The Paintings of Melancholia

Melancholia-Lars Von Trier-2011
Melancholia-Lars Von Trier-2011

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.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder-Hunters in the Snow-1565
Pieter Bruegel the Elder-Hunters in the Snow-1565

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.

John Everett Millais-Ophelia-1851-1852
John Everett Millais-Ophelia-1851-1852

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.

David with the Head of Goliath-Caravaggio ca 1605-1610
David with the Head of Goliath-Caravaggio ca 1605-1610

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.

Hieronymus-Bosch-The Garden of Earthly Delights,-Central panel-Humankind Before the Flood-ca 1490-1510
Hieronymus-Bosch-The Garden of Earthly Delights,-Central panel-Humankind Before the Flood-ca 1490-1510

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

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202-Dorothea Tanning 1970-1973
Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202-Dorothea Tanning 1970-1973

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.

 

Rabbits

Rabbits-David Lynch 2002
Rabbits-David Lynch 2002

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.

Boullée’s Cenotaphs

Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton

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.

Étienne-Louis Boullée-Interior of a Library
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Interior of a Library
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Temple
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Temple
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Split plan showing interior and from above
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton Split plan showing interior and from above
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph for Newton-Night Effect
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph
Étienne-Louis Boullée-Cenotaph

 

A Wicked Pack of Cards

The Wheel of Fortune-Tarot de Marseille
The Wheel of Fortune-Tarot de Marseille

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes.Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

T.S Eliot The Waste Land 1922

It is no surprise really that the Tarot are mentioned at length in the masterpiece of Modernism, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land from 1922. The notes alone are a treasure trove of esoteric references, making mention of the Cumaean Sibyl, The Golden Bough of James Frazer, the study of Arthurian legend From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Gérard de Nerval’s densely hermetic sonnet El Desdichado and the Upanishads.

Interest in all matters esoteric and occult had become a feature of the avant-garde ever since the later Romantics, especially Charles Baudelaire and the above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval. Later in the 19th Century there would be Arthur Rimbaud with his theory of  ‘the alchemy of the word’, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s stint in Paris as a practising alchemist, known as the Inferno Period, and various writers and painters connected to the Symbolist and Decadent movements, most notably  J.K Huysmans and my personal favourite Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders).

As the century progressed the Tarot became increasingly esoteric itself. This was quite a recent development, previously the Tarot had been a card game popular in Italy, France and Switzerland, though it also undisputedly used in cartomancy as well. However it was a theologian and Freemason, the Count Gébelin who first advanced the theory in 1781 that the Tarot was a repository of lost ancient knowledge, a theme developed at length by that strange figure known as Etteilla, who added that it was initially conceived by Hermes Tristemegistus himself and was actually ‘The Book of Thoth’. When the man responsible for the French Occult Revival, Eliphas Levi incorporated the Tarot into his magical system and tied the 22 cards of the Major Arcana with the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, the occultation of the Tarot was complete and it became an essential tool for any would-be magician. A quick comparison between any of the older versions of the Tarot with the most famous deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith of 1910 makes this clear, the Rider-Waite-Smith is self-consciously more “mystical”, with an over-abundance of symbolism.

In certain respects the Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on chance, interpenetration and the shifting, elusive nature of meaning. I have written previously on the Surrealist take on the standard deck of playing cards, Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards, and both Salvador Dali and Ithell Colquhuon produced Tarot decks. The Italian post-modernist fabulist Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies where the entire plot is told through the Tarot. The Chilean-French film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky has written eloquently on the Tarot de Marseille and weaves the arcana throughout the acid western  El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain.

In Douglas Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s midnight classic movie Performance, the on-the-run gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) turns up at the Notting Hill home of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) claiming, somewhat inexplicably, to be a juggler. The first numbered card of the Major Arcana is sometimes called The Juggler, though it nowadays most commonly referred to as The Magician. This hermetic figure points both downward (to the underworld) and upwards (to the stars), a perfect illustration of as above, so below, and prefigures the merging identities towards the end of the movie. Turner seems to realise the import of Devlin’s claim to be a juggler as he immediately comments, ‘You’re a performer of natural magic’.

A quick word on the selection of images; there are thousands of variants on the Tarot available so I have limited myself mainly to the classics. My own preference is for the Tarot De Marseille and the Swiss 1JJ, however the most recognisable is the Rider-Waite-Smith.  I have included selections from Dali and Colquhuon as well as the deck designed by Lady Freida Harris for Aleister Crowley. For a contemporary rendition Ulla Von Brandenburg’s excellent deck shows that Tarot continue to fascinate and inspire.

The Sun-Rider-Waite-Smith
The Sun-Rider-Waite-Smith
The Devil-Crowley-Harris
The Devil-Crowley-Harris
The Lovers, Wheel of Fortune, The Moon-Dali
The Lovers, Wheel of Fortune, The Moon-Dali
Colquhoun-Tarot-collection[1]
Tarot-Ithell Colquhuon
The Magician-Rider-Waite-Smith
The Magician-Rider-Waite-Smith
Tarot-Ulla Von Bradenburg-2008
Tarot-Ulla Von Bradenburg-2008