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Edvard Munch

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: February 17, 2006
Latest Update: February 17, 2006

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Index of Topics on Site Backup of Munch Was More Than a Scream<
By Grace Glueck
SOURCE: New York Times
Copyright: Source Copyright.
Included here under Fair Use Doctrine for teaching purposes.
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/17/arts/design/17munc.html. Original URL, consulted: February 17, 2006.

To reach the New York Times slide show of Munch's work, link to the article, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/17/arts/design/17munc.html, and link to Slide Show: Beyond the Scream. Munch is an artist I would like you to know - his name is a "code" word in art.

Backup of "Man's Head in Woman's Hair" (1896) Munch Museum, Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Backup of Edvard Munch's "Ashes" (1894) Munch Museum, Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Backup of "The Kiss" (1892) Munch Museum, Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Backup of "Madonna" (1894-95) Munch Museum, Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Backup of "The Dance of Life" (1899-1900) Munch Museum, Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Backup of "The Sick Child" (1896) Munch Museum, Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Backup of "Young Woman on the Beach (The Lonely One)" (1896) Munch Museum, Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society, New York.

February 17, 2006
Art Review | Edvard Munch
Munch Was More Than a Scream
By GRACE GLUECK

Higlights added by jeanne.

EDVARD MUNCH'S vision of modern angst, "The Scream," has been much in the news lately. The trial of six suspects in the theft of one version from an Oslo museum began this week; the painting has not been recovered. The image of "The Scream" has been so widely embraced and reproduced that if you hear the name Munch "The Scream" comes instantly to mind, and vice versa. Yet Munch (1863-1944) regarded "The Scream" as an aberration, one that cast the shadow of insanity on a body of art that he intended to address more universal aspects of human experience.

"Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul," an affecting full-scale retrospective that opens Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, presents this broader view. The first survey of the Norwegian painter in an American museum in almost 30 years, it was organized by Kynaston McShine, chief curator at large of the Modern. Its more than 130 oils and works on paper cover Munch's entire career, from 1880 to 1944. It also includes a large selection of the prints many of them ingeniously adapted from his oils that played an important role in his art.

"Mermaid," not seen publicly until 2003, is among the paintings. Munch's first decorative work, this sexy 3-by-11-foot canvas was commissioned in 1896 by the Norwegian industrialist and collector Axel Heiberg for his home. Taking a Symbolist approach to a traditional Nordic theme, Munch depicted a voluptuous mermaid emerging from a moonlit sea, her fin wrapped around the moon's reflection. Not real but somehow not quite a figment, she almost certainly relates to the moonlight strolls Munch took on the beach with his first lover.

"The Scream," although not the focus of the show, is not neglected. Two 1895 lithographs of the image, one with watercolor, are on view. An ectoplasmic being stands on a bridge against a lurid setting sun, hands to ears, mouth open to emit a horrendous howl. Its genesis, Munch wrote, was during a walk across a bridge in Kristiania (now Oslo) with two friends. He felt a "tinge of melancholy" as the sun set. He stopped, leaned against the railing while his friends walked on, and saw "the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword" over the water and the city. Shivering with fright, he "felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature."

It took several false starts before this became the trenchant visual expression of Munch's feeling, the product of his own anxiety and depression at the time. When he finally made the image we know today, he noted faintly on the probable first version (1893) that "it could only have been painted by a madman." But it strikes such a universal chord that it has become something of a conduit between the artist's soul-searching work and pop culture, evolving over the years into a symbol that these days appears even on refrigerator magnets and inflatable dolls.

And yet, for all its roots in Symbolism, the turn-of-the-century European movement that sought to replace naturalism with the imagery of fantasy, dream and psychic experience, "The Scream" apparently had little to do with what Munch saw as the real thrust of his art.

That took in such existential matters as birth, love, loss, emotional turmoil, the search for one's identity and the inevitable decline into death. In these paintings Munch struggled to render his own emotional and psychological traumas, including the deaths of his mother and older sister, as well as his doomed first real love affair, into universal images that resonated with the outside world. By so doing, he said, he hoped to "understand the meaning of life" and to help others gain similar insights.

More in line with his main themes are paintings like "Madonna" (1894-95), a powerfully erotic image of a nude seductress that conveys the artist's conflation of love and death, and a lithograph of the same subject whose lurid border depicts spermatozoa and a distorted fetus. "Madonna" is part of the cycle of paintings that Munch eventually named the "Frieze of Life," first exhibited under that rubric at the Berlin Secession of 1902. It encompassed what he saw as "the modern life of the soul."

A vital part of the exhibition is the extraordinary range of self-portraits Munch made, from youth to near death. He variously depicts himself as a searching, skeptical young man; a dandy and cosmopolitan; a dejected lover; a denizen of hell; Jesus on the Cross above a leering crowd; and a restless night wanderer in his own home. Finally, in the touching "Between the Clock and the Bed" (1940-2), he is a brave figure who stands in his bedroom, his studio behind him, a symbolic clock without hands to the left, as he resolutely confronts the certainty of his end.

Although his native Kristiania was a distance from the aesthetic ferment of the great European cities, Munch didn't remain a provincial for long. His local training inclined him toward Norwegian naturalism, but around 1884 he connected with Kristiania's bohemian set and began to form new attitudes. The next year, an affair with Milly Thaulow, the wife of a cousin of one of his art teachers, inflamed his love life but ended badly, an event that burned deeply into Munch's turbulent psyche. As with every other emotional event in his life, his troubles with women became a rich source of material. "It would kill me were my loneliness taken away from me," he wrote later to another lover, who sought more togetherness. Her spirit, he went on to tell her, was "totally undeveloped."

Finding naturalism too limited an artistic approach, Munch shared this observation in an 1885 letter to a writer friend: "Perhaps some other painter can depict chamber pots under a bed better than I can. But put a sensitive, suffering young girl into the bed, a girl consumptively beautiful with a blue-white skin turning yellow in the blue shadows and her hands! Can you imagine them? Yes that would be a real accomplishment."

He produced a number of variations in oils and graphic art on this theme, haunting evocations of the dying days of his older sister, Sophie, felled at age 15 by tuberculosis, which had earlier killed their mother. In one of six versions on canvas, "The Sick Child" (1896), Sophie is depicted propped against a pillow, her head turned toward a female figure who sits beside her, head bowed, holding her hand. Sophie's thin yellow face has a feverish radiance; her expression already seems otherworldly.

An accompanying lithograph, made the same year in fervid tones of red and yellow, shows only Sophie's head and shoulders and is even more shattering. Here death has taken a firm grip on her features; her sunken eye, grimly set mouth and neglected hair against a background of disorderly cross-hatching show that the battle is all but lost. The work gives ample evidence of Munch's mastery of printmaking, which he probably learned during time spent in Paris and Berlin in the 1890's and early 1900's.

Fortunately, there are many more examples on view.

A whole gallery in the Modern's exhibition is devoted to Munch's prints, important among them fresh interpretations of his "Frieze" themes. And 25 more prints, lent by the Modern, are on display at Scandinavia House in an exhibition organized by Deborah Wye, chief curator of prints and illustrated books at the Modern.

Among the masterpieces at Scandinavia House is "Ashes II" (1899), a lithograph with watercolor additions adapted from a painting of 1894 that may be seen at the Modern. It depicts the end of a love affair, with the man in despair and the woman indifferent. The title "Ashes" refers to the burned-out log that runs along the picture's edge, signifying the death of love.

Also at Scandinavia House are two marvelous woodcuts, their themes now appearing only in print form. (The painting from which they were taken was lost in a shipwreck in 1901.) Each is titled "Two People: The Lonely Ones" (1899-1917). In the subtle coloration for which Munch was noted, they depict a man and a woman on the beach, standing near each other but with just enough separation to indicate their essential alienation.

To make his woodcuts, Munch invented a simplified process of jigsawing each compositional element of the printing block, inking each in the desired color, then fitting them back together and running the reconfigured puzzle through the press just once. This cut out the cumbersome process of using separate woodblocks for each color, which had necessitated putting the print through the press several times.

By the early 1900's, Munch was on his way to international success. He was finished with his "Frieze of Life" cycle, which now included the important (to him) "Metabolism" (1899), an earthy Adam and Eve-like depiction that shows a nude couple divided by a barren tree whose roots feed off a corpse. Its theme, he said, was the powerful constructive forces of life, but its murkiness is un-Munchian.

His work at this point began to take a more traditional turn, including portraits of friends and patrons and landscapes, whose naturalism was inflected by symbolic elements. But it is those haunting, penetrating "Frieze of Life" works that, by reaching deep into normally buried feelings, give Munch his greatness.

"Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul" opens Sunday and is on view through May 8 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street; (212) 708-9400. "Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print" is on view through May 13 at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, near 38th Street, (212) 879-9779,.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company



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