Saturday, 28 August 2010

Albrecht Dürer

British Museum, London
Not Seen
Melencholia I, 1514
Engraving, 23.7 x 18.7 cm

The idea of a melancholic as someone given to profound contemplation, was developed by the work of Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Ficino not only rehabilitated the “Aristotelian” notion of the gifted melancholic , but expressly tied it in with the Platonic notion of “divine frenzy”, thereby laying the intellectual foundations for a new type of man, the “homo literatus” or tortured genius, pitched back and forth between the heights of rapture and the depths of despair. Albrecht Dürer gives a visual interpretation of Ficino’s ideas in his 1514 engraving Melancholia I. According to Erwin Panofski, the woman in Dürer’s engraving displays “artist's melancholia”; a figure being endowed with intellectual power and technical accomplishments of an 'Art', yet despairing under a cloud of black humor.

Representations before Dürer’s seminal work illustrated melancholia by showing a woman or a man asleep at their work.[1] Dürer's Melancholia though is super awake; her fixed stare is one of intent though fruitless searching. She is inactive not because she is too lazy to work but because work has become meaningless to her; her energy is not paralysed by sleep, but by thought. She is a thinking being in perplexity; not contemplating a lost object, but thinking about her insight into a problem that cannot be solved, resulting in impotence and gloom.

“The picture is at once immediately legible and deeply ambiguous. Seated on a step outside a narrow building with a ladder leaning against it is a winged angel. Her right arm rests on a book in her lap, the hand holding a compass; her left hand supports her head. Hanging from the belt of her long, rumpled skirt is a set of keys and a purse. Seated on a millstone to her right is a plump little putto bent studiously over a slate, and, curled up asleep next to the millstone, a scrawny-looking dog. Strewn about the ground are a variety of tools and instruments – a self-feeding furnace, or athanor, a polyhedron with a hammer lying beside it, a sphere, a set square, a pair of pincers, a plane, a handsaw, a ruler, three nails, and some sort of syringe. Fixed to the wall of the building are a set of scales, their pans exactly balanced, an hourglass with equal amounts of sand in each bulb, a bell at rest, and a “magic square” composed of sixteen smaller squares, each inscribed with a number so that whichever way you read the numbers (vertically, horizontally, diagonally) they always add up to thirty-four. In the background is a stretch of coastline overlooking an alarmingly calm lake or sea, and in the sky a comet, a rainbow and a batlike figure brandishing a streamer with the inscription “Melencolia I”. The scene is steeped in a lugubrious grey twilight” .[2]

In his analysis of the engraving Panofski describes the figure as being: lapsed into a state of gloomy inaction, neglectful of attire with her head on her hand (clenched fist), her face overcast by deep shadow and eyes raised in a lowering stare. He concludes that she is in a state of torpid dejection and careless desolation, a creative being brooding in idleness reduced to despair by insurmountable barriers to higher realm of thought. Thereafter, the posture and demeanour of Dürer's Melancholia became the touchstone for artistic depiction of melancholia. Lucas Cranach uses a similar posture for his four versions of An Allegory of Melancholy dated 1528, 1532, 1533, and 1553 and in each case a woman sits staring into space. A century later the frontispiece for the 1638 edition of Robert Burton’s text The Anatomy of Melancholy shows figures with their head on one side, resting on their hands.

[1] According to Erwin Panofsky the commonly held view of the Melancholic was someone characterised as: Thin and swarthy, awkward, miserly, greedy, malicious, cowardly, faithless, irreverent and drowsy. Surly, sad, forgetful, lazy and sluggish, shuns the company of other men and despises the opposite sex. Only redeeming feature is a certain inclination for solitary study.
[2] Mark Hutchinson, The Art of Melancholy TLS 2005