ART OF THE 20TH CENTURY

 


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map

 




Edvard Munch
 


 



 

 

 


The proto-Expressionists


The practice of referring to the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (born at Loeten on December 12, 1863; died at Ekely, near Oslo, on January 23, 1944) as either a precursor or one of the most typical representatives of Expressionism has encouraged the continued existence of several misunderstandings. In countries like France and England, whose knowledge of the movement was belated and superficial, one such misunderstanding surrounds the movement defined by this name in Germany. In the latter country it is a movement based in part on national sociological viewpoints, with a Nordic extension; in the former, in contrast, only its aesthetic aspect has been retained. Another misunderstanding has sprung up around the subject of Munch himself: although his Expressionist paintings are his best-known works, a major portion of his work lies completely outside this classification.

 

 This book is an attempt to shed some light on the confusion that still surrounds these questions.
As in the case of Impressionism (exclusive of its revolutionary technique, however), it is possible to see in Expressionism, on the one hand, an aesthetic characteristic that is not restricted to any one period, and on the other, a movement consisting of a small number of artists and existing within a clearly delimited period. Awareness of Expressionism has been complicated and made uncertain by the fact that this aesthetic characteristic, which (from our point of view) can be found in a certain number of painters, is not the only one on which the artists in the German movement based their work.
So true is this that the European Expressionist Exhibition, organized by and first shown at the Munich Haus der Kunst, and subsequently shown in 1970 at the Musee National d'Art Moderne in Paris (like the 1974 Edvard Munch Exhibition, which also traveled from Munich to Paris), inevitably startled its French visitors, who were disconcerted to see paintings that in no way corresponded to their idea of Expressionism: abstract pictures by Kandinsky, for example, and works by Klee, Macke, Gauguin (as a precursor of Expressionism), Mondrian, and Pascin.
It is easier, according to our conception, to define the attitude and the aesthetic system of the Expressionist painter than to explain why so many artists, novelists, poets, and dramatists have been included under this single heading. It would be helpful, then, to more closely define the nature of this painting, so that we may understand to what extent Edvard Munch is a part of it.
In its most obvious style of representation, Expressionist painting is lyric and dramatic. It tends to stretch human emotions, and in particular the emotions of sorrow and anxiety, to a point of pronounced tension. It is a style of painting that captures the sadness, unhappiness, and fear that imprison humanity, and thus it is first and foremost a drama in which attention is concentrated on the message communicated to us by the characters. Pure landscapes may also be called «Expressionist,» but only when the character conferred upon them is able to endow them with an expression suggesting or revealing a human emotion.
Let us immediately consider an example of Munch's work that is typically representative of Expressionism: the painting entitled The Scream, the very title of which seems to summarize all the definitions applicable to this style of painting. By analogy with the expression of thought, we could say that the Expressionist style cannot be satisfied with speech, still less with a murmur; it requires that action by which the human being liberates himself from an emotional impulse that originates in a source more instinctive and less easily analyzed than thought, and which stands outside the logic of spoken language: shouting. In Munch's painting, the cry dominates the composition and imposes itself directly upon our vision by the almost central position in the foreground occupied by the open mouth of the figure holding its head in its hands. The person uttering it is walking along a road that disappears into the distance, and his back is turned to a landscape in which an expanse of dark blue water contrasts with the red bands streaking across a yellow sky. The cry uttered by this person in the grip of an unknown terror would not produce such a powerful impression upon us were it not for the way in which the painter has been able to suggest, by using the technique applied in depicting the landscape, the inner agitations that impart to this cry its powerful motivation. The entire landscape beyond the railing appears in a movement of sinuous lines in which the trails of paint, with their soft and indecisive shapes, are as it were an image of the uncertainty, instability, and wavering movement of thought, in which the torment of anxious man originates and grows with an encroaching, confining power. Munch relates the origin of this painting in a few lines written on the back of a lithograph of 1895 in which he repeated this theme.
«I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set, and the sky turned blood red. I felt a touch of melancholy, and stopped and leaned against the railing, feeling extremely fatigued. Blood-red clouds and tongues of fire were floating above the city and the blue-black fjord. My friends kept on walking, but I stood still, trembling with anxiety. I felt as if I were hearing the immense, infinite cry of nature.»

 
 
 


The Scream

 

 

 

This separation from his two friends, whose silhouettes we see in the background, accentuates the feeling of solitude into which the anxious man has plunged, as if to plumb the depths of his distress.
The ethical significance and the aesthetic implications of both figure and landscape are thus combined into a single «Expressionist» impulse. Later we shall see that on occasion Munch seems to have felt that landscape alone sufficed him as a tool for projecting into his painting the movements of an inner agitation. He was not the first painter to feel this way. His earliest precursor along this path is undoubtedly the late sixteenth-century painter El Greco, whose View of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum, New York) is a powerfully unreal, highly dramatized landscape in which a terrible storm seems to be threatening the city. El Greco did not hesitate to modify the position of the cathedral in relation to the castle, as if to highlight them better and so single out these two symbols of power for divine punishment.
Closer to our own time, the Expressionist landscape had its influential depictor in Van Gogh, whose mortal torments during the last two years of his life (1889-1890) sucked whirling skies and convulsed trees into a veritable pictorial delirium, as in his paintings of The Olive Trees, Starry Night, and Cornfield with Crows. But there were few Expressionist landscape painters during the first decades of the twentieth century; the principal ones are Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, August Macke, Otto Dix, Chaim Soutine, and a solitary Frenchman (who, however, was of Flemish origin), Vlaminck, and not one of them showed an exclusive preference for the landscape. As for the still life, which predominated in the works of those painters of reflection, the Cubists, it is completely absent from Expressionist painting. Not a single still life by Munch exists.
The precursors of Expressionism in the depiction of the human figure go back to a more distant past. A search for hints of it in an excess of expression given to a face leads us to the work of Hieronymus Bosch, to his Ecce Homo (Philadelphia Museum) and particularly to his Carrying of the Cross in the Ghent Museum. However, in fifteenth-century German painting the figures in this scene were traditionally depicted in carica-tural form, and we find this done prior to Bosch, in the 1437 Carrying of the Cross in Hans Multscher's Wurzach altar (Berlin-Dahlem Museum). But that great lyrical, fundamentally Expressionist, movement that animates the Crucifixion in Matthias Griinewald's Isenheim altar (Colmar Museum) is missing from the Wurzach work. The Spanish school has its El Greco and its Goya, with their sometimes distorting emphasis placed on facial expression, but when all is said and done these are only isolated instances in the history of painting.
Thus, if we assign a place to Munch's work in relation to the Expressionist «movement,» which as we said is essentially a German movement, and when we recall that this movement did not begin until 1910, by which time Munch's Expressionist period was over, it is logical to regard the Norwegian painter —at least as regards those works that, like The Scream, were painted in the closing years of the nineteenth century — as a precursor of this form of expression, to which he contributed a major impetus.

 


 

 


A melancholy adolescence

The Munch family was a typical representative of the most responsible class of society in nineteenth-century Norway: its members were clergymen, army officers, teachers, doctors. It also included a painter (who was, however, a former officer of the Engineers' Corps), Jacob Munch, who, after taking lessons with David, became a traditional portraitist; and a dramatist, Andreas Munch. Christian Munch, Edvard's father, was a doctor in the Army Medical Corps.
At Christiania (the old Oslo), where his parents settled in 1864, Edvard's childhood was formed by his father's recitals of tales from the old sagas. Their mystery-laden adventures found their way into the book Legends of the Gods and Heroes of the North, by P. A. Munch, the professor-historian uncle whose works, read aloud during the long evenings of the Nordic winter, were a subject of family admiration.
Dr. Munch carefully supervised the education of his five children, Sophie, Edvard, Andreas, Laura, and Inger. But his financial difficulties, and the despondency caused by his wife's death from tuberculosis in 1868, when Edvard was five, left the household under the cloud of a distressing atmosphere. In 1877 Edvard's beloved fifteen-year-old sister Sophie died of the same disease. Edvard later left a moving souvenir of her in his painting The Sick Child. Thus there took shape, around and within him, that universe of sadness of which he was one day to say that «Illness, madness, and death are the dark angels who watched over my cradle and have accompanied me throughout my life.»
Madness? Undoubtedly it was only the edge of madness, if we are to see in the painter's words an allusion to the dark crisis of religious obsession that took possession of his father upon his mother's death. The father spent entire days, sometimes far into the night, in prayer in his room, something that terrified Edvard. As so often happens, his own obsessions were to enter his painting with images that plunge into his past and bring it back to life. That of his father appeared in 1902, in the woodcut Old Man Praying.
Other calamities overtook the Munch family, but the deaths of his mother and his sister Sophie had already had the effect of indicating to the future painter a special area in which his desire to express the impressions made upon him by life could be fulfilled. Thus he notes in his diary for November 8, 1880, «I am now determined to become a painter.»
His father wanted him to become an engineer, and with this in mind had registered him in 1879 at the Technical Institute. But Edvard spent little more than a year there. In 1881 he enrolled in the State School of Art and Handicraft, where he worked with Julius Middelthun and in 1882 studied painting under the direction of Christian Krohg.
Several works dating from this period, drawn with a somewhat academic diligence and painted with a rather austere palette, are still extant. They include several interior scenes, a view of Christiania, and two portraits that already reveal his power to express the complete character of a face with great sobriety of means. One of them, Laura, Aged 14, reappears in the foreground of a landscape of 1888 entitled Evening Hour at Vrengen, while his Self-Portrait, painted before he was 20, reveals somewhat stern good looks, which women found extremely attractive, although his timidity and shyness, and even at this early age a feeling of distrust that he never completely succeeded in overcoming, kept him at a distance from them.
These early works are not yet an augury of the path of his true personality. At most we find in them an undertone of melancholy in which his work was to find its inspiration. It sets the mood for portraits like that of his sister Inger, which marks the end of his naturalistic period.
 

 


Sister Inger
1892
National Gallery, Oslo

 

 

 


 Sister Inger
1884

 

 

 


Inger Munch

 

 


Los solitarios

 

 

 


Couple on the Shore (from the Reinhardt Frieze)

 

 

 


Rojo y blanco

 

 


La voz

 

 

 


Moonlight

 

 

 

Summer Night´s Dream (The Voice)

 

 

 


Women on the Beach
1898

 

 

 


Encounted in Space
1899
 

 

 


Noche en St. Cloud

 

 

 


Moonlight
 

 


Atardecer. Laura, la hermana del artista

 

 

 


Noche de verano

 

 

 


Golgotha
 

 

 


Madre e hija
 
 

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