Archives for posts with tag: Melancholy

I have written previously about Keith Vaughan, and the theme of Art and Melancholy (June 20, 2012), having then seen an exhibiton of his work at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.

Today, I visited the Osborne Samuel Gallery in London (, where a generous exhibition of his work, more than 80 pieces, some of which have not been seen in public for many years, again pays tribute to the artist’s centenary.

I was struck by many things, which is unsurprising given that, although known for his Bathers series particularly, Vaughan’s works are wonderfully varied, especially in terms of theme and mood.

I will mention a few of the works on display. The Raft II (Variation on a Theme by Gericault) I had not seen before, and was immediately struck by its intensity and intimacy. Inevitably, I attach the term ‘melancholy’ to much of Vaughan’s work, and for me, this mood is almost tangible from his canvas.

Also melancholic are the portraits of lone figures, as in Seated Nude, as well as those pieces that suggest both a togetherness and a simultaneous apartness, for example Pear Tree Bathers and The Wall at Ashford Gifford III.

Most of the portraits appear anonymous to the observer, in the sense that the bodies are headless (Green Landscape with Figures) or facial features are left either deliberately blank (Two Figures), or vaguely generic (The Start of a New Day).

I was utterly moved by the tenderness of Lie You Sleeping HeadMy Love and Lovers, and equally moved by the despair of Methods of Destruction III (Spring), Voyage a Cythere II, and my own most memorable of Vaughan’s works, Man in Cave.


On the closing day of the festival, I caught this French film (director Stephane Brize) at Screen on the Green. I was drawn to it mainly due to its thematic content, but also by the fact that it featured Vincent Lindon in the lead role, an actor I rate, and who I last saw in the sublime Madomoiselle Chambon, which was also directed by Stephane Brize.

Lindon, as Alain Evrard in Quelques Heures de Printemps, plays a role that he excels at, the dour, melancholic, and often silent, loner. Recently released from prison having served 18 months for smuggling goods while a long-distance truck driver, Evrard finds himself jobless, homeless, and forced to live with his widowed mother. The relationship is fraught, fuelled by the tension of decades of the unsaid. It seems too late for reconciliation between mother and son, too much history exists and now, apart from jibes and shouting, they are unable to communicate with each other.

But then… the plot widens, to that of the widowed mother with a terminal illness, who has booked herself into a clinic in Switzerland for assisted suicide. Inevitably, this leads to a re-involvement with her son, who accompanies her to said clinic. At the end, there is a reconciliation of sorts.

I did like this film, and both mother (Helene Vincent) and son enact beautiful and often understated roles. They are believable, at least initially. The mother’s oncologist is also impressive, honest, empathic and supportive. But the plot felt contrived. Assisted suicide is a very tricky subject, and here it felt like a (tragic) tool to push other agendas forward, most especially that of the unresolved mother, and of her unexpressed feelings for her son. The superb film, The Sea, came to mind, where assisted suicide was the only agenda, and benefitted from this exclusivity.

And other little things irked, like the jigsaw the mother completed in the weeks before her death resembling the view from the Swiss clinic…

I am glad I saw it. It has made me consider the many issues it raised. But the film also suffers from a lack of focus on these issues, none of which were truly addressed.

Yet, perhaps this confusion most accurately reflects that which we call life…


I like the word ‘Melancholy’.

And I agree with the writer William Styron, who in Darkness Visible (London: Vintage, 2004), his memoir of a lifelong struggle with ‘a malady in extremis’, describes the word ‘depression’ as no way approximating the experience of what it attempts to convey.

For me also, ‘depression’ has become synonymous with the medicalisation of the condition.

Melancholia, on the other hand, is a much more evocative word. Or was, until it was abused, and thus weakened, losing its power in connotations of blandness, a sense of nothingness, or not enoughness.

Which is a shame, as it is a wondrous word. Saying it aloud, it has a richness and a seductiveness about it, which should reflect so much.

Which brings me to the poet Christopher Reid, who has a way of just doing that, using words, with an ease and a deceptive simplicity, to say so much.

The following excerpt from Reid’s poem Espresso, from his most recent collection Nonsense (London: Faber, 2012), encapsulates this, and melancholy…

‘Little cup of melancholy,

inch-deep well of the blackest

concentrate of brown,

it comes to your table without ceremony

and stands there shuddering…’


Sunday, June 24, 2012

This Russian arthouse piece, directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko, has just arrived in London cinemas. It is short, just 77 minutes, but nonetheless inspires much for the viewer to think about and linger on.

The film opens as one of the two main characters, Aist (Igor Sergeev), buys a pair of birds, ‘buntings’. He is unsure what has drawn him to the birds, but they triggered a vague memory that eludes him. The birds, in their cage, accompany Aist on his journey throughout the rest of the film.

The film focuses on a pair of human friends, Aist and Miron (Yurly Tsurilo). Miron’s young wife, Tanya, has just died (we never find out why) and he asks his friend to accompany him on a journey that concludes with the cremation of her body and returning the ashes to the sea.

Both men tenderly wash and prepare Tanya for the journey. Rituals connect the dead woman to life, and the journey feels like an interim space, between bodily death and the final relinguishing of what remains as it is returned to the sea.

The journey involves bleak forlorn landscapes and ‘orphan’ villages. The birds’ cage sits between the men as they travel. Although the film has many long and silent takes, the men also talk, often deadpan-like, even when Miron introduces Aist to ‘Smoking’, a practice where the newly widowed shares details of his sex life with his wife.

At one point, we are reminded that ‘only love has no end’. It is unclear how happy Tanya was in her marriage to Miron (in fact, there may have been something between the dead woman and Aist), but this is not a film of cliches. The end is unexpected, though perhaps not surprising in a film that weaves a path between living and dying, a melancholic and sad place, yet perhaps not so tragic.


Sunday, June 17, 2011

The artist Keith Vaughan wrote his last diary entry on November 4, 1977, the day he committed suicide. He had just taken the capsules and whisky:

‘I am ready for death though I fear it.’

’65 was long enough for me’

When he commenced the diary, at the age of 27 in 1939, he felt alone and with ‘no great liking for life’, yet with a ‘mule-like persistence in continuing the struggle.’

The diary entries over the next 38 years or so document this personal struggle, the written record growing out of a sense of ‘failure to live my life.’

Vaughan’s eventual suicide is perhaps not so unexpected, as death is a prominent and recurring theme in his writings. Throughout, he feels under the sentence of death, his heart ‘beating like a metronome in a coffin.’ His role in life, he judged, was to survive, belonging to the Survivors group, whose energy has been exhausted by the struggle of surviving, leaving in its wake an ‘apathetic existence’. Even before he entered the ‘Cancer Era’ in 1975, he mused on voluntary extermination camps, for those who have just had enough…Yet, with the cancer diagnosis, the proximity of death seems to take on a calmer, less threatening significance for Vaughan.

Though death and mortality feature prominently in Vaughan’s writings, there is also much more. Particularly in the earlier postwar years, up to 1965, Vaughan’s poetic prose allows the reader to see the art, even before it happened. His exquisite descriptions of both (male) strangers and of landscape shows what an observer he was, perhaps proving his own view of himself as one of life’s spectators rather than participants. He describes wartime London, and the arrival of sand, imagining how it must increase the weight of the city…and Hampstead Heath, near where he lived all his life, ‘blighted by a plaque of bull-dozers, their grinning steel faces burrowing into the sand like diabolical ostriches.’

Art, to some extent, equilibrated his life. It commenced as an escape from life itself, then functioned to sublimate ‘sexual energy.’ Later, as he struggled to create and to paint, he blamed his decreasing libido, which left nothing any longer to sublimate…He mused on what art does to its creator. Does it destroy him? Or is creating an alternative for those who are otherwise disqualified from life?

Vaughan has much to say about war. He was a conscientious objector, joined the St John Ambulance, and later was a translator in a POW camp. For him, war was an abomination, a tragedy:

‘Just call at the office and sign your name and immediately you’re somebody instead of nobody. The diabolical deception of war.’

He was profoundly affected by war, and it left him with a deep sense of death’s decay, amongst many other emotions. It also left him with the sadness of partings, the many friends he made during the war, and also the death of his brother Dick.

Vaughan read widely, and deliberated much on what affected him. Thus, his diaries share his thoughts on Rimbaud, Freud, Laing, and many others.

He was also aware that he was repeating himself. He re-read his diaries, and was struck mainly by two recurring themes: firstly, the mismatch between his creative outpourings and ‘success’, and his overwhelming and persistent sense of personal frustration, emptiness and creative lethargy; and secondly, the ‘blanket of depression and boredom’ that enveloped him and that featured so prominently throughout.

Life, to Vaughan, at least in a biological sense, was overvalued. It was also a cheat, and a game that was impossible to win: as you climbed further up the ladder of success, you look down and see how much you have lost.

Keith Vaughan, Journals, 1939-1977. London: Faber & Faber, 2010 (Kindle edition 2012).

Next, the art…