PRINT January 1966

Edvard Munch

RARELY HAS THE QUESTION of content in the art of the past hundred years been more vividly raised than at the retrospective exhibition of the works of Edvard Munch (1863–1944) at the Guggenheim Museum in New York from October 1965 to January 1966. From the earliest painting in the show—the somberly naturalistic portrait of his sister Inger of 1884—to the latest—Between Clock and Bed: Self-Portrait of 1940–42, with the old man himself pinioned into place between time and death—Munch’s long and extremely uneven career is marked by an unending attempt to work out suitable pictorial equivalents for intensely-experienced emotions or obsessive ideas.

After Manet, the painter of ideas was almost inevitably doomed to be a literary painter: that is to say, someone illustrating rather than creating. In fact, the very notion of “literary painting” as a derogatory term, one of the cardinal sins of philistine art, only comes into being once a shared community of meanings and ideals has ceased to function as the content of art. Titian and Poussin, for example, are never literary painters; they leave behind as authentic possibilities only an apparently objective capturing of sense-impressions on the one hand or an extremely private sort of symbolism on the other. The evolution of Cubism at the beginning of the twentieth century can be seen in this context as a kind of teleological resolution of the problem of content itself, a classical construction of art about art, based on the rejection of both sensationalism and symbolism in a single heroic, unified act of purification.

Yet, as Robert Goldwater has pointed out, the crucial question facing a painter coming into maturity in the eighties of the last century was, in a certain sense “less an alteration in the repertory of objects depicted than a changing interpretation of essentially the same kind of objects, which in effect results in a new kind of subject matter.” Or, in the case of an essentially provincial painter like Munch, growing up far from the geographic center of formal rejection and genesis, for whom the pictorial discoveries of the sixties, seventies and early eighties in Paris existed as a means rather than an end in any case, one might say that the objects of Impressionism were immediately transformed into emotionally-charged subjects. Take as a case in point the evolution in Munch’s oeuvre of what Impressionists—Monet, Pissarro, Renoir—would have called the “motif” of the urban street. Even in one of the earliest versions of this theme in the Guggenheim exhibition, “Military Band on Karl Johan Street, Oslo,” of 1889, the subject is no longer a lyrical-visual one, as it would have been in the almost-contemporary work of Pissarro, but pregnant psychological implication. The strangely-empty urban vista with its sharply-emphasized perspective is menacingly blocked off at mid-point by the merging black blobs of the band members themselves, wreathed in their brass instruments, while in the pastel desert before them are the shapes of two children, marking off the emptiness of their ambience by their isolation and contrasting in their pale hues and circular forms with the dark, erect verticals of the black-clad bourgeois couple on the right (erectness is always a sinister quality in Munch’s iconography), the, stovepipe hat of a more sharply-defined, monocled gentleman to the right, and the harshly-painted head of a youth in profile, haloed by a brilliant red-orange umbrella in the immediate foreground. Even at this early moment in his career (when he had just returned for a second time to Paris on a Norwegian state scholarship, and was still attending Leon Bonnat’s art school) although obviously already decisively affected by Impressionism, Munch, like his fellow provincial, Van Gogh, experiences space, and its pictorial counterpart, perspective, as an intensely subjective phenomenon, rather than as a means of compositional organization or the result of sense-perception.

By about 1892, in Evening on Karl Johan Street, the Impressionist vista is so altered in its character that we may say that there has been a change in subject-matter. No longer is this an observed city street with vaguely sinister overtones, but rather, it has become a deeply disturbing insight into the nature of the human predicament itself, pictorially objectified in the theme of the city street—the Street, taken as a paradigm for a specifically modern kind of anguish from the time of Daumier through that of the German avant-garde film of the nineteen-twenties and thirties, down to the works of Robbe-Grillet at the present time. Now the perspective has been further exaggerated, the black-clad figures, starkly simplified into staring, repetitively-stylized masks, dominate the entire foreground of the canvas, and, in opposition to the massed, forward-moving figures to the left, an equally anonymous black-clad but isolated figure—an equivalent of the isolated artist himself, perhaps?—seen from the rear, to the right, pushes against the robot-tide of humanity towards the blocked-off vista in the background.

The painting of 1892, however, is itself merely a mid-point between the earlier more objective version of the subject, and its completely transformed counterpart, now overtly entitled Anxiety, in a woodcut of 1896. In the latter, there is no longer any question of a specific street, time or place: the emotion itself has been condensed into a few simplified shapes and patterns in stark oppositions of black and white. The transformation is even more apparent in one of the best-known variants of this theme, The Shriek (both painted and graphic versions, the painting of 1893, the lithograph of 1895), a typically Symbolist example of emotional-esthetic synesthesia, rooted in the metaphysics of Baudelaire’s Correspondences, with its suggestive yet passionately concrete system of equivalences between subjective sensuous or emotional experience and the very structure of external reality itself. This work is an attempt to create the visual counterpart of an aural phenomenon, and an aural phenomenon which is itself merely the outward sign of a profound psychic disturbance, both personal and universal, a paradigm for the nature of the human condition itself—angst, angoisse, nausea, fear and trembling—however one chooses to name it in the Age of Anxiety. It is as though that primal shriek were a basic category of Being and all the other forms in nature generated by the cry-shape of the open mouth: that of the skull of the poor creature who holds his own anguish like a cup between two shapeless paws; that of the violently-receding vista with two erect, menacing figures who seem suspended between advance and retreat; the swirling, concentric shapes of sky and sea, circular reverberations of the cry that has dropped like a stone into their midst—all of this condensed in the linear-decorative patterns of art nouveau, heightened by clashes of complementary or disturbing contrasts of tertiary colors (in the case of the painting) or by abstract intensification of calligraphy (in the case of the print).

Yet, while the stylistic evolution is obvious—the same vista-theme is used to very different effect years later in the moving, monumental Workmen on their Way Home of 1915—one must still ask how successful Munch has been in his oeuvre as a whole, both in finding painted equivalences for strongly felt attitudes and for the new, thematically generalized and “significant” subject-matter that was becoming more and more necessary to avant-garde artists—Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Ensor, Hodler, the Nabis, etc.—as the decade of the nineties approached. All of these artists seemed to tend towards a less naturalistic, flatter, more decorative, abstract or distorted pictorial treatment, the natural concomitant of their more intense, evocative, emotionally-charged subjects.

Historically speaking, this has certainly not always been the case: Bernini found an emphatic naturalism suited to the embodiment of the most intense sort of religious experiences in his Ecstasy of St. Theresa and Caravaggio considered accurate depictions of dirty feet, varicose veins and a sharply-illuminated horse’s belly natural concomitants of a major supernatural revelation in his Conversion of St. Paul. In the nineteenth century itself, certain painters dedicated to imaginative, allegorical or significant content, like Bocklin, Thoma, Klinger, Rops, and to a certain extent, Puvis de Chavannes, remained faithful to the formal language of naturalism. Why then, in the most progressive artistic circles in the late nineteenth century, should the need for a more symbolic or meaningful content be felt to imply a more abstract, anti-naturalist pictorial presentation in general, and in Munch’s work in particular?

The success or failure of Munch’s enterprise must be seen in the context of that of his contemporaries, in order to bring his own particular qualities—and weaknesses—into sharper relief. Despite a certain superficial similarity to Van Gogh, for example, in the expressive use of exaggerated perspective and subjective distortion of contours and colors, Munch’s style is basically far more dependent upon specific, emotionally-provocative themes and allegorical subjects than that of the painter of sunflowers and village postmen. Rarely can one find such generalized and melodramatic titles as The Shriek, The Kiss, Melancholy, Jealousy, The Vampire, Ashes, Puberty or The Madonna in Van Gogh’s oeuvre; they are foreign or even antipathetic to his entire outlook. “No longer,” writes Munch in his journal in 1889, soon after he had left Bonnat’s studio, “should you paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. There must be living beings who breathe and feel and love and suffer. I would paint such pictures in a cycle . . .” Yet for Van Gogh, there existed no such antithesis between ordinary interiors––think of the Bedroom at Arles––or knitting women––the Mere Roulin, for example and living, breathing, loving or suffering; on the contrary, Van Gogh was resolutely opposed to deliberately “significant” subject matter and the self-conscious abstraction that seemed to accompany it in the work of Emile Bernard and other Gauguin followers. “There are other means,” he wrote to Bernard in 1889, “of attempting to convey an impression of anguish without making straight for the historic Garden of Gethsemane; to create something gentle and consoling it is not necessary to portray the figures of the Sermon on the Mount.” Munch’s grandiose project of a series or cycle of paintings related by theme and decorative arrangement, embodied ultimately in the thirty-year undertaking of the Frieze of Life, a series of works conceived of as “a poem on life, love and death” in Munch’s own words, comes closer to the more programmatic and deliberate profundities of Gauguin and his group, than to that of all the painters more or less directly associated with the Symbolist circle of poets and critics. The whole concept of the Frieze of Life cycle, or of any of its major components, such as The Dance of Life (1899–1900), or Two People (also known as The Circulation of Matter, 1899), are certainly comparable in the scale of their ambition and their philosophical overtones to such personally-conceived and relatively untraditional allegorical canvases as Gauguin’s almost exactly contemporary Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? of 1897. Yet while one feels oneself essentially in agreement with Gauguin’s own defense of this work when it was attacked by the critic, Andre Fontainas for not having a discernible allegorical meaning (“My dream,” declared Gauguin, “is not to be defined, it involves no allegory; a musical poem, it does without libretto . . . Consequently immaterial and superior, the essential part of a work of art resides precisely in what is not expressed . . .”), one often finds Munch’s quasi-allegories all-too-translatable into the literary idiom of the ideas that generated them, the concepts themselves obvious and banal, lacking richness of implication, the imagery trivial in its naive Jugendstil simplifications.

Sometimes the trouble lies in a lack of complete fusion between pictorial structure, symbolism and the artist’s subjective emotion, with the gap between these elements experienced by the spectator as “literary,” “anecdotal,” or, with the passage of time and a certain attenuation of fin de siecle seriousness about the Battle of Male and Female and sexual diabolism, just plain silly, like the man leering over his partner’s neck to the right in the Dance of Life, or the various avid, bloody-haired vampire-ladies, sisters of those nourishment-destroying cooks, sucking the vitamins out of the food backstage in Strindberg’s plays, folded around their complacent victims in a silent-movie clinch. At other times, Munch succumbs to the opposite temptation, that of making his formal structure coincide all too neatly with a given thematic idea, so that in the well-known woodcut, The Kiss (1897), the result is a sort of coy art nouveau sign language, a pat Symbolist rebus, in fact, where the pictorial merging of the two bodies and heads into a single, faceless formal entity literally “stands for” the physical fusion and loss of independent identity implicit in the sexual act itself. The superiority of Gauguin’s version of the same theme in the same medium, Te Faruru (The Embrace) of 1894, where such union is suggested but not symbolized by the formal organization, is immediately apparent.

Yet at other times, certain simplified images function extremely effectively in Munch’s works, as words or hieroglyphs in an authentic language of obsession, gaining expressive power through their mere repetition from picture to picture. One such element is the sun or moon and its reflection upon water, condensed into a kind of Doric column with a ball hovering on top of it, echoing in its austere vertical shape and implied purity the very similar form-type of the “refusing woman” that it often accompanies (i.e. The Voice, 1893).

Munch’s greatest achievements are not restricted to any one period of his long and variegated career, nor to any single stylistic idiom. Night in St. Cloud of 1890 is a small, jewel-like, wonderfully evocative echo of the wistful German romantic theme of the figure gazing out of the open window, that had been treated earlier in the century by Kersting and Kaspar David Friedrich with characteristic Biedermeyer minuteness, and is now reduced to an evanescent web of shadowy and fitfully-blazing color. Most of the versions of The Death Bed of about 1895, rooted in deeply-felt personal experience, are completely valid statements of an almost unbearable anguish, only just assimilable into the decorative structures of simplified form, and all the more moving for the quivers of individual identity, especially in the old father-figure, that disturb its surface. The Portrait of Consul Christen Sandberg of 1901 is masterly in its sly playing off of the linear surface delicacy and languid pastel color-harmonies of art nouveau style against the undeniably three-dimensional bulk and solidity of the massive subject himself (a pun on the relationship between style and substance that Seurat had made even more overtly in his portrait of Madeleine Knobloch, Young Woman Powdering Herself, about ten years earlier).  Boys, Girls and Ducks of 1905–1907 is a freely-painted, original statement of the theme of the battle between the sexes, a theme which surely finds its ultimate apotheosis in the truly magnificent Death of Marat of 1905–1927, one of several versions of this theme (based on an unfortunate and humiliating incident with a woman about five years earlier, in which Munch had been shot in the finger), uniting the subjects of love and death in an imagery so polyvalent, so rich in overlapping and contradictory implications that its interpretations are inexhaustible, without ever being mutually exclusive. In this starkly erect, dominating nude female, the obsessive, frontal, “upright woman form” come into her own realm, a brutal man-killer or a heroic saviour and avenger, a Judith, a Salome, a Delilah or a Charlotte Corday, or perhaps all of these at once? And what of her victim? Presented to the spectator rather than merely lying down on the vast expanse of blood-spattered white bed, his pose is unabashedly Christ-like, his face brutal; his hand touches that of his murderer, who is manifestly suffering as well as triumphant; to the right is presented a still-life, with the same degree of forcefulness as the human body, its counterpart to the left; the painterly freedom, the inventiveness of the stark but massively-expressive composition, the openness of its pictorial and psychic texture make it one of Munch’s most memorable creations. In its unabashed theatricality, it recalls Antonin Artaud’s prescription for the content of his Theater of Cruelty: “. . . Around famous people, atrocious crimes, superhuman devotions, we will try to concentrate a spectacle which, without resorting to the expired images of old Myths, will reveal itself capable of extracting the forces which act within them . . .”

––Linda Nochlin