I wanted to start off on a realistic note… So lets talk about melancholy.
Have you ever found yourself staring at a work of art and it felt like looking in a mirror? Has a piece of art ever brought out what you feel at your core? And I mean, to a point where you felt a very strange realization, as if the artist painted you and you did not even know it.
As much as I love art and find myself constantly rummaging through my home library for my daily art intake, it was only recently that I have felt what I have described above happen to me. Typically, art brings out a happy emotion, the awe of realizing that someone made something so beautiful with their bare hands. In this case, it was so much more than that.
I recall this book from my early childhood; before I spoke English or knew anything about art (or anything else for that matter). To me this book was always ‘the one with the man with gorgeous hair on the cover,’ as a child I was mesmerized by this portrait and found myself diving deep into the dark Gothic style and Renaissance paintings it held inside. It was only the other day that I had stumbled upon this book again and realized that I’ve yet to read it properly.
"All men who excel in a great art have been melancholics."
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, “The World of Durer.”
Allow me to summarize; Albrecht Durer, born May 21st, 1471 in Nuremberg, Germany. He was widely known for his beautiful, highly detailed wood engravings which have been popularized at the time thanks to the use of the established printing press. A son to a goldsmith, he very early on decided not to follow his father’s footsteps as at just 13 he drew out a self portrait with such precision and technique and using a silverpoint medium at that. This medium allows for no erasing and is executed with the use of a silver stylus and coated paper. It is believed that this is the first recognized self portrait among German art.
Durer went on to be a bridge for the German art scene: a bridge into the true Renaissance. While his German contemporaries such as Grunewald (Mathis Nithart Gothart) continued to promptly utilize the dark structure of the Gothic art scene, Durer dived deep into simplicity and lightness he witnessed on his many travels abroad. Durer travelled for his time, what appears to be more than I ever will (especially in the current pandemic climate). This allowed him to witness the core of the Renaissance art: Italy, where artists were on their way to developing the use of perspective and the myriad of techniques through the use of painting and sculpture.
I can continue on for a long time talking about every single one of his works, for example his “Praying Hands,” which I am sure if you have witnessed before, no doubt you must have noted the accuracy and truly mesmerizing detail and technique. Lets not forget “The Four Apostles,” or better yet, his simple watercolor studies like the “Young Hare” or “The Great Piece of Turf,” both revolutionary for Germany at its time, for not many dared to dedicate such study to something so ordinary and… secular. So now, if I have enticed you with the aforementioned even just a bit I invite you to read the book yourself (“The World of Durer,” by Francis Russell).
This brings me to what brought about this whole rant in the first place. In all honesty, I did not recall this work until I opened this book again the other day and found it staring back at me like a reflection in a mirror pointing out everything that I have been ignoring about myself the past few weeks. I give to you a masterpiece and simultaneously my guilty conscience; Melancholia I.
“Profound moods of depression that at times possess us all beyond reason are summarized in the full-bodied, heavy-winged woman with great eyes staring into space.”
It is one of the most complex of his engravings with so much symbolism that has long perplexed many seeking for the truth. However, most agree on the fact that it very openly symbolizes an artists’ search for inspiration, the melancholy one feels when unable to find creativity or the motivation to create. This has been me and what I have been ignoring within myself until I saw the work and read about it, further solidifying my feelings.
This work holds many interesting and perplexing tokens; for example the square in the corner whose columns all add up to 34 for a reason still unclear to this day. The key symbolizing power or the purse signifying wealth. Perhaps it was created to show the seven liberal arts of the medieval schoolroom: grammar (represented by the cherub), the rhetoric (shown by the perplexing square), geometry (by the radiating sky or heaven), music and logic (by the book), arithmetic (by the sphere), law (by the scale), and astronomy (with the compasses).
“Highest form of intellectual activity is found in the melancholic temperament.”
Do we agree, or disagree?
Witnessing the masterpiece has my eyes eventually finding their way to the harshest and most obvious symbols of all: the hourglass, evidently showing time slipping away as the sand seeps through the narrow channel of the glass painfully reminding me to stop procrastinating. Stop the melancholia I, II, or III (or who knows what number by this point) and do something!
The reason why I chose to write about this work is because I figured I cannot be the only one feeling this way right now with the world in uncertainty and a global pandemic hanging over our heads daily. For myself this was a way to let go of these feelings, fears and anxieties. Looking at the Melancholia I; I am reminded that all people, whether as great as Durer himself or as plainly simple as me suffer from this feeling. As the hourglass looms above us I invite you to take a step; however small, towards whatever it is you may be thinking of as you look at the work. But do not worry, once the sand runs out we will do our best and flip over the hourglass!