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What Do You Look Like When You’re Bored?

Boredom, depression, melancholy, thinking and their similar but different images

A woman sells souvenirs outside Red Square, Moscow, Russia. June 2008. Photo by Adam Jones (Please inform author of use).
Source: Adam Jones / Wikimedia Commons

That’s just how you’d imagine a bored person should look. Their cheek rests on the palm of their hand, their elbow rests on a flat surface, or even on their other arm, like here, or on their legs or on their laps. And their gaze goes outwards, sometimes straight at the person who is watching them, or at other times, without focus, beyond the watcher to produce what’s sometimes called the 12-foot stare in a 10-foot room. Their expression is boringly blank. That’s the Moscow souvenir seller.

There are other features. The bored person’s back is straightish – boredom, surprisingly, comes from the lower back and the hips, not from the shoulders. And, just as is the case for the hawker in Red Square, bored people usually adopt this posture in a group of people. They’re alone in the crowd. Boredom is a strangely social emotion. You can be on your own but you seem to be bored in expectation of other people.

This alarming posture can as often be viewed in paintings as it can be seen in photography and in real life. This is just as you’d expect, for artists have a naturally intuitive eye for emotional postures. Paintings make good evidence for the real life of the mind. Let me show you what I mean. Here is Henri Matisse’s The Inattentive Reader (1919).
Henri Matisse, The Inattentive Reader (La Liseuse distraite), 1919.

Have you felt like the woman in this painting? Matisse must have. How else could have got all of the details from Red Square so right? That’s despite his young French woman coming straight from the Gallic bourgeoisie. Her world is pink, not red. Matisse’s inattentive reader has her head supported on her left hand and on her upright forearm, while her elbow is propped on the bureau top. That head-on-hand is the key gesture for boredom. Then there is the privileged young woman’s back which is reasonably straight - her shoulders, at any rate, are not noticeably hunched or drooping. The woman’s gaze is remarkable. It’s as if we've just walked in to her boudoir and she looks up to us lazily, wondering. Now she’s not alone. We’re about to speak with her. But she may be too bored to speak back. And her face is blank, despite the company that’s just arrived and despite the abandoned book.

Boredom, this image of boredom, has a very active history and there are many variations of it. If you’d like to see some more of them you can visit my website by clicking here.

Depression and melancholy have an unexpected and complicating link to Red Square and to the pink life of the French middle class. That image of the head-on-the-hand with the forearm propping it is the image in the history of the painting and sculpture dedicated to melancholy and depression. There’s a huge book by Jean Clair called Mélancolie (2005), that details it all. It’s French.

This soppy rendition could be one of them. Apart from evoking melancholy and depression this Victorian image, conjured by the 1st Baron Leighton, does something else very well. It catches perfectly the difference between the image of boredom and the image of melancholy.

Frederic Leighton, Solitude (c.1890), Maryhill Museum of Art, Washington, USA.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Frederic Leighton’s young woman has her head supported by her open right palm. The upright forearm is propped by her left arm. So far so boringly good. This solitary young woman’s back is reasonably straight, but her head and neck tilt forward and her gaze is directed down into the pool before her. (Is she going to jump in, or is she simply lamenting the image of her lonely appearance?) Her expression is not blank, but deeply inverted from any commerce with any viewer. And she is completely alone. If we were in any doubt of that, Frederic Leighton’s title makes it clear. If boredom is a social emotion, well, melancholy and depression are certainly solitary ones.

The difference between these images of boredom and depression rests in the shoulders and the gaze and the in the company they keep. The image of the bored person has them staring out at you. Their shoulders are straighter. The bored are not on their own. The melancholic is on their own, the neck and head tend to tilt forward and the gaze is inverted. You’re not welcome.

The evocation of melancholy and depression has a very active and varied history. Sometimes you can’t tell whether you are dealing with boredom or with melancholy. If you’d like to see what I mean by this confusion you can visit my website by clicking here.

One last version of the head-on-the-hand, and one that throws all certainty to the wind, is Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. Maybe you’ve been wondering how this one would fit it. The naked bronze thinker is seated, like all of the gloomy subjects so far, and, just like the others, he has his head rested on his right hand with the upright forearm fixed on his mighty knee. If what I’ve said about boredom and depression is true then Rodin’s figure ought to be one or the other of these. But he’s not. He’s puzzling, not worrying, over an intellectual problem. Here, then, is Rodin’s sculpture, just to make the conundrum clear:

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker. Musée Rodin, Paris, France.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The back is straight and the neck is not drooping: boredom. But the gaze is resolutely directed downward, just like the depressed young woman in Solitude. The way this bloke is sitting he’s not expecting company. He’s not like Henri Matisse’s young woman. I wonder if the clue is in the way his cheek rests not on an open hand, but on the deliberately curved back right hand. Try it out yourself. It's a deliberate and a strong posture. That’s how it feels. The hand could easily coil into a fist. It matches the tight musculature of The Thinker. He’s straining over all of his body about what puzzles him. That firm hand, I’m suggesting, makes all of the difference between thinking and depressing. But his posture is still a first cousin of that of the melancholics. Thinking, maybe, is more depressing that you might have imagined.

Maybe I am making these distinctions too easy. I could show you plenty of examples where all three types seem to intersect. But the basic pattern is a helpful one. You don’t need to go to a gallery to see why. Try it out next time you’re in a meeting. Most people will look like Matisse’s inattentive reader. There’ll be a few keeners looking like The Thinker. And there’ll be a few sad souls who’ve been passed over for advancement yet again. Their gaze goes downward and they don’t feel good at all. But if you want to avoid the stereotypes, then keep your head off your hand.

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