By Carter B. Horsley
The Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944)
created one classic, iconic painting, "The Scream,"
that is among the best-known and most powerful images of anxiety
and terror in the history of art and a high point in Expressionist
art. It is perhaps ironic that as this retrospective of Munch
opened at the Museum of Art a trial began on the theft of the
famous painting, which was stolen and has not yet been recovered.
The exhibition does include a lithograph by
the artist of "The Scream," shown below, which conveys
the power of the composition and the artist's style of almost
cartoon-like figures in stark scenes of limited palettes.
Was Munch a great painter?
The fairly large show suggests
that his early work gave great promise of an artist absorbed with
loneliness and focused on themes of alienation and loss, but it
also includes many works that are less than stellar, especially
his later self-portraits. It does, however, also include some
stunning surprises, works of strong originality that are curious
in that they apparently were isolated.
One likes to think that great
masters show their genius in everything they produced. That is
rarely if ever true.
One also likes to think that
great masters do not get into ruts and produce only formulaic
works based on early success. We are in awe of those artists who
evolve and explore and are adventurous and do not lose their spark.
Munch had the makings of major
artist and several of his early works are stunning and memorable.
He spent time in Paris and Berlin and obviously was influenced
in part by the Expressionism of Van Gogh and his early works are
a precursor of the explosively colored works of Fauvism and German
Expressionism. The two artists who would seem to be his artistic
heirs are Ludwig Kirchner and James Ensor. It is interesting
to speculate on why Munch did not plunge into Surrealism later
in his career since his works share a definite affinity with that
movement's often dark and macabre subjects.
In his introduction to the
catalogue, Kynaston McShine, the museum's chief curator at large,
provides the following commentary:
"Edvard Munch is the modern
poet and philosopher in painting. At the same time, he is passionately
emotional, perhaps more so than other modern artist. The extremes
of joy and pain all come to him, and human emotions are presented
in his work with a naked rawness that still startles more than
a century after his vision was formed. His iconic constructions
depicting events and moods from his own life create indelible
images that occupy our minds. Munch's painting, as in the The
Dance of Life, encompasses a litany of emotions that covers
life from birth to death. The narrative of Munch's life and work,
rooted in the nineteenth century, somehow transforms, through
his own will and force, his personal experiences into an extraordinary
examination of what he terms 'the modern life of the soul' - birth,
innocence, love, sexual passion, melancholy, anger, jealousy,
despair, anxiety, illness and death. His exploration of the range
of moden experience in palpable psychological terms reflects an
existential agitation....Through his own personal complexity,
fraught with physical illness and emotional instability as well
as traumatic family losses, he turns decisively from the customary
appearance of reality tothe depiction of pscyhological urgency.
he breaks from the representation of physical surfaces into something
harsher and more profound, an exploration of psychological experience
and passion that immediately demonstrates a modernity of attitude
In 1902, many of his most important
early works were included in an exhibition in Berlin that Munch
called "The Frieze of Life."
A museum brochure on the show
notes that "The Dance of Life, which Munch began while
recuperating from influenza and alcohol abuse at a Norwegian sanatorium,
was one of the artist's last contributions to the Frieze of
Life, and also one of his most cherished. He saw the painting
as encapsulating the cycle's central themes: as he put it, 'the
awakening of love, the dance of life, love at its peak, the fading
of love, and finally death.' In the painting Munch documents the
transition from burgeoning love to death by means of three female
figures: the golden-haired innocent reaching out to touch a sprouting
flower at the left-hand side of the composition; a red-haired
woman - Munch's erotic temptress - dancing in the center with
a sober man, who bears Munch's features; and, at the far right,
a woman dressed in the black of mourning, her hands tightly clasped
against her body as if she has left the dance once and for all.
In the background a crowd whirls round and round. The entire scene
tkes place on the Asgarsdstrand shore against the senusal glow
of the Nordic summer night."
It is an interesting painting
and the woman in black is particularly arresting because of her
stare toward the center but the setting sun and its strong and
very broad reflection in the water is distracting and almost conjures
a vision of Christ with outstretched arms. Small reproductions
of the work are a bit misleading since this, as many of Munch's
works, is quite large, which exaggerates the absence of detail
and begs for more painterliness than is often evident.
Munch's treatement of the reflection
of the sun, or moon, in "The Dance of Life" is repeated,
only more prominently in "Summer Night's Dream (The Voice),
a work of 1893, shown at the top of this article. It shows a woman
in the Borre forest, reputedly famous for its Viking graves, near
the coastal town of Asgardstrand. The exhibition brochure provides
the following commentary about this work:
"The painting has been
described as a puberty motif, that is, as an image of the burgeoning
love and sexual arousal that precedes love's consummation. The
woman's innocent demeanor and diaphonous white dress contrast
with her dark penetrating eyes to create a mood of erotic tension,
while the tall, dark pine tress and golden shaft of moonlight
contribute to the seductive atmosphere. Munch observed in a related
text: 'Standing like this - and my eyes looking into your large
eyes - in the pale moonlight - do you know - then fine hands tie
invisible threads -- which are wound arond my heart - leading
from my eyes - through your large, dark eyes - into your heart
- your eyes are so large now - They are so close to me - They
are like two huge dark skies.' Munch's text touches on a theme
that is crucial to his work in general: namely, humanity's inseparability
from the mysteries of nature." The starkness of this fine
work is considerably softened by the two figures in a small boat
in the water and the fillips near the top of the trees, presumably
leaves or branches.
Yet another work in which the
reflection is very pronounced is "Mermaid," an 1896
oil on canvas that measures 39 1/2 inches by 10 feet six inches
and is a partial and promised gift to the Philadelhia Museum of
Art by Barbara B. and Theodore R. Aronson.
"Munch's first decorative
assignment, Mermaid, the brochure observes, " was
commisioned as a trapezoidal wall panel for the home of the Norwegian
art collector Axel Heiberg. While Munch never showed this painting
together with the Frieze of Life, he undoubtedly conceived
of the motif in relation to the Love paintings. Part sea
creature, part human, Munch's mermaid is eroticism in nature personified.
Reaching out to the Asgardstrand shore while her fin encircles
the moon's reflection, she is both within and without this world;
half real, half mirage. Sometime after the painting was removed
from Heiberg's home, it was altered to a rectangle. The Philadelphia
Museum of Art has since restored the painting to its original,
That lack of detail, however,
works to much better effect in "Evening on Karl Johan Street,"
where ghost-like figures crowd a sidewalk in a town at night.
It was painted in 1892 one year after he had painted "Karl
Johan Street in Rain" in which he worked in an impressionist
style that, the exhibition's brochure states, was "modeled
on the art of Gustave Caillebotte and Edouard Manet, to which
he had recently been introduced in Paris, "adding that "the
people in the background have been reduced to delicate strokes
of paint while the blurred horse and carriage in the foreground
expertly convey the sense of motion."
In "Evening on Karl Johan
Street," however, the brochure continues, "Munch rejected
this early observational approach for a psychologically resonant
style that was uniquely his own....The focus here is less the
street itself than its ghostlike inhabitants, a catatonic mass
that, dramatically cropped and viewed close-up, appears to press
upon the surface of the canvas in a kind of unstoppable forward
motion. Like many of his images from this period, the painting
is based on Munch's personal history - specifically, on his agonized
roamings through the streets of Kristiania in search of his former
lover Milly Thaulow. A woman with a bonnet and brooch in the immediate
foreground vaguely evokes the artist's written descriptions of
his lover, while a man in a top hat to her left may be her husband.
Alone on the street is a fragile, shadowy figure, his back turned,
typically taken for Munch himself. There is, above all, a terrifying
unreality to the scene that is heightened by the contrasting color
scheme of deep violets and acid yellows, and by the figures' masklike
faces." While not very painterly, it is a haunting work.
In "The Storm," Munch depicts figures
huddled together in front of the Grand Hotel in Asgardstrand,
the brochure notes, "while a ghostlike woman in white, both
virginal and sacrifical in appearance, glides along forwrad toward
the water's edge. The figures hold their hands to their heads
as if attempting to shut out the elements, whose force is evidenced
by the woman's blowing scarf (or wisps of hair) and by the bending
tree. A house looms menacingly in the background, its yellow windows
aglow like watchful, predatory eyes." One could also see
the lighted windows as sanctuary, presumably, but, in any event,
this is a strong compositionand quite painterly and one of Munch's
best works. The figures are marvelously ethereal and the sky is
The year before Munch executed "The Scream,"
he painted "Despair," in which a male figure in the
foreground with a featureless face looks into water beneath the
bridge on which he stands while two other figures in the distance
approach. The simple pose of the foreground figure anchors the
composition beneath a violent sky of red streaks, which heightened
the intensity of the otherwise almost monochromatic scene.
Lest one think that Munch's
world is only populated by wraiths, it should be noted that several
of his paintings of women at stunning. "Madonna," which
is in the collection of Steven A. Cohen, is a an exceeding sensuously
and ecstatic work.
"Weeping Nude," painted
almost two decades after "Madonna, is a superb work that
has hints of a strong dash of Cézanne and a jigger of Matisse
but a taste purely Munch's. It is quite magnificent as are a few
other large works in which he concentrates on women, especially
Two of the greatest surprises
in the exhibition are a large and bright painting of a horse galloping
straight at the viewer in a snow-covered street as people turn
and watch ("Galloping Horse, 1910-2, oil on canvas, 58 1/4
by 47 1/4 inches, Munch Museum, Oslo). A very bold composition,
it is remarkable also for its highly abstracted mountainous background.
The other outstanding work is a huge sunset (The Sun [study],
1912, oil on canvas, 48 7/16 by 69 1/2 inches, Munch Museum, Oslo)
whose radiance seems a mixture of Odilon Redon and Georges Seurat.
While staying within the realm of realism, it vibrant palette
and almost atomic explosiveness hints at the surreal worlds that
would be much later explored by Matta. Surprisingly, these works
do not receive much attention in the catalogue's text.
The jury may be out on whether Munch was a
great artist, but he did produce quite a few important masterpieces.