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Exhibition at Kings College London takes the writings of W.G. Sebald as a starting point
Guido van de Werve (b. 1977), Nummer Veertien: Home, 4K video projection, 54 minutes, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

LONDON.- Melancholia: A Sebald Variation, presented by Kings College London, takes the writings of W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) as a starting point for an exploration of melancholia in European art and culture. Curated by John-Paul Stonard and Lara Feigel, the exhibition opened this autumn at the Inigo Rooms at Somerset House East Wing.

Inspired in particular by Sebald’s 1997 publication On The Natural History of Destruction – 20 years old this year – Melancholia sees works by international contemporary artists set alongside images documenting the destruction of Germany in the Second World War, as well as W.G. Sebald’s own manuscripts and peculiar photography collection. Tracing the theme back to the roots of European cultural identity, it opens with an impression of Albrecht Dürer's famous print Mel e ncolia I (1514), on loan from the British Museum.

Highlights include:

• Never before exhibited photographs by Anselm Kiefer, made in the 1980s, depicting aircraft constructed out of sheets of lead taken from the roof of Cologne cathedral 

• Tacita Dean’s Our Europe and I had a Father - new works on slate specially commissioned for the exhibition

• Guido van der Werve’s award-winning endurance-art film project Nummer Vierteen: Home , 2012

• Eye-witness drawings by Wilhelm Rudolph of the smouldering ruins of Dresden, both shown in Britain for the first time

• A video of an interview between W.G. Sebald and Susan Sontag

Dürer’s engraving 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 the ‘zero hour’ 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.

The exhibition includes a range of manuscript and photographic items from Sebald's archive at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach, including a selection of works from his idiosyncratic collection of photographs. There are works of art made in the aftermath of the Allied bombing of Germany during the Second World War, the subject of On the Natural History of Destruction. Drawings by Wilhelm Rudolph of the smouldering ruins of Dresden are being shown in Britain for the first time, with a selection of photographs by Herman Claasen, Erich Andres and Richard Peter, leading photographers of the German ruins. Works on slate by Tacita Dean – Our Europe and I had a Father – have been specially commissioned for the exhibition and are being displayed alongside the depictions of the bombed cities.

Also included are works by George Shaw, and Tess Jaray, who collaborated with Sebald on the book of poems For Years Now, published shortly after his death in 2001. His death in a car crash was reflected in Dexter Dalwood's 2008 painting The Crash, which is represented in the exhibition by the preparatory collage.

The exhibition aims to provoke reflection about the European condition and about the nature of melancholy. Is it, as Freud thought, an indulgent, unproductive form of mourning? Or can it be a form of sadness that is ultimately uplifting for the consciousness it brings of life and its more startling possibilities? This kind of enriching melancholy characterises the works by Susan Hiller, Jeremy Wood, and Guido van der Werve, whose award-winning film Nummer Vierteen: Home is shown in Britain for the first time. This follows the artist's 'Iron man' journey, swimming, cycling and running from Chopin's grave in Père Lachaise, to the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw, where his heart was buried. Along the way, van der Werve packs an entire orchestra into his childhood bedroom in his family home in suburban Holland. The film’s soundtrack – a Requiem Mass composed by the artist – accompanies the viewer around the exhibition.

The theme of melancholy and the imagery of Dürer's print are restated in a series of photographs by Anselm Kiefer, made in the 1980s and never before exhibited or published. These depict aircraft constructed in Kiefer’s studio out of sheets of lead taken from the roof of Cologne cathedral. The planes are surmounted by makeshift glass polyhedrons, which take us back to the mysterious polyhedron that dominates Dürer's engraving. As in Dürer, we’re reminded that science is as much a force of destruction as a force of creation. The poet Stephen Spender, surveying the ruins of Cologne in 1945, found that ‘the sermons in the stones of Germany preach nihilism’.

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