Picturing Melancholia in Estonian Decadent Art


  • Lola Annabel Kass




decadent art, melancholy, colour symbolism, nature symbolism, melancholia


The article focuses on Estonian decadent art of the early twentieth century that manifests the topicality of melancholia: visual art that depicts sadness, low spirits, malaise and suicidal behaviour. The article seeks to answer why portrayal of the feeling of malaise and low spirits were so widespread from the beginning of the 20th century, and how Estonian artists imagined and visualised melancholia.

I argue, that during the period under examination, increasing attention was paid in Estonia to mental health issues, including melancholia, which was brought about by discussions about breed and the surfacing ideas of eugenics and the study of heredity. At the same time, degeneration theories began to gain ground, according to which contemporary civilisation was bound to degrade, and an increase in mental problems was seen as a sign of that degradation in addition to various social and cultural processes. In addition, Estonian artists were influenced (directly or indirectly) by foreign artworks, literature and poetry that deal with the tragical and horrific side of humanity, such as mental health issues. I argue that artists depicted melancholia in a symbolic manner mainly through body language and body parts, but that the condition was also conveyed through the use of natural imagery and colour.


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Author Biography

Lola Annabel Kass

Lola Annabel Kass is a doctoral student and an early-stage researcher in art history at the School of Humanities, Tallinn University. Kass´ research interests are early-20th-century Estonian art, decadent art and the relationship between the visual arts and literature. In addition to her academic work she has curated exhibitions, including Children of the Flowers of Evil: Estonian Decadent Art, the first exhibition exploring Estonian decadent art, at Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn (2017–2018).