An exhibition in Berlin tracing melancholy in art has surprisingly become a phenomenal success. Is it perhaps because Germans are more brooding than most?
The exhibition has more than 300 works of art spanning cultures and centuries
A man sits surrounded by measuring instruments and various tools, hand on cheek, puzzling over the array. This is Albrecht Dürer's enigmatic genius in his "Melencolia I," who thirsts for knowledge and then is left estranged from mankind because of it.
And it is this work that is at the heart of a new exhibition at Berlin's New National Gallery, that has drawn 100,000 visitors in its first five weeks since opening on Feb. 17. It has become such a surprise hit that the museum was forced to extend its hours.
The exhibition "Melancholy, Genius and Insanity in Art" explores intellectual brooding and creative despair through more than 300 works of art by such icons as Peter Brueghel, Edward Hopper and Caspar David Friedrich. And it tries to show that such suffering and alienation informs art across cultures and centuries.
Melancholy is sublime
The term comes from the ancient Greek melas (black) and chole (gall). The Greeks believed that it was bile in the body that produced the despair and depression that so characterized the poets and artists of their time. In medieval times, scholars and artists formed "melancholy clubs" and in 1621, Briton Robert Burton wrote "Anatomy of Melancholy," the first systematic research into the phenomena.
More than 100,000 visited in its first five weeks
Since Dürer's work appeared in Germany in the 16th century, no country has come to be so associated with melancholy through its literature, art and philosophy, particularly in the Romantic period following the Enlightenment which glorified the feeling.
"Melancholy characterizes those with a superb sense of the sublime," wrote German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his work "Observations on the Feelings of the Beautiful and Sublime" in 1764. According to his definition, sublime feelings arouse both enjoyment and dread.
German writer Heinrich Heine took up the theme later in his famous poem, "Die Lorelei."
"I do not know what haunts me, what saddened my mind all day," he wrote.
The thread continues into contemporary works by German artists such as Jörg Immendorf and Sigmar Polke who the exhibition organizers have labeled "the new melancholics," and who bring the "intellectual attitude" into the new century.
Germany's dark side
Melancholy is also evident on a daily basis in the German media. A survey last year found that depressive feelings in young Germans under the age of 29 have doubled. And campaigns to improve the nation's spirits abound, with one recently spending 30 million euros ($25 million) featuring celebrities urging Germans to help their country by simply getting into a better mood.
The show runs until May 7
Sociologists, historians and media commentators have offered all kinds of explanations for the less than peppy national mood. Some attribute it to a history of war throughout the nation's fragmented history. Others blame Protestantism, the Nazi era, the souring of the economy or even Germany's gloomy climate with its long, gray winters.
"There is a culture of pessimism in Germany," said Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary Studies in Washington, DC, who attributes it to the struggles for statehood in the 1800s combined with the terrible experiences in the first part of the 20th century. "There is a sense that something can go wrong and they tend to look around for it."
American painter Edward Hopper shows that melancholy is not restricted to Europe
But even if Germans are more melancholic than their European neighbors or lack the sunny optimism of Americans as clichés go, does that account for the snaking lines around the museum making "Melancholy" the most popular exhibition since MoMA came to Berlin two years ago?
Visitors say no.
"It is just great art, pure and simple," said student Andreas Meissner, who visited the show.
Besides, before coming to Berlin, "Melancholy" drew over 300,000 people during its three-month run at the Grand Palais in Paris. But then, the French aren't doing so well at the moment either.
"Melancholy" shows in Berlin until May 7.