vein that throbs across the forehead of art history – from Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s suspenseful painting The Anger of Achilles (1757), in which the goddess Minerva stops a seething Achilles from killing Agamemnon by grabbing him by his hair, to the stony rage of John Flaxman’s marble sculpture The Fury of Athamas (1790-94), in which the King of Thebes swings his snatched-up son’s body like a baseball bat.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    Gentileschi showed Judith decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes Judith in a graphic, brutal composition (Credit: Alamy)
    Crucial to the development of this perennial strand of angry images since the 17th Century has been the unflinching imagination of female artists depicting furious female subjects. Artemisia Gentileschi’s serial fascination both with the biblical story of Judith decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes, who was about to destroy her home, and with Medea’s infanticide, was followed half a century later by one of the more mesmerising images of composed rage in all of art history – Baroque artist Elisabetta Sirani’s portrait of Timoclea of Thebes (1659).

    The only outward sign of inner rage we can detect from Timoclea’s porcelain expression in Sirani’s painting is the slightest angling inward of her eyebrows as she concentrates on the cumbersome task at hand: shoving the bulky body of the Thracian soldier who has just raped her into a well, where she’ll calmly pound him to death with stones. In every respect, Sirani’s study in revenge is a masterclass in poise over provocation, composure over rage. Timoclea’s unflappable control of the farcically flailing legs of her abuser, which she guides into the gap with the finesse of a seasoned forester feeding branches into a woodchipper, vibrates with brutal beauty. She’s angry, but the anger doesn’t consume her. She channels the fire. Unrumpled by rage, her unfailing sense of style (note the cold teardrop pearl pendulating judiciously from her ear, symbolising the suspension of all remorse) continues to resonate in cultural consciousness to this day.

    The unflustered cool of Sirani’s portrait of Timoclea finds an unexpected echo in the stylish rampage of Beyoncé’s video Hold Up, in which Beyoncé smashes parked cars with a baseball bat while jauntily singing of love and hatred, commitment and revenge. The flair and frenzy of the video calls to mind a short film from 1997 – Ever is Over All, by the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, who calmly saunters down the street shattering one car window after another with an outsized tropical stem that she swings like a surreal cosh. Both Beyoncé’s and Rist’s works seek to reclaim anger as a self-realising energy – a redemptive power, not a destructive disease. In doing so, they tap into a secret well-spring of creative impulse and urgency that is almost as old as art itself.


    It’s complicated. Love, that is. And art too. From the earliest known portrayal of physical affection (a Stone Age statuette of lovers embracing) to the opulent clinch of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-8), the history of art pulses with passion. While cherished for the fervour of feelings they capture, works such as Rembrandt’s sweetly simmering 17th-Century double portrait The Jewish Bride (1665-9) and Auguste Rodin’s chiselled canoodle The Kiss (1901-4) are far more fraught than they first appear.

    Lean in a little and one quickly begins to detect subtle tensions unsettling the surfaces of these masterpieces. Such details, often overlooked, have the power to transform these deceptively simple depictions into something more mysterious, complex, and emotionally conflicted. “I love you as one loves certain obscure things,” Pablo Neruda once wrote, in words that aptly capture the essence of these enigmatic expressions, “secretly, between the shadow and the soul”.

    At first glance, the 11,000-year-old clump of carved calcite known as the Ain Sakhri Lovers (named after the cave in the Judean desert near Bethlehem where the artefact was identified in 1933 after its discovery by a Bedouin) is disarmingly touching in its translation of fiery passion into the inert physics of cold stone. Like a crude prehistoric valentine, the 11cm (4.3in)-tall heart-shaped figurine depicts the entwinement of a couple whose bodies meld into one, as if celebrating the self-abnegating nature of love. So entangled are the two physiques, it is impossible to discern even the genders of the figures portrayed, as they crystallise into something elemental – irreducible as ore.

    (Credit: British Museum)
    The Ain Sakhri Lovers offer a very different view when turned 90 degrees (Credit: British Museum)
    Rotate the Ain Sakhri Lovers 90 degrees in either direction, however, and the object’s attitude changes dramatically. When glimpsed from one side or the other, the stone silhouette is suddenly interrupted; eclipsed by a rigid phallus that stands to attention like a helmeted soldier. The shift in focus – from a pair of souls romantically merging into a single substance, to a throbbing totem with one thing on its mind – alters the thrust of the work’s meaning, and sets the tone for ensuing representations of physical affection in the millennia that follow.

    Lost in orbit

    Fast forward to Medieval India and that friction between the urgencies of flesh and the yearnings of spirit remains undiminished in sculptures of romantically intertwined couples (known as mithunas) that adorn Hindu temples. One such work, created for a 13th-Century temple in Orissa, in northeast India, has long been thought to symbolise the blurring of physical and spiritual desire. The erotic relief portrays a man and woman lost in each other’s loving stare as they close in for a kiss. Complicating any stable interpretation of the work’s meaning, however, is the manner in which the sculpture would have been seen by temple-goers. Walking anticlockwise, as was customary around the temple, worshippers would have had a ceaselessly shifting vantage on the sculpture – a circumambulation that would have served to animate the work’s romantic embrace.

    (Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
    Adorning the outside of a Hindu temple in India, this relief would have held more than one meaning, symbolising the soul being united with the divine
    From certain angles (and particularly when glimpsed from the right-hand side, behind the young woman’s head), the couple would appear to be consummating their kiss. When encountered again from the left-hand side (as worshippers return to the work in their rotation around the temple), the pair would appear prised apart – suspended endlessly in an almost-kiss. Forever readjusting itself in relation to the observers’ orbiting gaze, the stone sculpture would seem paradoxically to proclaim both the fixity and fleetingness of love.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    According to a Rembrandt biographer, The Jewish Bride is “one of the greatest expressions of the tender fusion of spiritual and physical love in the history of painting”
    The role that our own eyes play in defining the drama and meaning of a work is once again at play in one of the most adored paintings in Western art – The Jewish Bride, Rembrandt’s poignant portrayal of a man and woman frozen in a moment of tenderness. The title by which the work is commonly known was unhelpfully attached to it two centuries after it was painted, and has led to some confusion about the story it actually tells. In all likelihood, Rembrandt’s subject comes from the Book of Genesis and features the Old Testament couple Isaac and Rebecca, who sought asylum in the realm of the Canaanite King Abimelech. Convinced he might be killed by lustful men keen to abduct his beautiful wife, Isaac presented himself as Rebecca’s brother. Rembrandt’s work captures the moment when the two let their charade slip to share an unguarded moment of intimacy.

    What punishment, he asks us, does true love deserve?

    In previous depictions of the same scene, including ones by Raphael and even a preparatory drawing by Rembrandt himself, the drama is intensified by the presence of Abimelech, who hides in the margins of the work, spying on the couple. By removing from the surface of his painting the intrusive stare of the King, whose prying eyes only we can see, Rembrandt has not diminished the complexity of his work. He has merely transferred that voyeurism to us, the viewer. We become the king and must hold in our sights the fate of the couple who are at once faithful (to each other) and deceitful (to us). By enlisting our eyes in the story he is telling, Rembrandt raises the stakes on seeing. What punishment, he asks us, does true love deserve?

    (Credit: Alamy)
    Antoine Watteau invented the fêtes galantes genre, in which couples in ball dress or masquerade costumes talked and flirted outdoors (Credit: Alamy)
    An unexpected pantomime of eyes invigorates too the playful passions of Antoine Watteau’s comic oil-on-panel La Surprise, 1718. The work finds the artist slowly shifting his focus from the wild exhibitionist embrace of an uninhibited couple on the left (whose bodies are beginning to slip out of the frame), to the more central guitar-wielding Mezzetin sitting next to them. A stock character in Rococo paintings, the lonely Mezzetin is a prankster who seems here to be re-tuning his strings in the hope of hitting upon the perfect cacophony of notes that can break the lovers’ spell, and give him a shot at the girl. So discordant are the sounds plonking from the mischievous musician’s five thumbs, the whole body of the little dog at his feet is cocked in disapproval – both at the public display of affection and its grating soundtrack. The witty work takes as its subject not the all-enveloping bliss of love, but how annoying that bubble can be to those outside it.

    (Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
    The Met describes Lovers Walking in the Snow (Crow and Heron), 1764-1772 as “romantic and melancholic… even suggesting perhaps a michiyuki, a path to a love suicide”
    It is difficult not to see a layer of spiteful fun also undermining the ambience of the 18th-Century Japanese designer Suzuki Harunobu’s woodblock print Lovers Walking in the Snow, from the 1760s. Indicative of the so-called ukiyo-e (or ‘floating world’) style, which chronicled the indulgences of the increasingly affluent merchant class, the image sees a pair of posturing lovers ambling aimlessly. Showing the couple swaddled stylishly in their own self-involvement, the print would appear at first glance to epitomise the conspiracy of love. Look closer and a jagged snarl of winter-whittled branches above the oblivious couple holds their fate in its icy maw.

    (Credit: Wikimedia)
    Simeon Solomon’s Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864, shows the ancient Greek writers embracing (Credit: Wikimedia)
    The luckless portent of those sniggering icicles in Harunobu’s woodblock print will assume a different superstitious shape a century later in Simeon Solomon’s Pre-Raphaelite reverie Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864. In Solomon’s watercolour, the ancient Greek writers embrace in a garden on the island of Lesbos, surrounded by symbols of their poetic prowess: pen, ink, paper and a lyre leaning to the right. But it’s the feathery caress of lovebirds behind the two women that seduces our eye until we see it: the haranguing squawk of an ominous blackbird beside them, who disrupts the dream and reminds us just how intolerant of same-sex affection Solomon’s age was.

    A flight of whimsy?

    Even the most seemingly whimsical portrayals of love invariably conceal a sharper edge that cuts against saccharine sentimentality. Take Marc Chagall’s charming testament to domestic bliss, Birthday, 1915, which imagines the artist and his soon-to-be wife Bella (they married the same year that the painting was made), floating cheerily around their bedroom. But it’s her failure to fully let go and close her eyes to the world as they twist in a kiss that alerts us to an abiding nerviness troubling the space. The painting was, after all, born of deeply unsettled times. The outbreak of World War One the previous year had trapped the couple in Russia and prevented the artist from taking Bella with him back to Paris, where he’d begun to establish a reputation. The world was on edge and the proximity of a knife lying within easy reach in the painting on the sideboard beside them introduces a hint of menace and mystery. Will one pull it on the other? On us? Suspicion swirls. Love is lovely, but watch your back.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    Rodin’s The Kiss shows a pair of lovers from Dante’s Inferno who were stabbed to death (Credit: Alamy)
    Throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st, artists have continued to explore the essence of passion in all its confounding complexities. From the aggressive smack that snaps the neck of the woman in Klimt’s The Kiss, to the suffocating vision of the hooded snoggers in René Magritte’s The Lovers (1928), the art of love in more recent times is often inflected with violence. The balance between love and the darker energies that disturb it is difficult to maintain. In 2003, British artist Cornelia Parker’s controversial decision to interfere in the display of Rodin’s romantic marble clinch The Kiss, by wrapping the iconic sculpture in a mile of string, demonstrated how the equilibrium can be disturbed. Parker named her intervention The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached), saying that “I wanted to give it back the complication it used to have: that relationships can be tortured, and not just this romantic ideal. So the string stood in for the complications of relationships.”

    It wasn’t enough that Rodin’s underlying work (which was conceived as a portrayal of Paolo and Francesca, a pair of lovers from Dante’s Inferno, seconds before they are stabbed to death), was already taut with narrative tension. Parker felt the work needed updating – its unease teased more palpably to the surface, if not dragged out of it. But the gratuitous string that Parker wound around the sculpture felt less like a projection of the complex nature of Paolo and Francesca’s passion than a coercive tether that restricted our perception of the work’s meaning. In the end, neither the mysteries of art nor love can be bound or measured.

    Accessibility links

    Can paintings and drawings help us cope with sadness? The history of art believes they can. From Albrecht Dürer’s 16th-Century woodcut of a sulking angel to a protest mural created in London earlier this year that has been attributed to Banksy (proclaiming ‘From this moment despair ends and tactics begin’), there exists a secret tradition of images that presents melancholy not merely as a malady one suffers but a cryptic puzzle that can worry us out of worry.

    Like sudoku for the soul, such retinal riddles as Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting Melancholia (1532); Artemisia Gentileschi’s Mary Magdalene as Melancholy (1622-25), and Giorgio De Chirico’s desolate dreamscape Melancholy and Mystery of the Street (1914) rescue us from the despondency we may share with them by busying our brains. These works spring from the same instinct that provoked the 17th-Century English scholar Robert Burton, author of the influential 1621 tome on depression, The Anatomy of Melancholy, to insist that “there is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no greater cure than business”. What sort of business? “Melancholy can be overcome,” Burton concluded, “only by melancholy”.

    (Credit: Getty Images)
    With multiple symbols to decode, Albrecht Dürer’s 16th-Century woodcut poses a conundrum for viewers (Credit: Getty Images)
    To appreciate how that paradox functions, consider Dürer’s famous meditation Melencolia I (1514), which might be said to have set the tradition in motion. In the influential woodcut print, a winged and lugubrious angel, head on fist, twiddles a pointless compass while all around her a jumble of seemingly irreconcilable symbols lie scattered. What does it all add up to, this straight edge and hammer; those pincers and scales; that ladder and tongs; the censer and sundial? How are we to measure the metaphysical heft of this hulking polyhedron that squats in the middle-ground of the work? Is that a skull grimacing in the stippled pixellation of its multidimensional face?

    Puzzle within a puzzle

    What, moreover, are we to make of the pudgy cherub (or putto) who, with sightless eyes, scribbles onto a blank slate, while perched on top of a discarded grindstone in the centre of the engraving? Is that a rainbow we see behind him in the distance? And below it, a comet? What exactly do all of these dramatic atmospherics have to do with the theme of ‘Melencolia’, as proudly proclaimed by the banner that the snarling bat unfurls in the sky? In Dürer’s day, melancholy was thought to be caused by an internal imbalance – an excess of ‘black bile’ (one of the four mysterious ‘humours’ believed, since antiquity, to determine one’s disposition) – and was linked with autumn and the planet Saturn. How are we to factor those variables into the already overflowing formula of insoluble clues?

    The work functions as a fidget spinner for psyches overwhelmed by life

    Ever since Dürer created his vexing woodcut half a millennium ago, scholars have scratched their heads attempting to cram the myriad emblems, allegories, and tropes into a coherent narrative. With no single interpretation as yet proving conclusive, you wonder if the very irresolvability of the work is not its point and purpose. Rather than offering an emotionally direct depiction of melancholic despair, the engraving appears to provide instead a kind of cunning coping mechanism in the shape of an intractable puzzle – a kind of cognitive Rubik’s cube that takes our minds off our melancholy by utterly indulging it.

    (Credit: Getty Images)
    According to the philosopher Alain de Botton, melancholy is “not a disorder that needs to be cured, [but a] dispassionate acknowledgement of how much agony we… travel through”
    In the upper right-hand corner of the work, the mathematical miracle of a ‘magic square’ may be key to understanding how the work functions as a fidget spinner for psyches overwhelmed by life. A table of numbers in which the sum of every row, column, and diagonal is the same (in this case, they all add up to 34), Dürer’s magic square is the earliest known example of such an arithmetical wonder ever to be printed in Europe. The ingenious numerical grid (which includes, in the bottom row, the year the woodcut was made) invests the work with a sense of the universe’s inherent order and infallible logic, if only one can deduce what that logic is. Surrounded by symbols of mortality – the bell above it (a conventional metaphor for death) and the hourglass to its left (which measures the steady elapse of life) – the grid entices our eyes to search for the patterns and hidden harmonies that underwrite our existence, thereby coaxing us out of our ennui.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    Many elements in Dürer’s engraving reappear in Melancholy (1532), a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Credit: Alamy)
    It didn’t take long for the mystique of Dürer’s absorbing engraving to seep deep into cultural consciousness. For his oil-on-panel painting Melancholy (1532), Dürer’s contemporary, Lucas Cranach the Elder, recasts in the crispest of German Renaissance colours many of the same elements we find in the earlier black-and-white woodcut: a broody angel; a skinny dog; implements of woodworking; and the curious antics of a chubby child who, in Cranach’s take, has become a scrum of toddling triplets. Also on loan from Dürer’s print is the presence of a large blank sphere. What truly transfixes the eye, however, is the hoop held nearby by one of the putti, who are determined to nudge the sphere through the ring. But will it fit? Preoccupied by the likely success or failure of the infants’ task, we find ourselves, like Dürer’s own earlier angel, spinning our mental compasses, engrossed in the diversionary calculations of the relative proportions of the ball and ring – life and the wisdom of its ambitions. Lost in thought, we hardly notice that our melancholic moping has slowly alchemised itself into something more ennobling: philosophy.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    Fetti’s Melancolia incorporates paintbrushes alongside the usual items from Dürer’s woodcut (Credit: Alamy)
    The ensuing centuries witnessed a steady stream of reinventions of Dürer’s riveting design. Notable instances in the 17th Century, including paintings by the Italian Baroque artists Domenico Fetti and Artemisia Gentileschi, reveal a growing tendency to perceive melancholy as a privileged affliction associated with artistic genius. In Fetti’s Melancolia (1619), the by-now stock components of a dog and sphere, imported from Dürer and Cranach’s works, are accompanied by a clutch of paintbrushes (in the bottom centre of the painting) tied with a rag, and beside it, a small sculpture’s anatomical model. In Mary Magdalene as Melancholy, Gentileschi takes a different tack by bravely stripping away almost every symbolic object we’re accustomed to sifting through in the works by Dürer, Cranach, and Fetti, forcing us to focus instead entirely on the personification of melancholy, who just so happens to be a self-portrait of the artist herself. Here, the puzzle to be unravelled isn’t a rattlebag of random clues, but a palimpsest of entangled personality that Gentileschi has squeezed into a single subject, as issues of allegory, religion, and self-reflection are woven into one.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    Gentileschi removed many of the emblems from Dürer, focusing on the human and a posture of despondency (Credit: Alamy)
    By paring back the clutter of emblems and allegories that clamour for our attention in earlier studies of chronic despondency, Gentileschi allows the human face and physique, in all their impenetrable poignancies and depths, to become the puzzle we worry over – and to assume the central focus of our melancholic wonder. Subsequent milestones in the tradition by Francisco Goya, Vincent van Gogh, and Edvard Munch, will learn from Gentileschi’s confident economy of composition.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos strikes a familiar pose in Goya’s portrait (Credit: Alamy)
    In Goya’s 1798 portrait of the Spanish Enlightenment statesman and man of letters, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, it is a reverberating sadness in his stare that holds ours, not a contrived bundle of similes and metaphors. Any intellectual curiosity we might otherwise have had in the symbolic significance of the objects that surround Goya’s dispirited patron – the folded missive that weighs his hand down, say, or the uncanny compassion of the statue that extends a comforting hand towards his head – is superseded by the more immediate riddle of the subject’s suffering soul.

    (Credit: Getty Images)
    Van Gogh wrote: “I have found a true friend in Dr Gachet… so much do we resemble each other physically and also mentally” – he finished this portrait weeks before shooting himself
    By the time we reach the heavy, hand-propped heads of Van Gogh’s likeness of his troubled physician Dr Paul Gachet, painted in 1890, and Munch’s own archetypal portrayal of depression, Melancholy (1891), it is clear that a profound shift in artistic attitude and aesthetic strategy has occurred, from over-analysed allegories (in Dürer, Cranach, and Fetti) to brash brushstrokes that captivate us more with the intensity of their passion than with the ingenuity of their intellectual iconography. Though the spaces that these forlorn figures inhabit in Van Gogh’s and Munch’s works are no longer the claustrophobic and carefully calibrated engines of emblem and metaphor we encountered centuries earlier, they are no less diverting in their lyrical allure.

    Gone is the seated subject, whose languid posture has reliably defined old master depictions of despair until now

    The same can be said for De Chirico’s dreamy ode to desolation, Melancholy and Mystery of the Street, which paradoxically seeks to lead us out of loneliness by trapping us inside it. Here, a girl rolling a hoop that she appears to have prised loose from Cranach’s cryptic painting, spins her way towards the cold light of an abandoned square as the lengthening shadows cast by an unknown future stretch ominously towards her.

    (Credit: Alamy)
    Again featuring a hoop, De Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of the Street abandons the usual weary seated figure for a collection of eerie vanishing points (Credit: Alamy)
    Gone altogether is the central seated subject, weary from worry, whose languid posture has reliably defined old master depictions of despair until now. With no face or physiognomy to psychoanalyse and no scatter of ambiguous objects to decipher, our eyes are left to contemplate instead the unsettling misalignment of diverging perspective lines and vanishing points that dislocate the scene into an eerie elsewhere – a realm physically and psychologically disjoined from time and space, yet strangely familiar.

    A jolt out of despair

    From Dürer to De Chirico, artists have perennially sought to seduce us out of sadness with ever-evolving visual gadgetry. But what happens when the source of our melancholy threatens not merely to consume our own peace of mind, but everyone and everything? In April 2019, at a site near Marble Arch in London that had been occupied by activists demanding action to combat climate change, a mural appeared overnight that audaciously escalated the imagery of melancholy, taking the tradition to another level.

    (Credit: Getty Images)
    A mural believed to have been made by Banksy – featuring the logo of climate-change activist movement Extinction Rebellion – appeared in London in April 2019
    The graffitied work, widely attributed to the street artist Banksy, depicts a child kneeling beside a small spade and the fragile reach of a fledgling sprig she’s just planted. She holds in her hand a tiny placard imprinted with the memorable geometric logo of the non-violent environmental movement Extinction Rebellion: a stylised hourglass encompassed by a sphere, echoing elements from Dürer’s seminal engraving. Emblazoned in the concrete air next to the stencilled girl is the stirring spray-painted phrase ‘from here despair ends and tactics begin’, which could as easily have described the artistic strategies of any of the foregoing paintings by Cranach and Fetti, Gentileschi and Van Gogh, Munch and De Chirico. The explicitness of the mural’s message betrays its urgency. There’s no longer time to muse over hidden meanings or decrypt the entangled connotations of secret symbols. The age of subtlety is over, the mural seems to say. Melancholy is a luxury our survival cannot afford.

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