Melancholia : a Sebald Variation


On a recent visit to London I had time enough before catching my train home to visit Somerset House. I’d earmarked three exhibitions – none of them big blockbusters – all in the same venue.

First to catch my eye in a review in the FT was ‘Melancholia: a Sebald Variation’ in the Inigo Rooms which form part of King’s College University which occupies a wing on the east side of Somerset House. I’ve read Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn” several times and found it an intriguing read. It’s classed as fiction but I know all the places he visits on his walking tour in Suffolk and their histories actually exist. The book is illustrated but with no explanatory text to accompany the pictures. Strange.

A few years ago I also saw the film “Patience: After Sebald” alongside about a dozen others. At the end I really wanted to stand up and suggest to the audience perhaps we might meet in the coffee bar and discuss it. I was intrigued to know, for one thing, the reasons they had for being there. But, of course, I didn’t. I now own the dvd and watched it several times.

I don’t think of myself being melancholy at all but I suppose I share Sebald’s interest in postwar responses to the Second World War.

Anyway, here is an outline of the exhibition from the website.

“Tracing its way from the ruins of Britain and Germany to the suburbs of contemporary Holland, an exhibition that takes you on a Sebaldian journey from the ruins of 1945 to the present day.

Melencolia I (Courtesy New York Metropolitan Museum)

Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melencolia I remains one of the foundational images of European art. The winged figure of genius slouches despondently; the hourglass shows time hastening to its end. Five centuries later, this became the mood of that archetypal melancholy European, W G Sebald. There is the rootlessness of exile and displacement in The Emigrants; the disappearance of old Europe in Austerlitz; the ruins of the bombed cities in On the Natural History of Destruction.

Melancholia – a Sebald variation takes the viewer on a Sebaldian journey from the ruins of 1945 to the present day. It begins at that ‘zero hour’ after the war when melancholy found its physical form in the rubble scattered throughout its cities after the Second World War and its human form in the refugees who wandered around them.

Tracing its way from the ruins of Britain and Germany to the suburbs of contemporary Holland, the exhibition aims to provoke reflection about the European condition and about the nature of melancholy itself. Is it, as in Freud’s formulation, an indulgent, unproductive form of mourning? Or can it be, as for Sebald, a form of sadness that is ultimately uplifting because it enables loss to bring with it a consciousness of life and its more startling possibilities?

Alongside Dürer’s Melencolia I this exhibition will display works from a wide range of international artists, including Dexter Dalwood, Tacita Dean, Susan Hiller, Tess Jaray, Anselm Kiefer, George Shaw, Guido van der Werve, and Jeremy Wood, as well as archival materials and a film of Sebald in discussion with Susan Sontag.

Melancholia – a Sebald variation is exhibited in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona (CCCB) who presented some of these works in their 2015 exhibition Sebald Variations curated by Jorge Carrión and Pablo Helguera.

Melancholia – a Sebald variation is presented by the Department of English, the Centre for Modern Literature and Culture and Cultural Programming at King’s College London and is supported by the European Research Council.”

The small 7 room exhibition is free to enter and you are given a booklet describing what’s on display and the reasons for choosing them. There are films, photographs, audio recordings, art works, and memorabilia. I found very touching the photographs by Susan Hiller: 3 of her 303 photos included in The J-Street Project-5. She has recorded all the streets, roads and lanes that incorporated the word ‘Jude’ (Jew) in their title.

These Country Lanes photographs offer glimpses of a past that survives only as a ghostly trace. Hiller’s photographs echo the melancholy sentiment of ‘Austerlitz’, and of all Sebald’s works, evoking the past as a melancholy fate, destined to haunt the living.”

[Photo source]



9 comments on “Melancholia : a Sebald Variation

  1. ms6282 says:

    I’m sure you’ll be surprised to know (well, perhaps not) that I’m something of a fan of Sebald and Rings of Saturn is a favourite book. Looks like a trip to Somerset House would be worthwhile, what with this and the Soutine exhibition at the Courtauld, when I’m in London Tuesday. Not looking promising that I’ll have much if any free time before they close, though. Perhaps I should go skating instead!

  2. Yes, let’s have a post about your skating adventures!
    The Soutine is on until 21 Jan and the one I didn’t have time to visit on this occasion (which may also interest you) North: Fashioning Identity is on until 4 Feb.

    • ms6282 says:

      I’d be relating how I topled over onto my backside!
      After reading your post I ended up watching the Sebald film again – I recorded it when it was shown on Film 4.

      • For my part there is no chance of coming across each other at a skating rink! You weren’t at the Media Museum in Bradford when it was first shown on the big screen, then?

      • ms6282 says:

        😀 no, I’ve only seen it on TV/recording. Don’t get out to the cinema and theatre enough lately. And Bradford is a bit iff my patch for an evening out. But it is much better watching a film at the cinema.

  3. Fran says:

    Two Sebald’s reside on my TBR shelf. I feel I need to have time to absorb his books. Maybe a visit to this exhibition could be the way in. A day trip to London on my own is clearly needed soon.

    • I hope The rings of Saturn is one of them, Fran ;-). It’s a very small exhibition but cleverly done. Maybe start the book first. Of course, I can’t comment on how one would react to ‘Melancolia’ having never read any Sebald. It would have been a good question to ask the enthusiastic student attendants who were very keen to have our responses to the show.

  4. […] visiting Melancolia at Somerset House (see previous post) I popped in the Courtauld Gallery. Again, I had been alerted to this show in a review in the […]

  5. […] I was fascinated to notice that there’s a framed  print of Dürer’s ‘Melancholia’ above Newton’s bed. I recognised it straightaway following my recent visit to Somerset House. […]

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