- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2005

PARIS - Do artists have to be miserable to produce great art? A new exhibition in France suggests that a little inner darkness helps.

Yet “Melancholy — Genius and Insanity in the Western World,” which has visitors lining up around the block at Paris’ Grand Palais, is anything but depressing.

“Long Live Melancholy!” one highbrow French magazine raved in its review.

The dazzlingly extensive look at art from antiquity to the 21st century shows how troubled thoughts have inspired great painters, sculptors, philosophers and writers.

“Melancholy is not only negative,” curator Gerard Regnier says in an interview. “On the contrary, it was a positive energy that gave strength and genius to great artists throughout Western civilization.”

Among them: Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Edward Hopper, Goya, Eugene Delacroix, William Blake. Nearly 300 works are on display, including masterpieces on rare loan from dozens of museums and collectors.

“The goal is to show the public the complexity and variety and positiveness of melancholy,” Mr. Regnier says.

The show, which runs through Jan. 16 and then travels to Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, was not initially an easy sell.

Paris’ art elite flatly rejected the exhibit when Mr. Regnier first proposed it a decade ago. Culture and museum officials believed the public wouldn’t pay to see art associated with depression.

Persistence paid off, however and times changed. Depression has become a constant subject of cover stories and talk shows in France. The government says French use of antidepressant drugs has doubled since 1990.

The show begins and ends with two sculptures — of men lost in thought, heads leaning on fists — that bear a striking resemblance but were created more than 2,000 years apart.

The first is a magnificent first-century B.C. bronze of Ajax, the Greek hero who killed himself after the Trojan War. The last is Australian artist Ron Mueck’s “Big Man From 2000,” a larger-than-life fat, naked, bald man crouched glumly in a corner, on loan from Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum.

Touching on every period in between, the exhibit shows how perceptions of melancholy oscillated through the ages, with changes reflected in art and writings.

Antiquity viewed it as positive inspiration. “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts … are melancholic?” Aristotle asked.

It was regarded as a sin in the Middle Ages but was rehabilitated by Renaissance astrologers, who linked melancholy to the planets and felt it could produce genius or madness.

Albrecht Durer’s iconic “Melancolia 1” from 1514 exemplifies the Renaissance view, with its pensive female figure surrounded by symbols of scientific research and wealth as a batlike creature flies through a night sky.

The exhibit winds its way through the late 19th and 20th centuries, when psychiatry deemed melancholy an illness and electric shock therapy was introduced. Particularly moving is a series of photographic sienna portraits taken in 1850 at an English asylum. The patients’ faces are visibly weighed down by troubled minds.

Taken together, the show presents melancholy as a normal part of the human experience — a frame of mind that travels like a wave. At its low, we call it depression, but the mood can be transient and at its height inspire greatness.

“I think people are amazed by the variety and richness of all these works,” Mr. Regnier says. “It has nothing to do with sadness. It has to do with a moral of living, a moral of dealing with everyday life.”

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