This outer dazzling radiance Imbues with melting desire Refracting in stained glass Shines over frothing waves Casts over sundial shadows Haloes the heroic statuary Banished within four walls Where silence, solitude reign Realm of inner marvels
The Paintings of Melancholia
Lars von Trier’s end of the world science fiction/domestic melodrama Melancholia from 2011 is full of allusions to other art forms; the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde plays throughout the film; one of the two sisters is named Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in a clear homage to the unfortunate character created by the Marquis De Sade; but these nods are outnumbered by the numerous references to paintings.
In the stunning prologue Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting Hunters in the Snow features prominently. It will make a reappearance in the middle of Justine’s disastrous wedding reception. Retreating to the study of her brother-in-law mansion, she is confronted by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsborough) who tells her to at least try to be happy on her wedding day. However Justine is suffering from severe depression and no amount of fake smiling is going to cure her. Claire returns to the debacle of the party leaving Justine alone in the orderly, tastefully decorated room. She notices on the shelves art books open on images of bright and jazzy geometric abstraction paintings, particularly the work of Kazimir Malevich. In her frame of mind this is absolutely intolerable and searching through the enviable rows of art books she curates a collection of images that better suits her melancholic mood. Below are the works I have been able to identity, followed by a brief description.
Although this painting undoubtedly possesses a postcard picturesque quality, it also speaks of dejection and dearth. The hunters wearily trudge through the thick snow with only an emaciated fox to show for their labours. To the right of the dogs and the foremost hunter can be seen the footprints of a small animal, maybe a hare, quarry that escaped. The muted colours are suitably bleak and wintry.
Millias’s hallucinatory, almost hyper-realist painting of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Driven insane with grief, Ophelia fashions a garland of wildflowers before falling into a river. She calmly keeps singing as she floats before the waterlogged dress weighs her down to drown a muddy death. Earlier in the prologue Justine is seen floating in a stream wearing her wedding dress and clutching a bouquet.
Justine next selects a painting I cannot identify, followed by Caravaggio’s brooding and psychologically complex David with the Head of Goliath. The young David hoists aloof the head of the slain Goliath, a particularly grim self portrait of Caravaggio himself. David appears more troubled and reflective than triumphant however. Caravaggio said that the model for David was ‘his own little Caravaggio’, which presumably refers to his studio assistant and widely rumoured lover Cecco del Caravaggio, or alternatively to his younger self whose wild excesses had contributed to his future destruction. Which would make it a macabre double self-portrait. The painting was sent as a gift to the influential Cardinal Scipione Borghese while Caravaggio was on the run for murder and had a literal price on his actual head.
There is a clear descent show here, through need and dejection to grief and insanity and finally to the most intimate act of violence, the murder of the self, suicide.The trajectory of depression. After the disastrous wedding, Part One, Justine’s half of the film, ends with the horse she is riding refusing to cross a bridge.
Part Two is from the viewpoint of the pragmatic Claire as a practically catatonic Justine returns from an institution. Justine spends a lot of time in the study, even sleeping there. Towards the finale of the film, when the end draws nigh as the rogue planet Melancholia approaches on its collision course with the earth, a new image can be send in Justine’s gallery of despair.
Undoubtedly the strangest and most enigmatic painting in the entire history of art, Bosch‘s triptych is a vast gallery of bizarre imagery and terrifying drolleries with its unforgettably vivid Hell. The detail highlighted is from the left-hand edge of the central panel, (close to Paradise but with most of the figures facing towards Hell) and is believed to represent Humankind before the Flood.
The very title of the film is a reference to Albrecht Dürer‘s famous engraving Melencolia I. It is also, I believe, a play on Susan Sontag’s famous dictum that ‘Depression is melancholy minus its charm’. The great art born out of depression universalises personal tragedy, imbuing it with charm to become a melancholia that has the potential to take on an operatic grandeur.
Yet, von Trier paradoxically seems to suggest that this romanticizing of depression is morally dubious and in questionable taste, at the very least. Suffering as a entertaining spectacle. Watching the Gotterdammerung from a terrace while sipping wine. For the terminal depressive, existence itself is an unmitigated evil, without the possibility of any redeeming charm.
Room 202, Poppy Hotel
During the late 1960’s/70’s Dorothea Tanning creating her ‘soft sculptures’, pieces of fabric sewn together to create eerie cuddly toys from hell, resulting in perhaps the final masterpiece of Surrealism, the truly unsettling installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202.
In a seedy hotel room with wallpaper that emanates despair (remember the only thing going on in Tanning’s childhood was the wallpaper), soft but disturbingly visceral bodies burst from the wall or merge with the furniture. Inspired by a song from her childhood about the gangsters moll Kitty Kane who poisoned herself in Room 202 because the walls were talking, I don’t ever want to check-in into that room at the Poppy Hotel. The whole malevolent atmosphere is reminiscent of David Lynch, though Lynch wasn’t to make Eraserhead until 1977.
Even by the standards of David Lynch the Surrealist sit-com (with Noir accents) Rabbits from 2002 is startlingly bizarre. First released as a digital web series of 8 short episodes with a total run-time of 50 mins and later edited and re-released as a DVD of 42 mins, Rabbits features Scott Coffrey, Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts as Jack, Jane and Suzie, a family of humanoid rabbits who reside in a nameless city deluged with constant rain and who live with a fearful mystery.
The setting is a dismal living room which we will never leave. Suzie is ironing a piece of clothing which she will constantly iron throughout the movie, apart from the times when she leaves to summon (or exorcise) a demonic presence that appears in the wall and talks in a harsh and unintelligible language. Jane wears a dress and sits on the couch. Jack wears a suit and is the only one to regular leave the apartment. Whenever a character enters the apartment canned applause bursts out. Another alienating device is the use of a laugh track at random and often wildly inappropriate moments. The dialogue is oblique, to say the least. Clipped phrases, both banal and portentous, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett or Alain Resnais’s art house classic Last Year In Marienbad, are followed by long pauses then a non sequitur, which gives the impression that if it was ordered just so everything would fall into place. All three characters have a solo piece where they recite abstract poetry that has tantalising references to dogs and dark smiling teeth.
Rabbits is short movie where nothing happens yet is redolent with atmosphere, helped by a dank soundtrack by frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. Oppressive, shot with a dark humour, sometimes boring but always terrifying, Rabbits was used in a study by University of British Columbia to induce a feeling of existential crisis in subjects.
In my post on the enigmatic French architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu I mentioned two other Utopian revolutionary Neoclassical architects whose visions remained largely on paper, Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicholas Ledoux. As both architects produced interesting work in their own right and help situate Lequeu in the correct historical, intellectual and aesthetic context I felt follow up posts were necessary, starting with the originator of visionary architecture, Étienne-Louis Boullée.
Born in 1728, Boullée reacted against the frivolous decadence of the Rococo by returning to Classical forms (hence Neoclassicism), removing all unnecessary ornamentation and developing an abstract geometric style. Boullée stated that regularity, symmetry and variety were the golden rules of architecture. Another defining feature of Boullée’s projected work was it monumentalism, designed to invoke the sublime.
Boullée’s most famous work is the Cenotaph for Newton, a gargantuan monument consisting of a sphere taller than the Great Pyramid, to the idol of the Enlightenment. He also planned other Cenotaphs and tombs.
Boullée ink and wash drawings make great use of shadow, this combined with his potentially endless interior spaces reminds me of Piranesi’s influential imaginary prisons.
Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect centers on an American architect staging an exhibition in Rome on Boullée. At one point a character remarks that Boullée’s work seems like a vision of Hell and I have to agree, though Boullée remains something of a hero of the Age of Reason.
Below are images of planned projects, including the Cenotaph for Newton, and two pieces of music from The Belly of an Architect.