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 ill-fated lovers as well as allegorical personifications of Melancholy itself, at the center of which sits Durer'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. …