"Melancholia / Melancholy" by Jacek Malczewski is a fundamental work both in the artist's oeuvre - it is considered to be his "manifesto" - and in the Polish art of those times, which conveyed some traditions of European painting
The painting is rich in signs, symbols and myths corresponding closely with national history, alongside the role of the artist in depicting such signs. As a work of multiple meanings, it is a constant object of reinterpretation by critics who are far from being unanimous about the meaning of particular figures, objects, and thus the whole scene, which takes place in a studio or perhaps only in the artist's imagination. Apart from the historiosophical motifs, there also appear autothematic ones, related to the process of creation, as well as the apparent vanitas themes. In spite of its numerous interpretations, the art critics agree that the painting has not yet been interpreted exhaustively.
Malczewski's work follows a rich tradition of portraying the national history of Poland, which gained profound significance through the work of Jan Matejko. Similarly to his mentor, Malczewski creates a historiosophical vision, but unlike Matejko, he replaces the reconstruction of historical reality with an oniric space situated on the verge of reality. A parade of figures, in which we recognise peasant recruits and freedom fighters, recalls the century of national partition and reiterated uprisings which ended in defeat. The painting clearly evokes a dream, or apathy into which the nation sank, not only because of its oniric atmosphere and the ghosts crowded in the artist's studio, but in particular because of the black figure of the title Melancholy which stands by the window. Such a reflection on the nation's spirit was common in works of other Modernist painters at the turn of the 19th century, such as Stanisław Wyspiański, or Stanisław Brzozowski. They noticed the heavy curse hanging over the Poles, and called for a need to overcome the fatal dictate of history.
In the painting, Melancholy is portrayed as a mental state of the Polish nation after the loss of independence. The inflamed feeling of loss dominated the thoughts and actions of many people until it was transformed into a chronic state, a danger for the nation and a threat for its identity. For this reason, the atmosphere of apathy and helplessness is juxtaposed with a sense of empowerment and creative forces, almost a call for direct actions. Melancholy may also be interpreted as an allegory of the process of art creation. Then, the painting would follow the long-present tradition of depicting artists as "Children of Saturn", whose melancholic state is an indispensable aspect of the creative mind. The dynamic composition of the painting was widely analysed. Some analyses disclosed its new aspects, such as an ambiguous relation to the artistic tradition, defined mostly by the paintings of Jan Matejko.
- "Melancholia Jacka Malczewskiego. Materiały seminarium Instytutu Historii Sztuki UAM i Muzeum Narodowego w Poznaniu" / "Melancholy by Jacek Malczewski. The materials of a seminar at the Art Institute of Adam Mickiewicz University", edited by Piotr Juszkiewicz, Poznań 2002;
- Agnieszka Ławniczakowa, "Jacek Malczewski. Wystawa dzieł z lat 1890-1926" / "Jacek Malczewski. Exhibition of the Works from 1890-1926", exhibition's catalogue, the National Museum in Poznań, 1990.
Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, December 2009.
Translated by: Katarzyna Różańska, August 2010.