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Is Edvard Munch Modern?

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday November 29, 2017

In his Introduction to the catalogue that accompanies Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, currently on view at the Met Breuer, Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård wrote, If you have ever stood in a room in front of a painting by Munch, or Van Gogh or Rembrandt for that matter, you will know that part of the painting’s magic is that it brings together its time and yours, its place and yours, and there is comfort in that, because even the distance that is inherent in loneliness is suspended in that moment.

Knausgård, master of Nordic noir, whose series of novels titled My Struggle examines self-doubt and -loathing in granular detail, essentially poses the premise that Munch, who came to prominence in the fin-de-siecle art capitals of Berlin and Paris, was truly a modern artist. Even through the sweeping Art Deco lines of his prints and paintings that portray women as vampires and furies from hell, Munch’s vision of desolation and degredation springs from a life-long fear of illness and death that began when his mother died of tuberculosis when he was just five years old. His father, an unsuccessful doctor, was a hell-fire and brimstone religious fanatic whose inability to provide well for his family instilled in Edvard a self-reliance that resulted in his ability to win scholarships for his studies.  He lived in Europe for much of his early career, attracted to a bohemian circles of artists and writers who embraced the nihilism of NIetszche and Jager, and the theories of Freud on sexuality. 

 
Edvard Munch, The Artist and His Model, 1919–21; courtesy the Munch Museum, Oslo

Self-obsessed to the point of narcissism; tortured by illness and the death of his parents, his beloved sister Sophie, and later two more of his remaining siblings; mentally unstable and alcoholic, Munch was also a control freak and a good businessman. The artist deftly orchestrated major exhibitions of his work even when confined to a clinic in 1908, recovering from a bout of alcohol abuse that nearly claimed his life. In addition to his work in visual arts, he was also a prolific writer who actively contributed to the public perception of both his work and his life.

In numerous self-portraits made throughout his life he explored the demons that drove him to drink, creating theatrical self-portraits in which jealousy, grief, depression and hypochondria become physically present. How this happens has much to do with the necessity of invention—Munch’s obsessions included working a canvas to the point of overwork, in which colors jumbled together on a single brush to create a muddiness that the artist often gouged away with scrapers, leaving a surface that roils with hyperactivity. He also had the habit of leaving his paintings outdoors, where rain, snow and bird droppings further messed with the results. Munch frugally used up the paint on his palette by applying random daubs of color that argue against one another rather than let the remainders go to waste, further adding to the visual and physical chaos at hand.

 

Left to right, Edvard Munch: Edvard Munch with a hat in profile, 1930l Munch and Rosa Meissner, 1907; Ludvig Ravensberg, 1904; courtesy of Munch Museum, Oslo

In his photographs, which are also highly experimental, Munch played with dematerialization of the subject, often himself. For these self-portraits, he would set up his Kodak on a platform and perform for the camera. His movements sometimes resulted in multiple, transparent figures that exist out of place and time. In many of these self-portraits, Munch tends to mythologize himself as a strong physical presence, whereas his paintings and prints chart a continuous physical and mental decline of body and soul in harrowing depictions from youth to old age.

However grim and unforgiving his art might be, Munch was a tireless experimenter, taking cues about lighting from his theatre set designs for Ibsen and Strindberg productions and bringing diverse media together in his work. And his art has inspired so many contemporary artists, from Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, to Tracey Emin, Peter Doig and Marlene Dumas. From the spatial organization of his interiors to the rumpled bed as a platform for various struggles to the very atmosphere his painted surfaces can evoke, Munch’s modernity continues to register.

Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed continues at The Met Breuer through February 4, 2018. 945 Madison Avenue, NY, NY Info

The Experimental Self: Edvard Munch’s Photographycontinues at Scandinavia House through March 5, 2018. 58 Park Avenue, NY, NY Info

Edvard Munch in DART here and here

 

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