At first he seems to be alone, but in the middle distance, walking out along a small jetty to a moored dingy, appear three figures: a man and a woman, who seem to be conversing together, and another figure behind carrying the oars over his shoulder. Due to the charged psychological nature of the picture, indicated by the bold use of colour, it is easy to imagine the distant figures are projections onto the subject’s mental landscape, phantasms conjured by the tortured reflections which haunt the mind of the melancholy young man.
Are these the memories of his failed affection, upon which he broods so assiduously, rendered tangible to his perception by the strength of his obsession? The dark borders and shapes, which push against one another, failing to mix, like oil and water, seem to wall off the man from the object of his brooding, containing him within a prison, which, perhaps like the ghostly visitations, is only a product of his own impotence.
Edvard Munch (1863 -1944) was a highly original Norwegian artist whose expressionistic, swirling compositions impart a highly charged emotional atmosphere and often represent the psychological state of his subjects through a potent combination of colour and rhythmic line. He was associated with the Symbolist movement, which occurred across Europe towards the latter stages of the nineteenth century, and often involved utilising elements of mythology and the irrational as subject matter.
Munch drew less from literature and more from a personal well of private anguish for the subjects he chose, and this, along with his geographic isolation, kept his as a distant associate of the movement. His tragic early life, which involved the deaths of his mother and sister, is regarded as feeding into his artistic concerns as well as fuelling the psychological debilitation which plagued his life; much of his work portrays the crisis of his own existential drama.
However, this work Melancholy ostensibly focuses on the mental trauma of his friend Jappe Nilssen, a writer, who was suffering the consequences of an unhappy love affair. As was the case when he had an idea that consumed him, Munch produced many variations of this image, both in oil and as woodcuts, between 1891 and 1893. Melancholia was also a subject captured by Albrecht Durer many centuries earlier.