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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the Dreamers, To the Deriders

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Retrato de Roma-Oscar Dominguez
Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the writer of my favourite world-weary bon mot, ‘Living? Our servants will do that for us.’ was, as the name and quote suggests, of impeccable aristocratic lineage: the family name that Mathias (as he was known informally) so proudly bore had been ennobled for at least eight centuries and had included a Grand Marshall of France and the founder of the Order of the Knights of Malta. However the Revolution and his father’s madcap get rich quick schemes had emptied the families coffers. His relatives decided that Mathias was the one to restore the lustre and fortune to the line with his writings and by marrying a rich heiress.

Unsurprisingly, given the nature of his genius and his other-worldliness neither plan came to fruition. For his friend Stephen Mallarme, Villiers was, ‘The man who never was, save in his dreams’, and as Villiers himself comments in his mighty Symbolist drama Axel, that he existed merely ‘out of politeness’. His trip to London to woo a wealthy English lady was an unmitigated disaster; he borrowed heavily to pay for the boat over and a set of outlandish clothes only for her to quickly flee Covent Garden when faced with the over ardent declarations of eternal love from the strange foreign gentleman.

His writing showed a complete and utter disregard for the commercial market. He achieved some recognition with his collection Contes Cruel and he was certainly possessed some influential friends, as well as Mallarme, Villiers could count Baudelaire, Wagner, Leon Bloy and Huysmans as close personal acquaintances. It wasn’t enough however, even when he secured a commission his savage satirical edge meant that no further work was forthcoming for a long while. His astounding early science fiction novel L’eve future, was serialised and then dropped midway by two different newspapers. One wonders what the readers thought of its dizzying imaginative leaps, its jaw-dropping virulent misogyny that dissects the female form body part by body part to illustrate its inherent flaws and how man can improve on nature to create the perfect woman,and the dense imagery culled from many varied disciplines including but not limited to; the Bible, Hermeticism, Cabbala, medicine, anatomy, psychology and science.

After the death of his aunt who had kept him somewhat afloat Villiers found himself penniless, a state that was to continue without remittance until his death at 51. Frequently homeless and always hungry his fierce pride refused any offers of assistance. One winter he slept on a construction site only to find one early morning a watchman’s boot grounding down on his face. He worked for a time as a sparring partner at a boxing gymnasium, basically being a human punching bag for sixty francs a month. Four days before his death he married the mother of his only child, an illiterate charwoman. On his deathbed, Villiers, a devout though frequently heretical Catholic was busying preparing his lawsuit against God.

Dreams of Desire 23 (Elle)

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Elle-Gustav Adolphe-Mossa 1905
A delirious summation of late Decadent motifs and misogyny, Mossa’s Elle presents a vision of the cosmic and mythological femme fatale. A gigantic female figure, Elle, whose baby doll face contrasts sharply with the full sensuous body sits provocatively atop a mountain of predominantly male corpses and bodies. The only colouration on her pale skin is the tiny hand prints of blood left on her fleshy thighs by her doomed victims. Her shadowed gaze is seductively direct beneath the three skulls she sports in her hairdo, watched over by two ill-omened ravens.

A potent if somewhat tawdry (but the Symbolists were never very restrained) combination of Biblical and mythological references, Elle could represent the apocalyptic Whore of Babylon or is maybe an allusion to the Valkyries of Norse Mythology (Wagner was the favourite composer of the Symbolists). The Valkyries would choose half the slain of the battlefield to come to Valhalla in preparation for Ragnarok (or Gotterdammerung in German, the twilight of the gods). Ravens were a bird considered sacred and intimately connected to Odin the All-Father who was always accompanied by two named Huginn and Muginn (Thought and Memory).