Johns and Munch: Love, Loss, Life

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday November 16, 2016

At a crossroads in mid-career, Jasper Johns (1930) found his way forward in part by looking to the work of Edvard Munch (1863–1944). Now a ground-breaking exhibition entitled Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Love, Loss, and the Cycle of Life examines how Johns, one of America’s preeminent artists, mined the work of the Norwegian Expressionist in the late 1970s and early 1980s as he moved away from a decade of abstract painting towards a more open expression of love, sex, loss and death. 

Organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in partnership with the Munch Museum, Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch opened this weekend in Richmond, Virginia. The exhibition assembles many important paintings, drawings, and prints in once-in-a-lifetime combinations to trace the route Johns traveled to find what he needed in Munch’s work. 

The journey was shaped in part by chance: a quarter century after having first encountered Munch’s art at MoMA, for instance, Johns received a postcard of Munch’s Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed, 1940-43 (above, right), from a friend who had noticed similarities between the bedspread in the painting and Johns’s crosshatch motif.  While the resemblance was coincidental, Johns went on to make a least 12 more works with overt references to Munch’s art.

The exhibition begins by exploring how Johns single-mindedly pursued abstraction during the 1970s by creating variation after variation of the crosshatch motif—and how crosshatching provided a starting point for him to rediscover Munch. These early sections feature Corpse and Mirror II, 1975-76, and the Whitney Museum exhibition print Savarin, 1977.

These works are paired with the iconic The Scream, 1895, Angst, 1896, and The Kiss, 1902, among other works by Munch on loan from the Munch Museum, and together show how Johns transformed a simple can filled with brushes into a surrogate self-portrait that suggests an emerging awareness of Munch’s experimental woodcuts and lithographs. In addition, all three of Johns's Between the Clock and the Bed paintings will be displayed, perhaps the only time they will be shown alongside their inspiration, Munch's Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, as well as the actual bedspread from Munch's home.

The last section in the exhibition proposes several important new ideas about the Johns/Munch connection involving shadows and ghosts. Here, all four of Johns’s Seasons paintings (1985-86) and a large selection of Seasons drawings and prints, including a number from Johns’s own collection, are paired with Munch’s Self-Portrait in Hell, 1903; Starry Night, 1922-24; Self Portrait at Quarter Past Two in the Morning, 1940-44, and numerous other self-portrait paintings, drawings, and prints. A dozen experimental photographs by Munch are here as well. 

Cumulatively, these bodies of work suggest that Munch’s fascination with the shadow as an alter ego capable of expressing feelings about life and death came to be shared by Johns. 

Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Love, Loss and the Cycle of Life will continue through February 20, 2017 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; this is the only US presentation of the exhibition. Info The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue co-published by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Yale University Press, in partnership with the Munch Museum. Info The information in this feature is derived from a VMFA press release. 

Top left: Jasper Johns,Between the Clock and the Bed, 1981; Art © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Top, right:Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed, 1940–43; Munch Museum. Left: Jasper Johns,Savarin, 1981; Art © Jasper Johns and ULAE/Licensed by VAGA, New Yok, NY. Published by Universal Limited Art Editions.



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