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Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul

The Museum of Modern Art

February 19-May 8, 2006

"Summer Night's Dream"

"Summer Night's Dream," by Edvard Munch, oil on canvas, 34 5/8 by 42 1/2 inches, 1893, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow Fund, 59.301 ©2006 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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.

"The Scream," lithograph by Munch

"The Scream," by Edvard Munch, lithograph with watercolor additions, 13 15/16 by 9 13/16 inches, 1895, Munch Museum, Oslo, © 2006 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

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.

"The Dance of Life" by Munch

"The Dance of Life," by Edvard Munch, oil on canvas, 49 3/16 by 75 3/16 inches, 1899-1900, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, National Gallery, Oslo ©2006 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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 and thought"

Sign for exhibition in Greenwich Village

Large sign for the exhibition on side of building near Houston Street in Greenwich Village

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, trapezoidal format."

"Evening on Karl Johan Street" by Munch

"Evening on Karl Johan Street," by Edvard Munch, oil on canvas, 38 3/8 by 55 1/8 inches, 1892, Private Collection, ©2006 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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.

"The Storm" by Munch

"The Storm," by Edvard Munch, oil on canvas, 36 1/8 by 51 1/2 inches, 1893, The Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ingens Larsen and acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Funds ©2006 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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 nicely abstracted.

"Despair" by Edvard Munch

"Despair," by Edvard Munch, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 26 1/2" (92 x 67 cm), 1892, Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm. © 2006 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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.

"Madonna" by Munch

"Madonna," by Edvard Munch, oil on canvas, 36 5/8 by 29 1/8 inches, 1894-5, Collection of Steven A. Cohen, © 2006 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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" by Munch

"Weeping Nude," by Edvard Munch, oil on canvas, 43 1/2 by 53 1/8 inches, 1913, Munch Museum, Oslo, © 2006 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

"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 long-haired.

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.

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