Gabriel Josipovici of The Times Literary Supplement discusses the complexity of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, Melencolia I in this review of Mitchell B. Merback’s Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I. Click here to learn more about the book. Click the button on the left to read the full article. An excerpt appears below.
“The engraving, [Merback] argues, seeks not only to disorientate viewers, but, having done so, to redirect them along a new path that will restore them to health. But first he explores, with great subtlety, the way in which the picture is fashioned to repel any attempt at a unified vision. He begins, as indeed does Panofsky, by comparing and contrasting “Melencolia I” with another engraving made by Dürer in 1514 and clearly designed as some sort of companion piece, “St Jerome in his Study.” Employing an orthodox method of geometrical perspective here, Dürer creates a lucid architectural space “in which the location of every object is logically subordinated to the whole, where everything finds its natural place of repose, like the interior of the great philologist’s mind”. By contrast, “Melencolia” frustrates our eye and mind at every turn. To begin with, it lacks a predominant vertical, horizontal, or diagonal line, and appears to have no visual centre. There are, moreover, two light sources, one top left, in the area of the threatening bat with outstretched wings on which the title of the picture is displayed, and one, quite atypically for Dürer, at lower right. Thus light is not evenly distributed, yet every object seems to be touched by a strange flickering glow. Yet this is not to say that “Melencolia” is simply chaotic or unstructured. On the contrary, we sense that there are complex sets of relationships at play here, that the polyhedron somehow relates to the sphere beneath it, the bell to the hourglass next to it, the huge left arm of the seated female figure to the little putto, and so on; but, as with the magic square, there is something uncanny about the whole, something not quite right, if only we could put our finger on it.”