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Art Healership Lessons

A lesson on meeting melancholy

Edvard Munch, Melancholy, 1891, oil on canvas, Bergen Kunstmuseum

In the distance, troubled figures from the past and the longing for a future free from pain commingle into a gloomy landscape. As lonely as this feels, when we observe what was once familiar as it is gradually marred by thought, we actually have an opportunity to get to know the true subject in this portrait of monolithic melancholy: you.

Munch spent many a summer on Asgardstrand’s beach, the setting of this painting. But now, it seems to have become a source of sorrow. He teaches us that our inner world can easily bleed into our outer world, distorting it until our perception is punctuated by desolate thoughts that are strung together by sadness. Such rumination often offers the dominant narrative during the arrival of this quiet despair.

By capturing this moment, Munch’s Melancholy should be seen as comforting; any feeling, from misery to mania, will pass. The protagonist is lost in profound thought, but, despite being lost, he sits in the foreground. He is alone, yet we’re so close to him. Where the protagonist melancholy himself, we’d be able to touch him. Our mood too often sits in the foreground of our mind. One moment, we are fine, and the next, we are blindsided, inviting in the uninvited and unwittingly trying to accommodate melancholy out of the deferential politeness we have for all our moods.

Instead, we could cast our mind back to the last time melancholy stepped in unannounced and recall the last time he left. Try to remember the texture of that farewell, and you’ll likely realise there wasn’t one.

When you last felt like this protagonist, when you were melancholy, what eventually usurped your attention? Was it anger? Was it tranquility? Was it laughter? Or was it something else entirely? Maybe it was simply a walk towards the emerald hills, or you imagining yourself and another holding hands for the first time and walking with jollity towards the horizon (this could be thought from the past or near future, of course). It is here where rumination should remain.

During melancholy’s stay, however, we shouldn’t be too rude; we could briefly sit with him and chat. When we observe him and what he says carefully, although his words might overflow with anxiety and he may paint life in muted colours, we can remind him that things are perhaps not as bleak as they seem. Gently refute his ramblings with some questions. Is it not true that, as you overlook the landscape, you can still see what brings you joy, but it isn’t just now? So too can you recognise, with an albeit heavy clarity, what life should feel like for you, because you can still see it in the life of others? The happiness that you see, even though it’s not yours just now, is not separate from melancholy; it is the remnants of your joy, hiding in distorted view, waiting to shine on you again.

Munch’s work prompts us to observe melancholy in its entirety, from beginning to end, from sky to sea, and everything in-between. Melancholy may roll in, an unstoppable force, just as the lines of Munch’s painting swirl, disrespecting the rules of reality, but it is in these moments that we should take particular care to observe: what is he here to show us about our happiness? And, who will the next visit be from?

It takes immense strength to carry this weight when walking across the beach towards those distant figures, to wade through the moonlit lilac waves as, lapping at your feet, the water gradually returns to teal with the rising sun. As you walk, what you feel will be carried away in the swell, along with the sand and silt. You might then, as the clouds part, and as the sky begins to reflect the sea again, trust that the sun will always return to bathe you in light one more. Having looked through the monochromatic lens of melancholy, hopefully you’ll know better than ever to decide how you would like this scene to be illuminated. We can then walk, one step at a time, towards the figures in the distance – towards our future – breathing deeply as clear rays beat down on the ever-changing ebb and flow of our emotions.

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