From only 45 remarkable paintings in this astounding exhibition of the important Norwegian Modernist artist Edvard Munch (1863 –1944), one can appreciate his robust 60 years as a working artist. Throughout his career, which spanned from 1886 to his death in 1944, his rich lustrous artistic style remained in tension between the Figurative and Abstract schools, with a touch of 19th century symbolism. Munch’s body of work strongly influenced German Expressionism in the early 20th century, Pop artists such as Jasper Johns in the late 20th century, as well as contemporary artists working today.
Unfortunately, his most famous work, the haunting and hallucinatory “The Scream,” of which there are actually four versions, two paintings and two pastels (1893-1910) (in addition to some lithographs) were considered too delicate to travel to this show. However, there are some similar themed pieces in the show. Moreover, Munch’s oeuvre is much more diverse in its breadth and scope than most art lovers are aware of. This insightful exhibit, explores the full extent of his work, with particular importance focused on his later paintings. The artist’s inner life and emotions are uniquely captured by his color-filled brush, revealing his often reproving, psychological self-awareness.
Munch’s youth was burdened by the early deaths of his mother and favorite sister. Another sister was diagnosed with mental illness. Munch was brought up by an aunt and his physician father, about whom Munch wrote: “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”
Going against his father’s wish that he study engineering, Munch gave up studying science for art, and afterward worked and exhibited successfully in Paris and Berlin. In 1908 Munch admitted himself to a Copenhagen clinic for eight months after he collapsed as a result of alcohol abuse, hallucinations and partial paralysis. He spent most of his life in Norway, painting in his studio almost daily, and was largely isolated for his last 30 years. Munch had few relationships after his youth, no children and few friends. He kept many of his paintings in his studio and reworked them. On his death, Munch bequeathed his oeuvre to the City of Oslo, which built the Munch Museum, and supplied over one-half of the pieces in this exhibit.
Rather than being organized chronologically “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed,” a collaboration among SFMOMA, the Met Breuer and the Munch Museum, is properly divided into the themes that measured Munch’s life and garnered his artistic attention: “Munch in the First Person” (self-portraits), “Nocturnes,” “In the Studio,” “Love,” “Hallucination,” “Confessionals and Self-Conceptions,” “Around the Bed,” and “In the Sick Room.”
Munch’s last major self-portrait, “Between the Clock and the Bed,” (1940–43) is a powerful study of life and aging in which Munch stands unflinchingly facing the viewer, although his eyes are hooded. Note that the clock has neither hands nor numbers. It is interesting to compare this study to some of his earlier self-portraits, such as the 1895 “Self-Portrait with Cigarette,” in which a much younger Munch gazes directly and self-confidently at the viewer.
One of the surprising elements of the exhibition is the unexpected ways in which the artist uses color. His post-1908 paintings, completed after his in-patient treatment, appear brighter in color than many of the earlier ones. The deep pinks and reds in the impressionistic “Weeping Woman” (1913-14) for example, add depth to its emotional appeal. “The Dance of Life” (1925), one of Munch’s more festive paintings, employs a deep purple sky and a bright red-dressed woman who is thought to represent an early love interest of Munch’s.
I highly recommend “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed.” It is an exciting and illuminating exhibit that reveals much about the artist as well as the significance of art. Munch strove to have his viewers experience the emotions that he infused in his paintings. Indeed, it is impossible to look at Munch’s artistic achievements without sensing those feelings and emotions.
By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved.