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.








The Tree-Man

Hieronymus Bosch-The Tree-Man Circa 1505
Another one of the drawings that can be definitely attributed to have come from the hand of the master, The Tree-Man is also a figure that features prominently in the right panel hellscape of the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.

As the date of composition of The Garden of Earthly Delights cannot be determined accurately beyond the range of 1490 to 1510, it is a matter of conjecture as to whether the drawing of The Tree-Man is a preparatory sketch or a later variation on this most memorable, nightmarish character.

Although not situated in hell, the landscape of The Tree-Man is nevertheless rather bleak and blighted. In the centre of the foreground a stunted tree sits near the bank of a river that has inundated a large part of the background land. Various species of birds feature, including a stock, a pair of swimming ducks and an owl.

Dominating the scene is the Tree-Man, a monstrous hybrid of human face, rotting tree stumps, broken eggshell and boats. Inside the hollow cavity of the body a group of people (surely damned) appear to be involved in drinking, gambling and whoring. Also a crescent moon flag juts from this unusual posterior opening. The Tree-Man sports extraordinary headgear on which a large pitcher is balanced. Inside this vessel is a small blurry figure that is pointlessly dangling a fishing line and another man precariously clings onto a ladder while reaching out to a line that is attached to the flag.

It has been suggested that the Tree-Man’s face in both this drawing and in The Garden of Earthly Delights is a possible self-portrait of Bosch. In the triptych the headgear closely resembles an artist’s palette and the sideways, conspiratorial expression of rueful resignation that greet the viewer do point towards the Tree-Man being an elaborate, knowingly ironic signature.

The forest that hears and the field that sees

The forest that hears and the field that sees-Hieronymus Bosch circa 1500
One of only three drawings that can definitely be attributed to the Dutch master who so influenced the Surrealists, The forest that hears and the field that sees is an excellent example  of the strangeness of the late medieval genius that produced the stunning and baffling The Garden of Earthly Delights