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: The Edvard Munch Exhibition: A Great Norwegian Artist in Retrospect


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The art of Edvard Munch, the great Norwegian painter, and the extent of his influence are little known in America. The Institute, therefore, has special pleasure in presenting as the first event of its fall program, the Edvard Munch Retrospective Exhibition that opens with a preview for members on October 10th and closes on November 9th. Organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art of Boston, with the active help and generous subsidy from the Norwegian Government, the exhibition is the most comprehensive of its kind ever held outside Norway. It includes sixty-five oils and watercolors and one hundred prints from Norwegian public and private collections. In addition to organizing the exhibition, the Institute of Contemporary Art has published an excellent illustrated catalogue of the exhibition, the most important monograph on the painter to date. This may be purchased at the Information Desk of the Institute.Through his choice of basic human emotions as his theme and through his handling of it, Munch has created an art of universal appeal. Like van Gogh, he abandoned the reproduction of nature and sought to create images that would reflect his most subjective feelings. Although expressionism, based on the manipulation of forms for emotional effect, has always existed as part of the indigenous tradition of the North, Munch was the first to develop it along such purely personal lines. His conception of art contributed both to the expressionist movement in Germany and to the acceptance of an attitude toward visual experience new in his youth but now shared by painters in every country.Munch was born near Loyten in southern Norway in 1863, but spent the larger part of his life near Oslo. He came from an old Norwegian family that included scholars of distinction as well as farmers and seafarers. The son of an army doctor, he was one of five children in a closely-knit family that was consequently severely affected by the death of Munch’s mother when Edvard was only five. This event turned his father into a religious fanatic whose almost insane moods permanently wounded the young painter. The family suffered a second great shock when Munch’s sister, Sophie, died. Munch was fourteen at the time and was never to forget Sophie’s illness and death, which inspired the many versions of The Sick Child and The Death Chamber. One of the latter, a lithograph reproduced in this Bulletin, exemplifies Munch’s use of his background and personal experience in his art.Munch began to paint at seventeen, first at the State School in Oslo, and later with Christian Krohg, a Norwegian realist who worked in the manner of Courbet and Manet. His talent and originality were evident from the start. However, he could not find adequate means of expression for his precocious subject matter in the prevailing academic style. His desire to record basic human emotions prompted him to search for new symbolic forms and an approach in painting comparable to the psychoanalytical approach of the great writers, Ibsen, Bjornson and Jaeger, whose company he frequented in Oslo.Realizing that his success depended on achieving a balance between form and content, Munch turned to Paris in 1885 and again in 1889 in search of new trends. He assimilated impressionism immediately, as may be seen in his Evening Hour and A Spring Day on the Karl Johan, his first popular painting, but he soon abandoned it for other experiments. During his three years in Paris, Munch did not imitate, but absorbed what he could use to increase the meaning of his own art. Although he felt a natural affinity for van Gogh, whose brother and whose works he knew, he actually took more from Gauguin. This is evident in comparing the simplified treatment in his Yellow Boat with that in Gauguin’s Tahitian Landscape in the Institute’s collection. By the time Munch left Paris, he had developed a style that he was to employ with variations for the rest of his life. He had also conceived a characteristically ambitious plan to paint a monumental series dealing with life, love and death, called The Frieze of Life.Invited to exhibit in Berlin, Munch went to Germany in 1892. Despite the fact that his work caused such a controversy that the exhibition was closed after one week, he found Berlin receptive to his art and decided to stay there, remaining for sixteen years, the most productive of his career. His decision redirected the course of modern painting, and the successive exhibitions of his paintings in Germany pointed the way for Nolde and Kirchner, Beckmann and Kokoschka. Munch found in Berlin both a market for his paintings and a sympathetic and sophisticated group of friends, which included the Swedish novelist, Strindberg, whose pessimistic philosophy he shared. It was in this atmosphere that Munch continued his series of The Frieze of Life. In addition to The Death Chamber and The Yellow Boat, symbolic respectively of the dejection of death and of loneliness, Munch painted the gamut of human emotions. The titles of his paintings, The Kiss, Man and Woman on the Shore and The Dance of Life suggest his themes and the strength of the human ideas that were the driving force behind his art.Munch completed his greatest masterpieces, The Cry and Anxiety, while in Berlin. They portray man in the grip of something beyond human control and, once seen, they can never be forgotten. The Cry, illustrated in this Bulletin, represents Munch’s ultimate perfection of balance between form and content. Munch has simplified the forms to convey his poignant message, exaggerating the diagonal lines to create the illusion of distance and repeating the curved lines to suggest sound, as successfully as sound has even been suggested in a painting. Munch followed the same handling of restless lines and contrasting colors in Anxiety. While The Cry deals with the suffering of an individual, Anxiety unmasks that of a middle-class group.Although Munch did not turn to printmaking until he had perfected his style in painting, he quickly mastered the technical difficulties and exploited every medium with amazing ingenuity. His first etchings and lithographs make use of the themes he painted in the 1880s and 1890s, the etchings repeating his portraits and the lithographs, subjects from The Frieze of Life. The latter are the more important because the medium afforded him both greater scale and range of contrasts. However, it was in the field of woodcut that he found completely sympathetic that he made his most significant contributions. Impressed by Gauguin’s innovations, Munch continued to break up surfaces with boldness and inventiveness. He also experimented with color printing, which he carried to undreamed of lengths. His Winter Landscape, reproduced on page 119, recalls his debt to Gauguin. Here Munch has distorted space to create mood. No other painter of his time mastered all three fields of printmaking with the outstanding results that may be seen in the one hundred breathtaking examples in the exhibition.After the turn of the century munch turned to the problem of painting the effects of nature in relation to mood. Girls on the Bridge, reproduced on the cover of this Bulletin, represents his successful treatment of a lyrical subject. The setting is the pier at Aasgaardstrand, Munch’s summer home, painted in the light of a mid-summer night. The figures are turned from the spectator, but carefully placed so that they invite the spectator to join their musing. The paintings of this period are more objective than Munch’s earlier works. Melancholia, the very embodiment of loneliness, and Boys, Girls and Ducks, depicting the cruelty of children when organized in gangs, show Munch as a detached, but understanding observer of life.An unhappy love affair resulted in Munch’s nervous breakdown in 1908, when he left Berlin for Copenhagen and then Oslo. The Red-Haired Nude portrays the troublemaker. On his return to Norway he received a knighthood, the honor of a purchase by the National Gallery, and a commission to execute an important series of murals for the University of Oslo. He settled at Ekely near Oslo, repeating the themes of earlier paintings which he had reluctantly sold and painting perceptive portraits and evocative landscapes. One of the last of his remarkable series of self-portraits called Between the Clock and the Bed, showing the aging painter between symbols of death, is reproduced in this Bulletin. Thoughts of death had lurked in the shadows of Munch’s mind, but here he has shown himself a somber figure in the brightly colored surroundings in which he had placed his models a decade before. He is ill at ease standing as if to concentrate all his attention on the ticking of the long-case clock waiting to hear it sound its final tocsin. Although seventy-seven years old when this portrait was painted, he was still a strong man, possessing a strength that was surprising to himself and his sister.When the Nazis took over Germany, Munch broke off his relations with his friends there. In 1939, the German Government removed his works from the State Museums and sold them at auction at Oslo. Unfortunately, Munch did not live to see the liberation of Norway, but died in 1944. Like the English painter, Turner, he left a magnificent bequest, giving to the City of Oslo over one thousand of his paintings and seven hundred prints. The citizens of Oslo plan to build a museum to house the collection as soon as possible. In the meantime, the Municipality of Oslo and the Norwegian Government have made it possible for the Minneapolis public to see Munch’s great works without traveling to Norway.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Girls on the Bridge, 1901, by Edvard Munch, Norwegian, 1863-1944
    Lent by The National Gallery of Oslo to The Munch Retrospective Exhibition
  2. The Cry, 1893. One of Munch’s best known paintings
    From the Oslo Municipal Collections
  3. Self Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940
    From the Oslo Municipal Collections
  4. The Death Chamber, lithograph, 1896. The Munch family at Sophie’s last illness
    From the Oslo Municipal Collections
  5. Winter Landscape, woodcut, 1898
    From the Oslo Municipal Collections
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Source: "The Edvard Munch Exhibition: A Great Norwegian Artist in Retrospect," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 39, no. 23 (October, 1950): 114-119.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009