PRINT February 1979

Another Look at Edvard Munch

VEERING WILDLY, AS IT DOES, between radical new styles of painting and an imagery exaggerated by his own mental illness, Edvard Munch’s accomplishment has been hard to categorize; as a result, it has been underestimated. His vast oeuvre has been reduced to a few anthology stand-bys. Part of the overwhelming impact of the National Gallery exhibition comes from one’s sheer surprise at the extent of his competence and obvious art historical significance in a time of dizzying, heretical change in painting itself; the personal drama of his blatantly obsessive emotional life accounts for the rest. Although Munch himself never pioneered a particular style of art, his participation in radical groups at the turn of the century brought highly publicized recognition to struggling new art forms that eventually culminated in modern 20th-century art.

As a student painter of realistic genre scenes, Munch was restrained and molded by existing stylistic precepts. The outside influences on his work that the biographers generally cite are mostly from the French art scene. Morning, Girl at the Bedside, for instance, has an Impressionistic diffusion of light that obscures the hard edge of the figure’s silhouette and pervades the intimate setting as an overall glowing presence. A formal and decorous scene by today’s standards, the piece was considered “in bad taste” when exhibited in 1884. But Munch had to ignore such criticism.

As if recognizing that realistic painting was passé, even in an Impressionist mode, Munch abandoned academic depictions of the figure and made rapid strides toward an art reflecting inner impulses. His initial sensitive, classical rendering turned toward a “cruder,_ more primitive type of hand. Reflecting the influences of the emerging work of artists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the decadent spirit of Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch’s art showed a consciously relaxed hand, rejecting formal training in a plunge into painting’s avant-garde. Evening on Karl Johan Street, which compares with James Ensor’s use of masked faces, nevertheless makes its statement through a personal, intuitive treatment of figure and object. Blank faces with hollow eyes proceed catatonically down the street; glaringly lit windows stare from the facades of the buildings, as if alive. If Munch thought he had achieved a painting fitting into the mold of the best European art he found Norwegians, nevertheless, unsympathetic. Far from being accepted as a step in a natural progression toward stylistic freedom, the picture was immediately labelled “insane.”

Given Munch’s obsessive nature, and his fits of dark depression and overwhelming anxiety, that label did fit the man. But the circumstances gave him a break anyway, even if it was in the guise of negative criticism. Having travelled to Berlin in 1892 to install a one-man exhibition, Munch found himself single-handedly publicizing the end of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. Berlin had expected a visual Ibsen in Munch, associating him with the moody, evocative realism of the enormously popular playwright. To be faced, instead, with paintings like Evening on Karl Johan Street was intolerable, and German critics reacted with outright moral indignation. Munch’s original sponsors withdrew their support and the exhibition was forcefully closed. Yet Munch himself was elated. Never, perhaps, had a virtually unknown painter received so much publicity. Not in the least dismayed by the negative reaction, Munch relished his moment of infamy in the German press. And as his notoriety spread, he involved himself with the bohemian group that would exert a determining influence on his work.

Offering an almost tailor-made blend of his own private obsessions with a formal credo, the “Schwarze Ferkel” (nicknamed by Strindberg) emerged as a dissident group of artists and writers embodying the chaotic decadence of Berlin culture in the 1890s. The group’s obsession with sexual freedom—rejecting all other values in society—meshed with Munch’s own unhappy personal experiences. The ideal of free love encircled the Schwartze Ferkel, which was inspired with a messianic fervor to live by its beliefs. Sexual experimentation, involving the sharing of several wives and girlfriends, resulted eventually in a strangulating impasse of jealousies and hatreds. Reduced to a squabbling collection of mortal men with monogamous and possessive impulses, the group ended its experiments in mutual distrust and disillusionment.

Still trapped with his own unsatisfied hunger for love, and struggling to accept the early deaths of his sister and mother, Munch gradually evolved a belief in a morbid cycle of life, in which sex as a powerful procreative force is subverted by the inevitability of death. His disastrous relationships with women reinforced his belief in a fated battle between the sexes, a war of attraction, pain and final despair. Solidifying his views with the grouping together of 15 paintings, Munch exhibited his first series under the title “Studies for a Mood Series: Love.” The names of five of those paintings reveal much of his psychology: Woman and Death (also called Loving Woman); Vampire (or Ashes); Jealousy (Melancholy); Insane Mood (Anxiety); and of course, The Scream. Representing two years of work under the influence of the Schwarze Ferkel, the “Love” series contains Munch’s best-known works.

The vivid, blood-red sky of The Scream sets the mood through color. Masklike, the face (reminiscent of Karl Johan Street) exemplifies the urban zombie in disembodied horror. Like Madonna, this painting shows the stylistic influence of art nouveau, exploiting in sensuous curves its definite outlines. Madonna itself tells the tale of life in this artist’s terms, using sperm and embryos as decorative motifs encircling a semi-sacred woman. The accompanying text verifies Munch’s implied symbolism linking life and death at the moment of conception: “The smile of a corpse. Now life and death join hands. The chain is joined that ties the thousands of past generations to the thousands of generations to come.” In Vampire (Ashes), Munch’s alter-ego laments the passing of love; he later titled the piece After the Fall, using it as a central motif for his “Life Frieze.”

Illustrating Munch’s debt to art nouveau, these particular works exploit the refined sensuosity of that style in combination with elements of naked horror. These stylistic choices, along with, simultaneously, an intuitive drawing in a highly stylized line, confuse the look of much of Munch’s work. In fact, it is difficult to recognize many of his canvases as his, without some reference to such familiar images as the skeletons, skulls and embryos stuck into odd corners and borders. Lacking these, Munch’s lesser-known works sometimes resemble Van Gogh so strongly that an additional layer of paint would obscure the differences between them. Locked into repetitive themes, and sometimes redoing a painting years after its initial creation, Munch often worked in several styles at once, depending on the piece at hand. The lyrical and sensitive Puberty emerged at the same time as Red and White, a canvas painted in bold areas of flat color, with obliterated faces and suggestions of detail. As it suited his mood or need, Munch eliminated detail and realism in favor of crude, undefined areas of color, only to juggle the two again in his next works. Perhaps this evasiveness has kept him from greater recognition in this century; it certainly denied him a decisive role in changing styles.

Once exhibited on the same terms as Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne, art history has treated Munch with small respect, even if his exclusion from that trinity seems justified on the basis of consistency alone. Munch was a follower rather than a leader. His collected canvases read like an annotation of Post-Impressionist, Symbolist art, adopting and discarding stylistic conventions as they suited a particular theme. Yet the overall force of any grouping of his canvases is considerable, and that force comes from his singular intensity. More than competent, his use of color marks him as an obviously skilled painter, and his compositions employ tension and balance with great effectiveness. Yet, coupled with his changeability, these skills alone would not explain his effect. The personality of the man elevates him to the ranks of greatness and marks him as an exceptional individual.

As he aged, withdrawing from society into a reclusive life, Munch sought the solace of nature to free him from lifelong torments. Forgetting love themes in favor of death themes, he painted large expansive canvases, studies of nudes and interiors with biographical overtones, and open, poignant landscapes. Coincidence or history provided him yet another style at this late date: Fauvism came alive just as he himself plunged into intense explorations depicting emotions through vivid color. As if mirroring the long horizons of his environment, these later paintings break down the rigid compositions he had so carefully designed. The subject matter itself relieved Munch of the obligation to summarize life. Galloping Horse opens the canvas for a rare escape from tightly organized surfaces. Still able to function on a symbolic level, the horse here captures a feeling of freedom and power seldom attributed to humans in Munch’s work. The entire scene tilts forward, exaggerating the animal’s onrushing fury in a manner unexplored in any other painting. Accustomed to borders and head-on illustrative scenes, he had never upset the perspective and depth through such overt manipulation. The attempt to plunge the viewer so thoroughly into the action contrasts completely with earlier works.

Placing an object squarely in the center of each canvas, a string of later works exploited this new use of composition. The fallen tree trunk receding into the distance of Yellow Log; the path of snow in Winter Landscape; the converging curve of foam lines in The Wave: all lead the viewer into the canvas itself, sharing common human experiences with newfound compassion and acceptance. Confronting death and mortality all his life, Munch surprised himself with his own longevity. When he died in 1944, at the age of 80, he left behind a massive amount of work depicting man’s alienation and suffering, his mental derangement—a litany of societal ills. Speaking a decidedly universal tongue, his long career spanned many styles and movements in art, each of which he used to his own purposes in creating an immensely affecting body of work.

Deborah Perlberg

“Edvard Munch: Symbols and Images” will be on view in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., until February 19th.