Etusivu Arkisto Toimitus Haku Tilaus Yhteistyössä Elintilaa!-kirjoituskilpailu In English
  KALTIO 2/2001: Elina Brotherus: The Temptation of Melancholy - Elina Heikka

In English
The Temptation of Melancholy


Kaltio 2/01

Text: Elina Heikka
Image: Elina Brotherus
English translation: Anniina Vuori


Endless melancholy. I cannot look at Elina Brotherus' Fotofinlandia-awarded series of photographs without seeing the sidelight cast by sadness. The sudden colours of yellow and red lift up from the gloom of mixed colours.

The project was called Suites françaises even before there were any pictures. The story was given a frame, a name, before the photographer left for France. Brotherus spent the autumn of 1999 as the visiting artist of Nicéphore Niépce museum in the French countryside. She had two series by the end of that autumn, one of landscapes and one about learning French. The latter, named after Bach's Suites françaises 2, received the Fotofinlandia award last February (2001).

When Brotherus went to France, she knew next to nothing of the language. She wanted to learn it and decided to start her studies with post-it notes. She wrote French words on them, labelled her environment with them and widened her vocabulary that way. Then she described the items she had labelled, as well as people and landscapes. In the end, it was time to go home: in the last picture, a collection of notes covers a wall as a conquered language. Muteness has been turned into sound.


"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" said Wittgenstein, meaning that our experience of reality is transmitted through language and depends on it. There might not be a route to reality itself, there is no direct connection, only one mediated with words and language.

In Brotherus' pictures, looking for words becomes reminiscent of a small child starting to learning a language. The world is slowly approaching. However, it does not arrive with child's primal joy where each conquered word is repeated and causes delight. In the images, the world arrives for the second time, and this time in an extremely serious manner. The expressions remain sombre, the setting ascetic, and the design, which favours symmetry, strictly upright. The woman is mostly alone. The joy is an impure mix of self-assertiveness, irony, rebellion, clownery.

What is that melancholic feeling of an outsider in self portraits which we try to escape with the help of language? Feeling where the Self disappears in the end and the I becomes language. The bed is empty, the pillow untouched and white, where once the I was now only language.

What comes to mind from the vocabulary of art is melancholy, which artists have often identified with and writers found in artists; a strong experience of inwardness due to a deep estrangement from life and a feeling of being an outsider, simultaneously an inner sadness and a faculty of perception that sharpens the senses. Like Helene Schjerfbeck's The Convalescent (1888) who rejoices a faintly green branch in the mug. Or like Kaspar Hauser, who lived his childhood away from other children, and whom a starry night got into ecstasy.

The Renaissance neo-Platonists brought the ill-reputed melancholy of the Middle Ages into new light as they connected it with creative work. Instead of pure gloominess, melancholy was turned into philosophical deep-mindedness and an ability to fantasise. An artist became a melancholic who transferred their inner anguish into work, into objects. The origin of melancholy is in the Greek word for black (kholé) bile (melan), which was regarded as the bodily fluid governing the melancholic temperament. Even Aristotle felt the furor melancholicus: it could solidify and nearly kill the body, but inspire the soul. Out of the four temperaments in the tenet penetrated by astrology and alchemy, Saturn was named as the planet of the melancholics, for it was encircled by rings. It was the orb that was connected with all major accidents.

The widely-known Melencolia I (1514) by Albrecht Dürer was the first visual presentation of melancholy, taking its topics directly from the texts of medieval occultists and neo-Platonists (like Marsilio Ficino).
After the beginning of the 16th century, the theme of melancholy has remained within the discourse on artistry. According to Salme Sarajas-Korte, melancholy was at the end of the 19th century, fin de siècle, perhaps the most worshipped, dominant and strongest emotion which already Baudelaire had taught people to praise. Of recent examples two come to mind: Risto Suomi's gently parodic self-portrait as a Dürer variation (Melankolia, 1999) and Leena Krohn's text where she finely parallels Kasper Hauser's melancholy with an author's life.

Liisa Lindgren, on the other hand, shows how Wäinö Aaltonen, the sculptor genius of the first decades of Finland's independence, identified himself with melancholy and with Aleksis Kivi, who was depicted as a melancholic. Like the statue of Aleksis Kivi, Aaltonen's own memorial stone looks down. The excess in the self of a melancholic produces a difficulty in looking another person in the eye, Susan Sontag writes about Walter Benjamin, who experienced himself as Saturnal. Benjamin could not look directly at the photographer but appeared in every one of his pictures with eyes cast downwards.

In Brotherus' self-portraits can be seen a different manifest of falling inside oneself, that of a photographic artist. The images are self-portraits, where the photographer who has been behind the camera sees herself like Narcissus on the surface of a pond. The viewer assumes temporarily the position of the photographer and is thus allowed into the event of looking at "I". The string of the cable release seen in the pictures is like an umbilical cord tying the two into one.
In addition to the melancholic self, Brotherus' images link with texts about melancholy also in another way: in the Suites françaises 2 series, Brotherus makes dead objects speak. The relationship of a melancholic to the world and other people is complicatedly indirect: the others are seen as a secret code, as cryptographic text waiting for a solution. According to Benjamin, a melancholic needs objects; lifeless and mute objects appeal to her and that is why she often collects something. A melancholic is doomed into indirect communication, and thus she preferably uses allegory as a means of narration. What can the fruits in the arms of Brotherus' blue coat then be seen as? What about the different shaped pumpkins in a row? Who or what are they? 

In the climax of melancholy, melancholics transmit the fume of death creeping from the inside into their tools, their language and images, their works. They all feel mournfully purposeless. Leena Krohn writes how there are moments when the language itself, words, talking and writing become too much. "How odd is it to tinker, to put one image in front of another... when somewhere covered by the images – so you believe – awaits the true reality, which is an experience, never a sentence." The melancholic is tired of the bonds of culture, her own melancholy and the indirectness of her relationship with the world. "...why can't we see things themselves; most often we settle for reading the labels glued onto them", Henri Bergson wrote from the brink of the same issue in the beginning of the last century.

It seems to me that Brotherus – just like another Fotofinlandia finalist who has worked with language, Jari Silomäki – balances near the critical point of melancholy, but still on this side, before that turn of melancholy which paralyses everything into vanity. In Brotherus' pictures, occasional areas of clear and bright colours wash off the cloudiness. With Silomäki, the narrative and objectifying language offers a strong equipment to face the black holes. Furthermore, Self portraits with admiration are not real self portraits despite the cable release, but instead utilise a model that estranges the images from their maker. With both Brotherus and Silomäki making art is, in a way, in a state of innocence where words and images are a delight and a refuge, a means to take the self out of the self and create bridges into the world.

The future of melancholy? There is currently an exhibition in Sollentuna called Bra mot melankoli, medicine for melancholy, but it is doubtful anything can medicate the deep-rooted theme of melancholy in making art. Art or at least the current conception of art will not be freed from melancholy, for discovering the melancholic element is still an important guideline in recognising (good) art. I suspect that, in its most recognisable form, "art" will still signify forging the experience of sorrow and emptiness into a material object. Perhaps Elina Brotherus' career in the international art world is phenomenal precisely due to the melancholy of the images.

The pitiful sentimentality of melancholy is emancipatory insofar as it justifies also the viewers' emotions and the pain inside, as it gives the viewer human value, despite everything. I do enjoy melancholy, but as one of those convicted to indirectness, I also feel vexation in front of it. Melancholy is not only experience but also talk. There is a discourse of melancholy which this article is also part of. I cannot help thinking of melancholy rather, or also, as speech rooted into our culture, as speech that constructs our experience of reality, than as a thing with an essence. It is renewed through repetition and it can be used manipulatively. Melancholy can be used for politics, to forward things and maintain hierarchies, in the art world as well as between people. 

Now already far from Brotherus and far away from Silomäki, I arrive to melancholy as temptation. To a rhetoric of melancholy that can arouse emotion in the receiver; how this signifies the touch, consciously produced with the speech repertoire of melancholy, to the viewer's soft spot; delight pierced by pain. Will for melancholy is will for pain, which makes it difficult to understand the alluring force and ability to give results melancholy's rhetoric holds. Why does darkness compel instead of repelling? Where do the strange-to-the-world, dark-browed romantic (artiste) heroes, the femme fatales, art that puts death into perspective acquire their charm? Why do we long to be tempted by melancholy? Why, time after time, does that who presents themselves with words or images as the biggest of the miserables take the jackpot? Because of the reality of emotion, because of the reviving effect of having emotion? – Not even Freud could name the matter otherwise but with an essential term, Thanatos, the death instinct.

Elina Heikka