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Low humour: Kathryn Murphy ruminates on art history's debts to melancholy.

The Melancholy Art

Michael Ann Holly

Princeton University Press, 16.95 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 9780691139340

The Dark Side of Genius: The Melancholic Persona in Art, ca. 1500-1700

Laurinda S. Dixon

Penn State University Press, 89.95 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 9780271059358

Representing melancholy ought to be a problem. Whether conceived as an excess in the body of the humour of black bile, as until the 18th century, or more recently as a mood or psychological malady, melancholy is an internal malaise. Even in its positive associations with inspiration and insight, it is figured as unavailable for depiction. Divine melancholy, John Milton wrote, was 'too bright / To hit the sense of human sight'; Hamlet, archetypal melancholic, claimed he had 'that within that passeth show'. Melancholy, it might seem, is a mystery of interiority.

As Laurinda S. Dixon's generously illustrated The Dark Side of Genius demonstrates, however, the opposite is true. In the late Renaissance, melancholy could seem all show: a composite of posture and gesture (slumped; the head leaning on one hand; Fig. 2); costume (dark, dishevelled, often with low-brimmed hat); and accoutrements (a skull, books, a pipe). Hamlet himself precedes his claim of invisible but authentic grief with a catalogue of external attributes acknowledging that melancholy was as much fashion as feeling; an 'inky cloak', a 'fruitful river in the eye' and 'dejected haviour of the visage'. Dixon assembles 140 illustrations which vary those basic tropes of melancholic depiction and self-presentation, and amply demonstrate the vogue for melancholy in the art and society of the late Renaissance.

It is perhaps precisely because melancholy apparently resists illustration that it is so compulsively illustrated. Self-portraits of the artist as a melancholic, or Elizabethan miniatures of noble lovers, show the painter or sitter in a performance of inspiration or elegant amorous sensibility: the disordered clothing, shaded eyes, and drooping head are outward trappings of inner states. In the multiple images of Jerome and other saints meditating or at prayer, or of scholars in their cells, there is a compulsive return to the enigma of withdrawn inwardness: a fascination with depicting the mind in the act of thinking.

Michael Ann Holly's The Melancholy Art, a series of reflective essays on art historians and the practice of art history, takes as its prompt a different kind of scholarly melancholy: the 'disciplinary melancholy' of the art historian. While Dixon is interested in the iconographic resources available to signal melancholy within a painting, Holly's elegant and thoughtful book focuses on the encounter of the viewer with the work of art. Melancholy, for Holly, is the intrinsic condition of a discipline that tries to speak for the material remains of the past, an activity that confronts the art historian with 'the frailty of human comprehension in the face of something material beyond all understanding'. Rather than a positivistic art history which tasks the historian with the recuperation of fact, for Holly writing about the art of the past should be a work of appreciative elegy, which acknowledges what has been lost in time, and the resistance of the artwork to full interpretation.

The tradition of art-historical study of melancholy confirms Holly's argument. The opening figure in Dixon's book, also included in Holly's compelling chapter on Michael Baxandall, is Albrecht Durer's famous engraving, Melencolia I (1514; Fig. 1). Melancholy sits, her head resting on her fist. Around her are scattered tools for parsing and measuring time and the world. But the compasses in her hand are idle, and her gaze is fixed in reverie. In 1964, Raymond Klibansky and Erwin Panofsky published Saturn and Melancholy, the result of 50 years of iconological investigation undertaken (with Fritz Saxl, who had died in 1948) under the auspices of the Warburg Institute. It ranged across medical, philosophical, astrological, and literary tradition, as well as art history, in the attempt to account for the details of Durer's imagery. The book had first reached the press, in German, in 1939, and was already set up for printing when its authors--and the Warburg collection--were forced to emigrate; in 1945, in exile in London, they learned that the plates had been destroyed during the war. They began to write again, in English. The history of Saturn and Melancholy thus traces a narrative of literal loss and exile which amplifies Holly's disciplinary melancholy; it also testifies to the ultimately illimitable task of interpreting individual works of art, not only in the sheer industry of the authors' attempts to account for Melencolia I, but in the profusion of responses, expansions and contradictions which it has spawned.

Indeed, Dixon's Dark Side of Genius is itself intended as a furthering of Saturn and Melancholy: if the latter traces the ancestors of Durer's image, she pursues its descendents. In its assembly of oft-neglected illustrations, it is a valuable contribution to the busy field of studies of melancholy. It painstakingly demonstrates the melancholic associations of imagery as disparate as untied shirts, wide-brimmed hats, pollarded willows, musical instruments, cats, dogs, and butterburs, widening the scope of what might be recognised as depictions of melancholy in the late Renaissance. Its account of the history of melancholy, however, is peppered with error, particularly in the first and last chapters, which conflate existing scholarly literature to sometimes inaccurate effect. (For example: the crucial pseudo-Aristotelian text which establishes the notion of melancholic genius is 'Problem 30.1', the first problem in the 30th book of the Problemata, not 'Problem 30'; being Greek, it makes no reference to the Roman god Saturn; Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, was not an 'Arabic physician'.)

Though Dixon's rich catalogue displays little of Holly's disciplinary melancholy, the close of her book does turn to the present day, and to a suggestion that the continuing appeal of melancholy speaks of the alienation and disenchantment of the modern world--inaugurated as Durer was engraving his enigmatic image. Following Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl, she claims that 'Melencolia I marks a turning point in history', the fulcrum between the medieval sense of art as craft and the modern belief in the unique creative capacity of the artist. Both of these books, and the enduring fascination of melancholy as academic and artistic subject and as self-presentation, suggest that something was both lost and gained in the transition. It would be possible to read Melencolia I itself as an emblem for the melancholy which Holly diagnoses: the parsing implements of interpretation rejected in favour of an immersion in attention and affect. Though Dixon suggests that the meaning of Durer's image 'must once have been accessible to its intended audience', it seems more likely that the engraving, and the subject of melancholy more generally, offers a surfeit of meaning which passes the art historian's capacity to account for it, and instead encourages the kind of absorbed contemplation that Holly sees as the duty, and the melancholic pleasure, of art history.

Kathryn Murphy is a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford.
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Title Annotation:'The Melancholy Art' and 'The Dark Side of Genius: The Melancholic Persona in Art, ca. 1500-1700'
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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