Tag Archives: Edvard Munch

“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.

Visionary Excess: The Art of Edvard Munch

Edvard Much, Red Virginia Creeper (1898-1900), oil on canvas; courtesy Tate Modern

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This article was originally published in the March 12, 2006 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye at Tate Modern (until October 14).

Here’s an ironclad guarantee: Visitors to Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul, an overview of paintings, drawings and prints by the Norwegian artist at the Museum of Modern Art, will snap to attention upon entering the second gallery of the exhibition.

The canvases that greet the viewer there—Despair (1892), Angst (1894) and Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892)—won’t necessarily be identifiable as individual pictures, though the latter two should be familiar to Munch aficionados. Rather it is their cumulative impact that rings a bell. Piece the paintings together—an undulating blood-red sky here, a gaunt figure there and a careening rush of space—and you essentially have The Scream (1893), Munch’s signature masterwork and one of the most widely recognized images in the world.

Is there anyone who hasn’t come across this painting reproduced in one form or another? Surely somewhere there’s an art history graduate student busy cataloging all the ways this stark vision of psychological terror has been co-opted. A purveyor of novelty items offers a life-size, inflatable version of Munch’s grimacing everyman—perfect for Halloween! A political button from 1992 asks the question “President Quayle?” with The Scream printed as a backdrop. The list goes on. The picture has become as enduring (if inadvertent) a popular symbol as the Pillsbury Doughboy or Andy Warhol’s Marilyn. Commercial culture, ever omnivorous, makes for strange bedfellows.

A measure of the painting’s hold on the imagination can be seen in its dramatic theft from Oslo’s Munch Museum in 2004. It has yet to be found (another version was stolen, then recovered, a decade earlier). Munch painted four variations altogether. The definitive one resides in the National Gallery in Oslo, an institution that is presumably unwilling to let it travel. Cultural patrimony is to be safeguarded, particularly if it involves a nation’s most significant painter.

In a recent news report, MoMA director Glenn Lowry pooh-poohed the absence of The Scream from their current exhibition, insisting that the curators never considered it indispensable. New Yorkers visiting The Modern Life of the Soul must settle for two lithographs of The Scream, one augmented with watercolor, along with the aforementioned rebus-like re-creation from three disparate canvases.

Edvard Munch, Ashes (1894), oil on canvas; courtesy Tate Modern

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All the same, the icon’s failure to appear does prove that Munch was no one-hit wonder. The Scream, however singular in terms of its reach, is just one part of the flow of anxiety that surges through the oeuvre. The Sick Child (1896), the hellishly erotic Madonna (1894-95), The Dance of Life (1899-1900), Vampire (1893), Red Virginia Creeper (1900) and, if you believe the curators at MoMA, Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-42)—each painting encapsulates the artist’s preoccupations with physical vulnerability, sexual avarice, emotional alienation and the futility of faith.

Munch’s work can seem prophetic. A line can be drawn from his nightmarish narcissism to Expressionist art, certainly, but also to a century preoccupied with Freudian theory and to contemporary figures like Matthew Barney and (I insist) Oprah Winfrey. Munch’s art helped to usher in a culture wherein an unapologetic celebration of self, however unsavory or amoral, is considered a societal good or, at least, a societal necessity. In this view of things, coherently realized artistic statements are hopelessly antiquated and beside the point. Self-expression is paramount, catharsis the goal. Letting it all hang out is Munch’s legacy.

Kynaston McShine, the exhibition’s curator, demurs. He argues for the universality of Munch’s art. “Through his own will and force,” Mr. McShine writes, “the narrative of Munch’s life and work somehow transforms his personal experiences into a far-reaching examination of … ‘the modern life of the soul.’” (The phrase is the artist’s own.) Yet how modern was Munch as a painter? He was knowledgeable about contemporary developments in art—Munch’s Impressionist pictures, though minor, aren’t unsophisticated. The later paintings, with their choppy, impatient brushwork, betray more than a passing acquaintance with the art of Paul Cézanne and the Fauves.

Yet the best work, dating largely from the 1890’s, draws its strength not from Munch’s sophistication, but from his remove from the radical artistic changes that came to be known as modernism. Isolation can limit an artist’s ability to channel tradition; it can make the work seem small or rootless. In Munch’s case, though, isolation was a boon—it compelled him to bring forth a world defined by its own cloistered logic. The resulting stylistic quirks are indelible and true.

Edvard Munch, The Sick Child (Fourth Version) (1907), oil on canvas; courtesy Tate Modern

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The land is morphing and liquid, the rhythms slow and agitated. Flesh is membranous and taut, as if it could barely contain the contents of the body. Shadows are rendered concrete. Color is reduced to a dour blur. Paint is slurred, wispy. The individuality of figures is subsumed by mood or symbolic portent. Metabolism (1899), with its cadaverous Adam and Eve, posits a world immune to good works. Fertility (1898) is a curse on spring, The Kiss (1892) a eulogy for love. The wonder of the paintings is not how effectively they embody dread, but how blithely they avoid looking ridiculous. Visionary excess, not pictorial skill, counts for a lot in them.

Munch’s paintings of the 20th century—and it is somewhat surprising to realize that he lived to 1944—form a disappointing coda to a decade that witnessed paintings as evocative as The Storm (1893) and Mystery of the Beach (1892). Indeed, modernism ruined Munch. The final galleries at MoMA overflow with the work of a 19th-century sensibility that couldn’t fully grasp the radical artistic transformations taking place around him. The results were a flurry of fractured surface effects and painterly affectations that fatally detract from the dark, unbounded poetry of Munch’s imagery.

The decline in pictorial authority is particularly telling in the part of the exhibition devoted to self-portraiture. Here the canvas isn’t a means for exploring the depths of character, but a mirror for preening. However spooked or existential he may appear, Munch the artist trumps Munch the human being. Display, not insight, is the chief attribute of these paintings.

You need only compare works like Self-Portrait in Bergen (1916) or Self-Portrait by the Window (c.1940) to almost any self-portrait by Max Beckmann or, especially, Pierre Bonnard to sense the emotional fraudulence and self-serving nature of Munch’s efforts in this vein. It is one thing to give body to ugly, confessional emotions. It is quite another to advertise them. Therein lies the distinction between Munch’s art of the 1890’s and the hasty pictures that followed in its long, all but negligible wake.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Edvard Munch at The Museum of Modern Art

Here’s an ironclad guarantee: Visitors to Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul, an overview of paintings, drawings and prints by the Norwegian artist at the Museum of Modern Art, will snap to attention upon entering the second gallery of the exhibition.

The canvases that greet the viewer there—Despair (1892), Angst (1894) and Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892)—won’t necessarily be identifiable as individual pictures, though the latter two should be familiar to Munch aficionados. Rather it is their cumulative impact that rings a bell. Piece the paintings together—an undulating blood-red sky here, a gaunt figure there and a careening rush of space—and you essentially have The Scream (1893), Munch’s signature masterwork and one of the most widely recognized images in the world.

Is there anyone who hasn’t come across this painting reproduced in one form or another? Surely somewhere there’s an art-history graduate student busy cataloging all the ways this stark vision of psychological terror has been co-opted. A purveyor of novelty items offers a life-size, inflatable version of Munch’s grimacing everyman—perfect for Halloween! A political button from 1992 asks the question “President Quayle?” with The Scream printed as a backdrop. The list goes on. The picture has become as enduring (if inadvertent) a popular symbol as the Pillsbury Doughboy or Andy Warhol’s Marilyn. Commercial culture, ever omnivorous, makes for strange bedfellows.

A measure of the painting’s hold on the imagination can be seen in its dramatic theft from Oslo’s Munch Museum in 2004. It has yet to be found (another version was stolen, then recovered, a decade earlier). Munch painted four variations altogether. The definitive one resides in the National Gallery in Oslo, an institution that is presumably unwilling to let it travel. Cultural patrimony is to be safeguarded, particularly if it involves a nation’s most significant painter.

In a recent news report, MoMA director Glenn Lowry pooh-poohed the absence of The Scream from their current exhibition, insisting that the curators never considered it indispensable. New Yorkers visiting The Modern Life of the Soul must settle for two lithographs of The Scream, one augmented with watercolor, along with the aforementioned rebus-like re-creation from three disparate canvases.

All the same, the icon’s failure to appear does prove that Munch was no one-hit wonder. The Scream, however singular in terms of its reach, is just one part of the flow of anxiety that surges through the oeuvre. The Sick Child (1896), the hellishly erotic Madonna (1894-95), The Dance of Life (1899-1900), Vampire(1893), Red Virginia Creeper (1900) and, if you believe the curators at MoMA,Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-42)—each painting encapsulates the artist’s preoccupations with physical vulnerability, sexual avarice, emotional alienation and the futility of faith.

Munch’s work can seem prophetic. A line can be drawn from his nightmarish narcissism to Expressionist art, certainly, but also to a century preoccupied with Freudian theory and to contemporary figures like Matthew Barney and (I insist) Oprah Winfrey. Munch’s art helped to usher in a culture wherein an unapologetic celebration of self, however unsavory or amoral, is considered a societal good or, at least, a societal necessity. In this view of things, coherently realized artistic statements are hopelessly antiquated and beside the point. Self-expression is paramount, catharsis the goal. Letting it all hang out is Munch’s legacy.

Kynaston McShine, the exhibition’s curator, demurs. He argues for the universality of Munch’s art. “Through his own will and force,” Mr. McShine writes, “the narrative of Munch’s life and work somehow transforms his personal experiences into a far-reaching examination of … ‘the modern life of the soul.’” (The phrase is the artist’s own.) Yet how modern was Munch as a painter? He was knowledgeable about contemporary developments in art—Munch’s Impressionist pictures, though minor, aren’t unsophisticated. The later paintings, with their choppy, impatient brushwork, betray more than a passing acquaintance with the art of Paul Cézanne and the Fauves.

Yet the best work, dating largely from the 1890’s, draws its strength not from Munch’s sophistication, but from his remove from the radical artistic changes that came to be known as modernism. Isolation can limit an artist’s ability to channel tradition; it can make the work seem small or rootless. In Munch’s case, though, isolation was a boon—it compelled him to bring forth a world defined by its own cloistered logic. The resulting stylistic quirks are indelible and true.

The land is morphing and liquid, the rhythms slow and agitated. Flesh is membranous and taut, as if it could barely contain the contents of the body. Shadows are rendered concrete. Color is reduced to a dour blur. Paint is slurred, wispy. The individuality of figures is subsumed by mood or symbolic portent. Metabolism (1899), with its cadaverous Adam and Eve, posits a world immune to good works. Fertility (1898) is a curse on spring, The Kiss (1892) a eulogy for love. The wonder of the paintings is not how effectively they embody dread, but how blithely they avoid looking ridiculous. Visionary excess, not pictorial skill, counts for a lot in them.

Munch’s paintings of the 20th century—and it is somewhat surprising to realize that he lived to 1944—form a disappointing coda to a decade that witnessed paintings as evocative as The Storm (1893) and Mystery of the Beach (1892). Indeed, modernism ruined Munch. The final galleries at MoMA overflow with the work of a 19th-century sensibility that couldn’t fully grasp the radical artistic transformations taking place around him. The results were a flurry of fractured surface effects and painterly affectations that fatally detract from the dark, unbounded poetry of Munch’s imagery.

The decline in pictorial authority is particularly telling in the part of the exhibition devoted to self-portraiture. Here the canvas isn’t a means for exploring the depths of character, but a mirror for preening. However spooked or existential he may appear, Munch the artist trumps Munch the human being. Display, not insight, is the chief attribute of these paintings.

You need only compare works like Self-Portrait in Bergen (1916) or Self-Portrait by the Window (c.1940) to almost any self-portrait by Max Beckmann or, especially, Pierre Bonnard to sense the emotional fraudulence and self-serving nature of Munch’s efforts in this vein. It is one thing to give body to ugly, confessional emotions. It is quite another to advertise them. Therein lies the distinction between Munch’s art of the 1890’s and the hasty pictures that followed in its long, all but negligible wake.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 12, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.