“Melancholy: Genius and Madness in the West”

The sitter leans forward. The head tilts slightly to the side, propped up by the hand (an open palm or a closed fist) at the end of a bent arm. The elbow is supported by a flat surface—a desk, a table, often the sitter’s own knee. The brow is usually furrowed, throwing a real or implied shadow over the eyes, which are lowered but never closed. Posture and facial gesture imply a layered interiority, acts of reflection flashing across the surface of troubled depths. The downward rotation of the propped head conveys an impression of heavy weight. The force of “gravity” is understood to be both literal and figurative. This tilt or incline, which induces a kinesthetic response in the beholder, also reminds us of something else: We recognize that, writ large, the axis of melancholy is the axis of the world.

The dazzling but flawed and inadvertently unfinished “Melancholy: Genius and Madness in the West,” organized by Jean Clair for the Grand Palais, could well have been the exhibition for our time. For the melancholy temperament is world-historical, invoked since antiquity to account, spiritually and physiologically, for the profoundest stirrings—even the very condition—of the human soul, and thereby implicated in the course of history. It is the ghost in our machine. That we still dwell near the turn of a century that is divided in half by an ineffable moral abyss should make the progress of melancholy—of “genius and madness”—grippingly apt. This is not necessarily to call for an art that means to illustrate the historical narrative of the recent past (or the present). It is instead to propose the opposite: that the internal history of art possesses its own set of terms through which to track and expose the mechanics of a humor that has been forever ascribed to the mysteries of the creative act; and, more specifically, that the narrative of melancholy, as a historical condition as well as a philosophical conceit, might be mapped over the travails of art—art’s real and allegorical struggle, in the era of late modernism, with inarticulateness and loss.

The exhibition is an inventory of brooding melancholics from the history of Western representation, beginning with the antique: artists, saints, and illfated lovers as well as allegorical personifications of Melancholy itself, at the center of which sits Dürer’s great Melencolia I of 1514, forever fixed in place as the involuted grande dame of imagination in anguish. In this regard, Clair’s ambition seems to be primarily iconographic. In truth, it is astonishing to behold, through a remarkable group of works on loan, the longevity of the posture of melancholy in painting, sculpture, and graphic arts across centuries during which the meaning of melancholia was continually reinvented: as frenzy, frustration, or despair; as a malady with natural causes (the imbalance of black bile, one of the four humors, according to Hippocrates); as a divine affliction and a cosmic source of creative inspiration or genius, and of heroic deeds; as a realm of the tormented psyche populated by demons; as a force of nervous debilitation (first subjected to modern clinical observation during the late nineteenth century by Charcot); as a spiritual or philosophical preoccupation with death. The exhibition is both chronological and thematic. It comprises eight historical sections (“Children of Saturn: The Renaissance,” for example, and “The Enlightenment and Its Shadows: The Eighteenth Century”) and numerous digressions—through northern Romantic landscape painting (notably Friedrich), the still life as memento mori, the melancholic self-portrait, cannibalism, and the eighteenth-century Wunderkammer as a museum of objects associated with the natural history of time. The erudition is breathtaking, although there are places where the premise is so broadly applied that the phenomenon of melancholy loses all definition.

But this is one risk of a thematic show. Can an encyclopedic, largely iconographic treatment, despite its splendors, truly plumb a topic of this depth? If both the work of the creative imagination and the contemplation of death have long been grounded in this property of the soul, mightn’t the highest allegorical articulation of melancholia, especially in modern and postmodern times, somehow finally escape the rebuslike conventions of iconography? The conclusion of the exhibition is titled, promisingly, “The Angel of History: Melancholy and Modern Times,” but the didactic texts for the show are vague on the subject, and the art struggles to rise to the implication of melancholy as a force of historical proportions. After multiple, largely coherent rooms, the spaces devoted to the modern and contemporary period, with updated representations of the afflicted by Munch, de Chirico, Dix, Francis Gruber, Hopper, and Ron Mueck, look like a morose art fair.

What would have been the alternative? Indeed, the most powerful legacy of melancholia in the twentieth century is not a function of iconography but of a condition of lost faith. If the black paintings of Rothko belong to the sacred spaces of Baroque melancholy, then the black paintings of Frank Stella confront the promise of utopian abstraction and the grand subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism with deadpan means and a mournful thematics of downbeat urbanism and historical foreboding. Johns and Twombly, retaining the body through trace alone, have long pursued an aesthetic project of salvage and loss (Twombly once named an enormous painting after Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy). Bruce Nauman’s narcissism is our only viable solution to the death of self-portraiture; Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), 2002, an absurdist masterpiece of melancholia, finally transforms the artist’s studio into a chamber of anticipation and absence, filled (to borrow from Christopher Ricks on Beckett) with the longing for oblivion. Of course, watching it would have taken three times as long as seeing the entire rest of the exhibition.

Jeffrey Weiss is curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.