“Munch and Expressionism” at The Neue Galerie, New York

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Edvard Munch, The Scream (1895), pastel and board on the original frame; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Is there any pocket of culture that isn’t conversant with, if not the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944) himself, then his signature canvas The Scream? Few images have filtered through the popular imagination with as much persistence. Like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and Alberto Gorda’s photograph of Che Guevara, Munch’s paean to psychological distress has been honored, quoted, and parodied; it’s proven infinitely parrot-able. Here in the twenty-first century, The Scream has been co-opted by the digital zeitgeist: those who send bad news electronically can do so with an emoji dubbed “Face Screaming in Fear.” Given the contemporary prevalence of Munch’s image, it comes as a surprise to learn that The Scream didn’t have the same currency during the artist’s lifetime. In a radio interview, Jill Lloyd, the co-curator with Reinhold Heller of “Munch and Expressionism,” stated that our reigning emblem of hellish anxiety didn’t gain traction until after Munch’s death. That The Scream continues to resonate with audiences says much about the primal emotions it embodies.

Munch did four variations of The Scream, as well as a suite of prints; the best known of these, an oil on canvas from 1893, is the star attraction of The National Gallery in Oslo. That painting, it should be noted, is not on view at The Neue Galerie. The version of The Scream squirreled away in a side gallery of “Munch and Expressionism” was done in pastel two years later and is more stylized and less discordant. It is, in so many words, fairly underwhelming, but it does serve, albeit inadvertently, a curatorial purpose: to place Munch in a historical context that extends beyond a single iconographic picture. In the catalogue, Lloyd states that while Vincent Van Gogh “is justly deemed a precursor or ‘father’ of Expressionism, Munch, by contrast, inspired and participated in the movement.” Munch’s notoriety in Germany helped kick-start Expressionism. An exhibition of his work held at the Verein Berliner Künstler in 1892 garnered the kind of press best measured in column inches, not praise. Roundly drubbed as a “mockery of art,” the show was shuttered before the closing date due to the controversy it generated. Munch was pleased by this turn of events; the scandal was “the best advertisement I could have hoped for.” He subsequently made Germany his home for sixteen years.

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Erich Heckel, Girl with Doll (Fränzi) (1910), oil on canvas; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Playing upon his newfound fame, Munch organized a series of German exhibitions that helped solidify his outré reputation among a local cadre of forward-thinking patrons, critics, and collectors. Munch’s status was codified by the critic Julius Meier-Graefe, who featured him alongside Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in Modern Art, a 1904 text that served as a touchstone for the burgeoning Expressionist movement and, especially, the painters of Die Brücke. This group of Dresden-based artists—its members included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, and Emil Nolde—shared “similar yearning[s]” with Munch, and repeatedly invited the older artist to participate in its annual exhibitions. Munch demurred every time. These rebuffs did little to staunch Die Brücke’s admiration, though you can’t help but wonder why Munch held himself apart. Arne Eggum, an art historian and the former director of The Munch Museum, conjectures that Munch had his eye on establishing a reputation in Paris—Dresden being a veritable Podunk in comparison to the City of Light. Munch and the Expressionists wouldn’t be exhibited together in Germany until 1912, at which point the Norwegian had returned to his native land.

“Munch and Expressionism” makes no bones about mixing-and-matching the recalcitrant master with his progeny. Divided into sections according to specific motifs—among them, “Portraits,” “Adolescence,” “Experiments in Printmaking,” and that reliable chestnut “Battle Between the Sexes”—Munch’s art is placed alongside that of Die Brücke, as well as pictures by Egon Schiele, Gabriel Munter, Oskar Kokoschka, and the uncategorizable Max Beckmann. The inevitable comparisons aren’t revelatory—at least, for those conversant with the by-ways of twentieth century art—but they are satisfyingly predictable. Nor do they always favor Munch. In the “Urban Scenes” portion of the show, Munch is overshadowed by Kirchner, whose Street Dresden (1908) retains its punch some hundred years after the fact. Its acidic palette and lava-like rhythms make Munch canvases like Midsummer Night’s Eve (1901–03) and The Book Family (1901) look woefully polite. Admittedly, the exhibition doesn’t include Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892), a moody canvas that is a precursor to The Scream and a Munch masterpiece. A lithographic take on Karl Johan Street at The Neue Galerie has much to recommend to it, but even on the attenuated evidence found in “Munch and Expressionism,” it’s clear that Munch was far more innovative as a printmaker than as a painter.

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait in Front of a Stove (1907), oil on canvas on board; courtesy of The Neue Galerie, New York

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Truth be told, Munch remained very much a nineteenth-century painter until the end of his life. An inherent parochialism both powered his vision and prevented a full reckoning with Modernism. Post-Impressionism clearly threw him for a loop, and his experiments with its pictorial liberties are ham-handed when they aren’t over-heated. (Lord only knows what he made of Cubism and its offshoots.) The artist we see in pictures like Christian Gierloff (1909), Puberty (1914–16), and Bathing Man (1918) is wildly out of his depth: pictorial space warps-and-woofs with no discernible purpose, the palette turns muddy when it doesn’t chalk out altogether, and the brushwork flails where previously it had snuck up on the images with a brooding, understated sensuality. The post-1900 canvases, even the much-lauded self-portrait The Night Wanderer (1923–24), are enough of a mish-mosh to make a minor figure like Erich Heckel seem a contender. And then there’s the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl, dead by his own hand at the age of twenty-five: his canvases all but steal the spotlight of “Munch and Expressionism.” His was a powerhouse talent and is too little known. The name “Gerstl” may not generate the same buzz or box office as “Munch,” but this is a museum with the means and institutional interest to organize an overview of the work. Who knows? That exhibition may be a revelation.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the June 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

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