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Issue Date:  April 21, 2006

'The Modern Life of the Soul'

Edvard Munch's harrowing art is on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art


Edvard Munch was one of the great printmakers in the history of Western art, and not a few visitors to the artist’s large-scale retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the first in more than 30 years at an American museum, are moved most of all by the prints at the heart of the show. Munch (1863-1944) came only in mid-career to printmaking, mastering etching, aquatint, lithography and woodcut in two short years between 1894 and 1896. The scale and flexibility of prints seemed both to tame and intensify motifs he first developed on canvas, containing his sometimes histrionic tendencies but also allowing him an even more dramatic expressionism -- in a stunning self-portrait from 1895, for example, at the bottom of which he placed a skeleton arm, or in a passionate reprise of his famous “Madonna” (1894-95), which restores a border of spermatozoa and fetuses to the frame of the voluptuous half-nude figure.

Love and loneliness, unattainable beauty and painful separation, come to ardent, lyrical expression in two woodcut versions of “Two Human Beings (The Lonely Ones)” from 1899. Most stirring are two lithographs of “The Scream” (1895), the archetype of modern anxiety that shows a desperate, howling creature with hands to its head beneath a roiling red sky. One of the original oil versions was stolen in 1994 from Oslo’s National Museum of Art and then recovered; a second, stolen in 2004 from the Munch Museum, remains lost. But the two prints justify the iconic status of the image, even though the artist himself felt that disproportionate attention had been given to it.

The Modern’s chief curator at large, Kynaston McShine, has aptly titled the exhibition “The Modern Life of the Soul.” Its emotional range was established early in the artist’s life and echoes in many ways the psychic strain of his time. Born on a farm outside Kristiania (now Oslo), Munch was the second of five children. His father was a religion-obsessed physician. His beloved mother died from tuberculosis in 1868, as did his favorite sister, Sophie, nine years later. “Illness, madness and death,” he later remarked, “were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle.” “Death in the Sick Room” (1893) is perhaps the most affecting of many works treating his sister’s illness.

After entering the Technical College in Kristiania to study engineering, Munch transferred in 1880 to the Royal School of Drawing. He studied with the Norwegian naturalist Christian Krohg and by the middle of the decade had become immersed in the bohemian life of the city. During several trips to Paris he became aware of Degas, Impressionism, the Symbolist movement and Gauguin, whose decorative patterning and free use of color for expressive effect especially influenced him. In 1885 he met Milly Thaulow, a married woman with whom he fell disastrously and unavailingly in love.

An unremarkable collection of domestic and genre scenes, punctuated by landscapes, shows the young artist feeling his way from the naturalism of his mentor through the open-air exuberance of the Impressionists toward an art of interior search. Signs of his later achievement appear in an early “Self-Portrait” done in 1881-82, in which a lean, handsome young man with a prominent nose and full mouth looks anxiously out from pale blue eyes. Also impressive is the 1889 portrait of his writer friend, Hans Jaeger, in a brilliant blue coat. Mr. Jaeger had just been released from a jail term for a scandalous book he had written and confronts the viewer debonairly with the confidence of a true cosmopolite.

Munch came into his own beginning in the early 1890s with the first in a series of dreamlike, haunted paintings for which he is best known. “Evening on Karl Johan Street,” painted in 1892, portrays a ghostly crowd pressing toward the viewer in the lower left of the painting (the key figures are probably Milly Thaulow and her husband), while a lone dark figure, most likely the artist, moves desolately away in the middle of the street. In the same year, walking along a road with two friends at sunset, Munch “felt a tinge of melancholy,” he later reported. “Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. … I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and city. My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature.” The moment is captured in “Despair,” a sketchy suggestion in dark blues of a forlorn man beneath a bloody sky that Munch called “the first scream.” It is the voiceless horror of someone entirely alone in the universe.

When Munch was invited to exhibit in Berlin in 1892, the show so shocked the public that it had to be closed. But it made him famous and he decided to make the German capital his primary residence. He had met Henrik Ibsen in 1891 and painted him several times, most effectively in a setting at the Grand Café in Kristiania, with Ibsen as an Olympian figure before a dark curtain to the left and the glittering city glimpsed through a curtain to the right. Now in Berlin he met almost the entire artistic avant-garde. He also created mysterious, evocative canvases such as the 1893 “Summer Night Dream (The Voice),” which shows a virginal young woman among dark tree trunks by a moonlit lakeside, and “The Storm,” which evokes a fear of nature’s possible malevolence, far beyond the apparent meteorological cause.

With other paintings from this period, Munch created a cycle called the “Frieze of Life” that he first exhibited at the Berlin Secession in 1902. (Many were done at the Norwegian coastal resort of Åsgårdstrand.) He thought of the cycle, which varied in content, as “a poem of love, anxiety and death” and hoped through it to “understand the meaning of life [and] help others gain an understanding of their lives.” Few paintings summarize this ambition better than “The Dance of Life” (1899-1900), a mournful meditation on the “ages of man” theme, in which a young blonde girl stands to the left reaching for a flower while a haggard older woman in mourning black stands resigned to the right. Between them are six or so dancing couples, the central pair entirely joyless, the pair closest to the mourner led by a ghoulish man uncomfortably hunched over his partner. The painting opens the exhibition -- and merits a return visit at the end.

In 1908, Munch suffered a severe nervous breakdown. The next year he returned permanently to Norway. Resolved not to deny his emotional instability but at the same time not to abuse it, he took up a brighter palette and less melancholy subject matter. During an earlier convalescence, he had painted himself in “Golgotha” (1900) as a Christ figure hanging above a leering crowd. Now he turned to the great traditional theme of bathers and sought the sun at the German resort of Warnermünde, where he painted his “Ages of Life Triptych” while nude on the beach. With freer brush strokes and a sketchier style, he painted snow scenes and forests, portraits of friends and their children. The Museum of Modern Art’s show tries to suggest this development with a wall of paintings centered on a large and dazzling but rather facile canvas called “The Sun (Study),” done in 1912. There is no substitute, however, for the major accomplishments of these years, the murals for the Festival Hall at what is now the University of Oslo, painted 1910-15.

The exhibition, in fact, slights the latter half of Munch’s career. And don’t look for chronology. Right in the midst of the freer (if lesser) paintings of the 1910s and 1920s are lithograph portraits of August Strindberg and Stéphane Mallarmé from 1896 as well as a brooding, monumental charcoal and pastel sketch of Nietzsche from 1906. But no matter. They are masterpieces.

Still better, and bringing the show to a close that makes one forget any of its shortcomings, is an extraordinary series of self-portraits. A suite of 13 images runs the gamut from handsome young man of the world (“Self-Portrait with Cigarette,” 1895), to perplexing androgynous studies, to an unsparing, wonderfully endearing “Self-Portrait as Reclining Nude,” painted in 1933-34. Some of these canvases are melodramatic; some are more psychologically than aesthetically interesting.

But the final wall is indisputably an encounter with genius. One of Munch’s own favorites shows him in a Weimar café with a bottle of wine in 1906. Ten years later he looks out warily from a balcony overlooking Bergen. That year he bought an estate in Ekely, near Kristiania, and became increasingly reclusive. “Self-Portrait: The Night Wanderer” (1923-24) questions our intruding presence. “Self-Portrait with Crayon,” a 1943 sketch of the artist at his easel, is a dramatic study in black, orange and green. Most memorable of all -- and surely one of the great testaments from an artist coming to terms with mortality -- is the very last, “Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed.” It could have been done by Pierre Bonnard at his most mordant (with a little help from Jasper Johns for the cross-hatched bedspread).

Whether Munch is an artist you admire, or now after this show revere, its coda offers a final grace note of incomparable delicacy, a 1943 woodcut of “Kiss in the Field.” Here the lovers melt so wholly into each other that they are barely distinguishable from the world around them, exquisitely evoked by the grain of the woodcut itself. It is as if in the last year of his life this great tormented man glimpsed the harmony that had always eluded him.

The “Frieze of Life,” the prints and the self-portraits in this exhibition represent an existential expressionism that is not only a major artistic accomplishment but also a searing witness to the loneliness and spiritual anguish of the last century. “Leonardo da Vinci studied human anatomy and dissected corpses,” Munch wrote, “so I try to dissect souls.” He found no image of God there. But the honesty of his harrowing inner journey is an enduring challenge to the faith of anyone who senses a holy presence more interior to us than we are to ourselves. That challenge may seem bleak indeed. But as a contrast experience, it can surely also bless.

The blessing would be to let faith stand before the agonies Munch experienced and not retreat from them. It is not as though his life was defined by a simple eclipse of God. On the contrary, as Patricia G. Berman writes in the show’s catalogue, “debate about religion and its role in contemporary culture were at the center of Munch’s bohemian circles both in Kristiania in the 1880s and in Berlin in the 1890s.” The artist himself had firmly rejected his father’s pietistic Lutheranism and the fear of hell it instilled in his children. With the rest of the avant-garde, he was committed to freedom from institutional authority.

Still, he continued to seek a world of communion. “When seen as a whole,” he wrote, “art derives from a person’s desire to communicate with another.” Doomed as his passion for Milly Thaulow and later for Tulla Larsen may have been, he never entirely abandoned the hope of connection. He simply realized how arduous and nearly impossible the dissection of the soul and a stance of authentic interiority must be. “How difficult it is,” he wrote in 1929 of his “current spiritual state,” “to determine what is unauthentic, what is concealed deceit, self-deception, or the fear of showing myself in my true light.” Which of us might not say something similar? But our inner search, at least if we are blessed to live in a church committed to reforming itself, may be accompanied, nurtured and challenged by a critical and socially constructive faith that does not look only to another world. The faint cross that Munch inscribed at his feet in the great last self-portrait becomes for Christians today the full cross of the world. If we are truly responsible for one another, then in this Easter season especially we know that we are called to shoulder that cross for our suffering neighbors -- and to pray that a merciful Lord will help us to lift it from them, or at least give life through it.

“Edvard Munch: The Modern Journey of the Soul” remains at the Museum of Modern Art through May 8.

Jesuit Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan is president emeritus of Georgetown University in Washington and a frequent contributor of art criticism to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2006

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