Edvard Munch

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Edvard Munch
The engraver and lithographer

Munch's first graphic works date from 1894. He began with dry point, but quickly became interested in technical experiments and, like Goya, combined etching and aquatint on the same plate. Using this method, and treating the surface of the copper with resin, he was able to obtain a washlike appearance in which the drawing is partially accentuated by the bite of the acid. Sometimes, as in the first version of The Sick Child, he combines aquatint and dry point, while in The Kiss (in which a nude man and a woman, standing, embrace in front of a window) all three methods are combined.
He used lithography and the woodcut to translate the principal subjects of his painting into prints. Thus each theme is repeated in several versions that involve variations and sometimes a change of title. Munch has been charged with carelessness in limiting his printings. Approximately seventeen thousand printings have been made of the 800-odd plates he bequeathed to the city of Oslo. For Munch, however, the success of whose painting always ended at the frontiers of his native land, the print was a more certain means of publicizing his work.

The Kiss

The Kiss

The Kiss

He returned to France (chiefly Paris, but he also stopped in Nice) in 1895 and 1896, and exhibited at the Salon des Independants, the Salon de l'Art Nouveau, and Bing's Gallery. The new trends being welcomed by Bing to his gallery were to be reflected in Munch's painting and lithographs, particularly in Jealousy (1896), one of the themes he depicted in a number of versions, and the subject of an article published by his friend Strindberg in La Revue Blanche. Several Parisian publishers now became aware of Munch's work. The lithograph Anxiety, printed in black and red by Clot, was published by Vollard under the title (subsequently abandoned) of Evening in his first Album des Peintres Graveurs, while the Cent Bibliophiles commissioned him to illustrate an edition of Flowers of Evil.
He became friendly with Stephane Mallarme, and did two portraits of him, one engraved in soft varnish, the other a lithograph. In a letter of June 15, 1896, Mallarme thanks him for the «discerning portrait in which I intimately feel my own presence.» In the same year a Munch lithograph illustrated the program for Ibsen's Peer Gynt, played at the Theatre de l'Oeuvre. A portrait of August Strindberg done by the same method also dates from 1896.
Munch experimented with interesting innovations in the woodcut technique, to which he devoted a great deal of time during his stay in Paris. Some of his prints combine wood block, stone, and zinc plate, that is, a combination of xylography and lithography. He also engraved zinc in sufficient depth to produce relief prints. Using two or three wooden blocks for color printings, he obtained interesting effects through the contrast of crude chisel work and extremely refined coloring. An example of this is Moonlight (1896), in which he repeated the subject of an 1893 painting: a female figure standing in front of a wooden house. (In the engraving the composition is reversed, as is generally the case in works by Munch, who used his designs without concern for the reversal caused by the transferral from the plate to the paper.) The painter's interest in these graphic works increased with the passing years, and they continued to form a major and by no means less original part of his work.

August Strindberg

Stephane Mallarme

Peer Gynt

A new style

The years between 1892 and 1898 constitute the period of the affirmation of Munch's most personal character, the period in which he created his major works. His development, however, did not follow an unbroken line. Perhaps he was somewhat uncertain about his aesthetic research; perhaps he wanted to pursue various technical experiments simultaneously. In any event, within a single year we find him painting works in different styles and with a variety of treatments. This makes our task more difficult when we attempt to grasp the essence underlying the instability of Munch's activity.
Thus it is surprising that a canvas like Spring Evening on Karl Johan Street, Oslo, in which a new, extremely original, and extremely Expressionist style appears, was painted in 1892, that is, one year before Puberty and prior to the portrait Dagny Juell Przybyszetvska, the style of which is so much closer to the less coloristic canvases of the preceding years. We would be tempted to believe in an error of dating but for the reappearance, in 1894-1895, of pictures like The Day After, the style of which is similar to that of Puberty.
One apparent interpretation of this procedure of «three steps forward, two steps back» is that Munch experienced significant difficulty in tearing himself away from his past, to which he returns in his style of painting and his repetition of subjects he had painted in his youth. The most typical example in this connection is his Two Women on the Shore (1935; Munch Museet, Oslo), a repetition — in greatly impoverished style — of a theme of 1898.

Spring Evening on Karl Johan Street, Oslo

The Day After

The Day After

Omega and the Bear

We must therefore discern an aesthetic movement in his development that, by its pictorial quality and the number of works it produced, dominates all his other works painted, so to speak, against the current. This movement begins in 1892 with Spring Evening on Karl Johan Street, continues in 1893 with The Scream and Death in the Sick Chamber, and continues with a certain number of canvases painted between these dates and 1908, which we shall now examine. (What happened after 1908 is another matter, and will be discussed later.)
Munch's new style, which appeared in 1892, imparts a very precise meaning to the word Expressionism and what it meant for him: the statement of an emotion, the capturing of a paroxysmal moment in which we are given a glimpse of an inner upheaval the secret of which is not revealed by its image. For Munch conceals from us the reason for this emotion. We never learn what has motivated the action of The Scream. In Death in the Sick Chamber the patient remains invisible in his distant bed surrounded by grieving members of his family. And we are given no information about the reasons for the anxiety on the faces, seen in frontal view, of the strollers in Spring Evening on Karl Johan Street. Here the anxiety is not «cried out»; it remains silent, hence all the more disturbing. In the distance, the lighted windows of a house seem to complement the unusual lighting of the wan faces.
This kind of modesty in the rejection of any explanation — perhaps out of the artist's fear of revealing the reasons for his own anxiety — added to the mystery of the composition, gives Munch's works a resonance that is missing from the works of the other Expressionists.
The figures in Spring Evening on Karl Johan Street reappear in 1894 in the painting entitled Anxiety, and in an 1896 lithograph, Feeling of Anxiety, which we prefer to the canvas because of its more incisive draftsmanship. But its landscape has now been transposed into the fjord of The Scream and the sinuous lines of its blood-red sky. These constant transitions from one technique to another, modifications in the components of a work, changes of title, and repetitions of theme show that for Munch a subject was not exhausted in a single painting, and that the characters and landscapes are not the principal subjects but simply the interpreters of a more concealed implication that tends to establish a fusion on the canvas of the anxieties Munch himself felt and those to which all human beings are subject. Every individual event then takes on the dimensions of an allegorical representation.

Death in the Sick Chamber


Cenizas II


Thus Laura (1899), the portrait of a woman lost in sadness, became Melancholia, and morose couples dancing by a riverbank acquired the title of The Dance of Life.
A closer examination of Munch's paintings, moreover, projects a stranger light on them if we consider the consistency with which certain details appear, like the signs or symbols of a persistent obsession. There is, for example, the shimmer of the moon, with its very unusual shape, always repeated in the same way. It appeared in 1893 in The Voice (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), in which its vertical line reinforces those of the trees and the young woman standing under them. It reappeared in 1895 in another version of the same subject and in two etchings on the Three Stages of Woman. In 1899-1900 it turned up in The Dance of Life, where it has a vaguely phallic appearance seemingly «acknowledged» ten years later by an identical line in a male nude that forms part of Chemistry, one of the decorative panels executed for the University of Oslo. The same motif appears yet again in 1900-1902 in Dance on the Shore and Summer Night at the Shore, in 1907 in The Moon and in another picture with the unequivocal title of Desire, representing three women on a beach who are looking at a group of three men on the left side of the composition. To conclude this by no means complete list, the persistent lunar reflection is included in several drawings of 1908.




The Dance of Life

The landscape painter

The aesthetic characteristics of most of the pictures from this period contain a very personal echo, stripped of any baroque convulsion, of the «stylization» in vogue among the painters who were propagating the arabesques of Art Nouveau — Maurice Denis, Serusier, Ranson, Vallotton, and others. Its manifestations are less exuberant in Munch's work, but his forms have become rounded, almost soft, and the lines are flexuous, with the colors arranged in simplified masses.
He painted his best landscapes in this stylistic conception — White Night, The Island (private collection), and Train Smoke (Munch Museet, Oslo) — around 1900. In these canvases, too, Munch displays his most interesting personality as a colorist. A single dominant tone, sometimes a very beautiful blue, places his landscapes beyond realism. Yet they impose themselves upon our gaze with such great power of evocation, and bring to us with such intensity the feeling of a special time of day — one of those spellbinding moments of the northern twilight, for instance, when the unusual clarity of the sky is fixed as if in a refusal to give way before the nocturnal shadows — that a profound current of poetic emotion, felt only through the contemplation of nature, is established between it and us.

White Night

Winter Landscape Near Krageroe

Lubeck Harbor with the Holstentor

The Wave

Noche de verano en Aasgaardstrand

Old Trees

Claro de luna

Moreover, it is strange to note that the almost oneiric impression that emanates from the groups revolving in The Dance of Life reappears in groups of trees in his landscapes, which are stamped with a similar melancholy. Perhaps the spectator must himself have daydreamed for many an hour on the shores and in the immense forests of Norway (as I have done during her pink and green nights) to be aware of the extent to which a fir tree can suddenly appear to be on the verge of escaping from its sylvan shape, ready to spring to life in a human metamorphosis. This is what makes Munch's landscapes so disturbing: a silent thought seems to be thinking itself in a secret, inner plant life.
Among the themes he treated in a number of versions, that of Girls on the Jetty provided the occasion for a series of paintings between 1894 and 1903, all of them in the same style (that of The Dance of Life and the landscapes) and in a similar decor, but with a change of figures or a difference in their positions. The three girls are first seen from behind, leaning on the railing and looking into the water, in which the green mass of a large tree is reflected. One is blond, another a brunette, and the third a redhead, as if Munch wished to synthesize all the natures of woman. (Later we shall see the importance Munch attached to women's hair.) In a 1900 version (Kunsthalle, Hamburg), one of the girls has turned around. Women on the Jetty (Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm) shows us a group of women in the middle of the bridge. All these canvases were painted in Aasgaardstrand, a coastal village on the Oslo fjord, which Munch visited for the first time in 1889, and to which he often returned to work. The bridge theme was to return more than once, even after 1930, in a total of about a dozen painted and engraved works on the subject.

Girls on the Jetty

Girls on a Bridge

Mujeres sobre el puente

Girls on the Jetty

This style, however, with its simplified forms and rather pale colors, apparently did not suit Munch for all the subjects he painted. He had tried to apply it to a not very successful canvas, The Dead Mother (between 1896 and 1899). He repeated the subject around 1900 (Kunsthalle, Bremen), under the same title but in a more realistic style, and here he achieved a great dramatic intensity by depicting the terrified little girl with her back to the bed on which her mother lies and holding her hands to her ears (in a gesture similar to that of the person in The Scream as if death is for her a funereal music that she cannot bear to hear).
Similarly, when he paints a portrait (and throughout his life he was an excellent portrait painter), Munch forgets this symbolizing tendency, in which each form contributes its share of movement to the general arabesque of the painting, in order to concentrate all his attention on the expression of a face. His aesthetic system had nevertheless evolved since the austere portraits of his sisters Laura and Inger, painted between 1881 and 1884.

The Dead Mother

The Dead Mother

The Dead Mother


Junto al lecho de muerte

Junges Madchen am Strande

Munch's favorite model, the one to which he always returned, was himself, and he left innumerable self-portraits. He seems to question this face more intensely in each one, as if hoping to discover in it something new about his own tormented nature.
He had begun painting his own portrait in 1880, during his first year of art studies. The second self-portrait dates from 1881-1882, when Munch was not yet twenty. In it he is handsome Edvard, with features full of a romantic melancholy to which the severe'style of the picture is well suited. By 1886 the treatment had become much more free, almost that of a sketch, except for the essential features of the face — the eyes, nose, and mouth — which he worked out more thoroughly. In 1895 a different man appears in the very beautiful Self-Portrait with Cigarette. Maturity has changed the features; the lips are shadowed by a small moustache, and Munch's gaze has acquired a rather peculiar look that is emphasized by the somewhat eerie lighting of the face. This portrait can be regarded as a prefiguration of the self-portrait In Hell (Oslo, Kommunes Kunstsamlinger), which we have already discussed.
At this time Munch was preoccupied with the tragic side of life. For him, the true meaning of life was understood only in its orientation toward death. A lithograph Self-Portrait of 1895 has a black background and the skeleton of an arm at the bottom of the picture. Perhaps he had seen the 1889 engraving by James Ensor in which the Belgian painter had depicted himself in the form of a skeleton. In any event, the strange thing is that Munch conceived this skeleton depiction of his own hand seven years prior to the day on which he actually lost a finger joint from his left hand during a violent argument to which we shall refer later. (This almost premonitory event can be compared with the case of Victor Brauner, who in 1938 lost his left eye, under similar circumstances, six years after painting a Self-Portrait with Missing Eye and a complete series of pictures composed around the theme of ocular mutilation.)

Self-Portrait with Cigarette

Philosophy, literature, and Symbolist poetry all play an important role in Munch's painting. He saw himself as the poet of the great poem of life, and as such he depicts himself in Self-Portrait with Lyre, a very beautiful drawing of 1897-1898. For several years, especially after 1893, he had been dreaming of a large fresco on a theme dear to his heart, that of Love and Death, for which he made numerous sketches. In 1902 a composition took shape that was to become The Frieze of Life, and on which he was to spend many years working. The composition, divided into four parts — Birth of Love, Bloom and Decay of Love, Fear of Life, and Death — summarizes in one vast synthesis all the ideas and torments that dominated his entire life. As we have seen, many of his pictures are tentative approaches to or echoes of this theme. Moreover, he established a link binding together all his pictures, saying that in order to fully understand his work it was helpful to look at several pictures in juxtaposition, since their significance was better revealed by simultaneous study of the group.
However, the desire to achieve a major ideological work often led Munch to concentrate his attention on the symbolic content of this work, to the detriment of its pictorial expression. We prefer the less ambitious canvases, born of his passionate observation of the simple scenes of intimate life, and which, unbeknownst to him, are in their own way the isolated fragments of a more interesting « frieze of life.»
This is the case with a canvas of 1890, in its 1894-1895 version (the original was destroyed by fire): The Day After. In the image of this woman stretched out on her bed, her unbound hair falling toward the floor, with glasses and bottles on a table in the foreground, there is none of the anecdotal realism that such a subject might imply. The impression of an unbalanced life and thinking deranged by drunkenness emanates with spellbinding power from the simple linear schema on which the painting is built: a surging movement of curves and oblique lines in which the eye searches in vain for a straight line on which to rest.