It’s a show of love, soul, ravished innocence, sexual passion, emotional pain, Nordic landscapes.
At a time in which art shows tend toward the massive; jam-packed galleries swarming with fat-upper-armed women loaded with streams of banalities, New York has been granted a reprieve at the MoMA by an artist best known for the now-stolen painting “The Scream”.
“Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul” provides solace from the amorphous shows as it outlines the career of the Norwegian artist in a way that allows viewers to see the way Munch translated his personal trauma into fantastic psychologically driven paintings, as opposed to the insipidly chronological manner that allows the fat-upper-armed women to spout forth said banalities.
The MoMA may fool the docile by splitting its exhibit space with freestanding walls making the shows seem bigger with more boundaries to pass, but in actuality, the show consists only of three cozy rooms. Rather than the overstuffed meal of last spring’s Dalí show (by the end not one in my company wanted to see another crucifix) or the Guggenheim’s never-ending “RUSSIA!” show this winter, the exhibition of Munch (1863-1944) provides the satisfying sustenance, the aesthetic nourishment without the usual bloated quality.
Munch’s is the tired tale of all artistic geniuses catapulted into expression by pain in the bohemian community of his native Kristiania (now Oslo). With his mother dead before his sixth birthday and a sister kicking the bucket of consumption, the artist was left with a gaping void. His tale may strike a tone so familiar that one can anticipate the result, retell the story for a thousand other artists, perhaps exchanging a brother for the sister, syphilis for consumption.
But the peculiar blend in which Munch turned to art as therapy for his melancholy defines his response with the emotion flowing from his palette—full of ghostly figures, fantasy, and moribund scenes. And his association with Parisian and Berlin avant-gardes reinforces the implacable quality of his work, with elements of the surreal and impressionism in swimming confluence.
And there it is, all brought together, in the exhibit’s entrance piece, “The Dance of Life” (1900)—an elegant puree of the absurd, grotesque, and beautiful. The couple dancing in the foreground, a woman in a swooping red dress and a sallow-faced man thrusting his hips in the greatest form of penetration that can take place under the cover of dapper suits. Two blond women flank the pair, and in typical Munchian contrast, one dressed in white and adrift in nostalgia amongst the flowers, while her counterpart, garbed in black, appears gaunt and strained. A green monster glares out from the orgy of dancers in the back while the moon casts a phallic-shaped reflection on the ocean—a disturbing and disturbingly intriguing motif that appears in several more of his paintings.
Paintings like “Summer Night” (1889), a depiction of the beach with details of the topography, delineate the bucolic surroundings of Munch’s Kristiania—as clear to us as Leopold Bloom’s Dublin. Moving from the hillsides to the house, the painting of his brother studying anatomy of a young girl with a pipe-smoking old man in “At the Coffee Table” demonstrate Munch’s knack for capturing scenes in the domestic setting .
His brush strokes appear with such forceful, but never blotchy, impasto. They are so intricate, engaging, delightful that I’ve never before seen guards ask viewers to step back from the paintings so many times.
But in spite of the texture of his swirling brush strokes, Munch’s paintings feel as soft as pastel—reminiscent of a Bonnard.
The MoMA describes Munch as the “modern poet and philosopher” combined incarnated as a painter, and he chooses his subjects accordingly.
His “Ibsen in the Grand Café” (1898) shows the playwright’s face as if sagging clay. The texture in his long side-burn chops flow with orange to meet his beard and with only a small window showing the street, the head appears to be floating. Munch’s painting of Nietzsche stands equally as frightening with the puffy hair of the philosopher as intense as his staring eyes.
And in his visual poesy, Munch paints ladies most fantastic. “Red-Haired Girl with a White Rat” shows a beautiful nymph whose hair flows out to immaculately blend into the fiery sky and rustic earth. The blanched rat, held in relief, appears at-once cuddly and evil, nestled in the girl’s burgeoning bosom.
Or in “The Day After,” a girl with palpable exhaustion lies strung out on a bed in sexiness. Two bottles and two cups stand on a night stand in the foreground. But despite the raunchiness, we almost want to jump into the soiled sheets, as Munch beckons us in, exuding comfort through his downy whites and fluffy shadows.
“She must have had quite an evening,” came the comment from the peanut gallery.
His commissioned “Mermaid” (1896) remains the only woman of that classification with a vagina and legs, and the trapezoidal frame makes the figure even more mysterious. But all of his women—not just the ones painted to blend in with and flow translucently with the background—seem unattainable, both in pinning them to a certain emotion or in having the audience feel any true love toward them. It is the intrigue that fuels the beauty of the painting, though—this inability for them to be read.
In “Kristiania-Boheme”, Munch moves toward the absurd with otherworldly figures crowded around a table with some piece of anatomy—perhaps a nose—used as a bottle stopper. He called “Despair” (1892)—with a cadre of phantom-like figures—the first “Scream,” but he finds his stride in the appealing “Walking on Ljabroveien,” a self-depiction showing the young Munch leaning over a bridge under fantastical blue and red sky.
“Suddenly the sky became a bloody red,” he said. “I stopped leaning against the railing, dead tired, and I look at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and city.”
In this vein, Munch’s “Inheritance 1” shows a dead baby sprinkled with blood, an alabaster-hued mother weeping at its side. This motif appears again with “Madonna at the Churchyard” in which Munch subverts the religious theme. In the skeletons he paints creeping toward the Madonna, Munch unveils his constant awareness of death and belief that nothing—certainly not after such early tragedy—is sacred.
For all of the surrealism and otherworldly qualities of Munch, his European scene and portraiture, no doubt influenced by impressionism, “Karl Johan Street in Rain” (1891) shows faceless people with umbrellas with quick brush strokes—only intimating figures, instead of delineating them in full. In “Rue Lafayette” Munch flaunts his keen sense for composition by slicing the canvas with an intricate balcony—filled with railing and shadows—to put the viewer ill-at-ease in an otherwise tame city scene.
His self-portraits are the most daring and revealing of any artist. In his 1881-82 portrait, Munch appears with glaring eyes, intellectual strains in his forehead, and the pursed lips of youthful arrogance. He presents himself naked, almost life-sized, at the beach with other swimmers in “Bathing Men” (1907). Yet, there’s nothing erotic about his nudity. It is, rather, a peaceful insight into his soul through the presentation of himself in the flesh. He paints himself in Hell; he’s goblin-like. Then there he is on the next wall, only this time as a woman.
He can become brooding aesthete and tortured lover, painting himself on the operating table while treating a bullet wound to his left middle finger resulting from a break-up with fiancée Tulla Larsen. “Between the Clock and the Bed” shows the sadness of Munch’s limited time for artistic expression and his desire to rest, peacefully, painfully.
Epitomizing the sadness that fueled Munch’s work, “Death in the Sick Room” (1893) recounts the loss of Munch’s favorite sister Sophie. Like the figures in most of his paintings, Munch appears featureless, half-facing away from the viewer, instead oriented on his family with the psychedelic orange floor and green walls. Yet, despite the seemingly inherent need in most of his work to put himself and his suffering on display, in “Death in the Sick Room”, he appears unwilling to have the painted incarnation of himself face the crowd.
And what a crowd it was.
The city was quiet last Wednesday. But inside MoMA, the Swedes and Norwegians—whose respective languages I—pinky swear—can now differentiate, bubbled in the hubbub of art conversation, letting the din reverberate off the immaculate white walls that played host to this most fantastical and awe-inspiring of shows. Banalities from fat-upper-armed women were few and far between.
Filled to the brim with the intense brush strokes of Van Gogh, the psychological concentration of Dalí, and the country-holiday daintiness of Seurat, Munch’s art commands New York. It is the show of the moment to see.