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: Jealousy: An Important Painting by Edvard Munch


Ray A. Boe

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In the summer of 1892, Edvard Munch held an exhibition of about fifty paintings in the Tostrup building on Karl Johan, the main artery of life and culture in Christiania, the present Oslo. Included were some works done while a stipendiat in Nice and Paris the year before and during the winter of 1891-1892 that indicated an influence of French Impressionism in composition, color range and content. The major portion of the exhibition was, however, far removed from the realm of sun-drenched vignettes of the out-of-doors; rather, essays cast in somber tones depicting states of mind and emotion. The titles of the paintings give some insight into their content—Kiss, Anxiety, Love and Sorrow—but a few dealt with the gamut of human experience that the artist was attempting to fathom. These were signal efforts in a program which was to occupy the artist for more than thirty years, and the first exhibition of paintings that were to become the nucleus of an ideologically related pictorial series known as the Frieze of Life. The ideas which were to occupy the artist in this long cycle of paintings can perhaps be best explained by Munch's own entry in his daybook of 1889, written in St. Cloud. While in the company of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Danish poet, he wrote: "No longer should one paint interiors and people who read and women who knit. There should be living beings who breathe and feel and who love and suffer. I shall paint a series of such pictures. People will understand the sacredness of them, and they will remove their hats as if they were in church." This first fruits of this program met with a contrary reaction. The storm of criticism and invective bordered on the psychotic. The conservative Aftenposten curiously enough, in spite of derisive intent, approached somewhat Munch's subject matter preoccupations in their statement, "Here there is no longer talk of Nature, only eccentric fanaticism, delirium drunk moods and fever sick hallucinations." The exhibition was a succés de sensation for everyone to see what "mad Munch" was exhibiting. Held over for fourteen days, it was of major importance in the young career of Edvard Munch and was to have considerable impact on the history of art in Germany.Adelsten Normann, a Norwegian who lived in Berlin and painted landscapes in the best Düsseldorf tradition of naturalistic realism, saw the Tostrup exhibition and enthusiastically approached Munch to show his work in the German capital. Normann, as a member of the exhibition committee of the Verein Berliner Künstler, prevailed upon its president, Anton Von Werner, portrait painter to the Kaiser, and the "highly interesting and talented new Norwegian artist" was duly invited to exhibit in November with the finest salons at the Architektenhaus placed at his disposal.Armed with forty-five paintings and the 200 kroner (50 dollars) from admissions, the artist departed in high spirits to reap renown and fortune on the continent, despite the vitriolic reviews and personal affronts in the Norwegian press. Christian Krohg, his former teacher, wished him God-speed with his offer of financial aid but the latter was refused with a significant slap on the billfold.The exhibition at the Union of Berlin Artists opened on November 5, 1892, and within a week the membership of the Union was irrevocably divided into two camps. Munch and his paintings were the stormy feature of the art-conscious press, and after a violent controversy involving both moral and artistic issues a union motion in favor of suppression carried by a vote of 120 to 105. A greater part of the minority resigned in protest and shortly thereafter this group became the nucleus for the famed Berliner Sezession which under Max Liebermann championed Impressionism and modern art in Germany.Munch weathered the storm and wrote to his aunt that it was "unbelievable that something as innocent as painting could arouse such an uproar." He noted as well that he had gained six pounds and never felt better. In the confusion of events, he made the mistake of agreeing to exhibitions of his work in Düsseldorf and Cologne instead of capitalizing on the scandale. However, in January 1893, under a great Norwegian flag ordered from Norway, a second Berlin exhibition was held at the Equitable Palast. This exhibition was very successful and the papers were again full of die Munchfrage. While his paintings were "on tour," Munch rented a studio in Berlin and thus began a very productive and creative exile from his native land lasting, but for summer visits, until 1908.His first painting in Berlin as a portrait of August Strindberg, the Swedish writer, who, together with Stanislas Przybyszewski, a Polish poet and novelist, became his closest Berlin friends. It was through these writers of controversial social documents that Munch was again to be surrounded by men in the advance guard of literature and philosophic thought. In the eighties he had been associated with a group of radicals in the realm of social and ethical behavior known as the Christiania Bohemians. The Berlin group by comparison was more sophisticated, more subjective and perhaps more psychologically oriented. Munch received many stimuli from this new intellectual environment but the character of the themes for his projected cycle of paintings dealing with the great forces of nature—love and death—had been established before his arrival in Berlin. The effect of these new associations was to turn his thoughts into more Freudian channels. This resulted in a more direct expression of mood or emotion on psychic rather than narrative or literary terms. It should be noted that Munch painted his way to expressions of his inner feelings, and the search for forms capable of conveying these feelings without ambiguity was both intense and laborious. Neither was this form—vocabulary static at any time in his career, for he was constantly reworking and reshaping his expressive means to enhance their psychological impact.Three paintings from 1893-94, Vampire, Jealously, and Ashes, are particularly revealing of the artist's struggle for expression and the variations in technical means he used to achieve his ends. He repeats the dejected profile male form in Vampire and Ashes but changes the attitude of the woman completely. But in both the woman's hair figures as symbols of entrapment and expressions of the power of her sex. The forest interior of Ashes increases the remoteness and distance between the couple while the sweeping curvilinear enclosing lines in Vampire sustain the subjection theme. Jealously, which also deals with sexual problems, exploits another phase of subjection or possession, but reveals the man again powerless when confronted by the animalism of woman. The content of these works might appear to be Strindbergian but absence of rivalry or conflict between the sexes in these and other works of the early Berlin period indicates no dependence on his writings. If literary inspiration were to be assessed it might be traced to Jens Jacobsen's Niels Lynne which Munch might have known through Gunnar Heiberg, a Norwegian writer of the Berlin circle.The models for both figures and content in these Berlin paintings spring directly from the Strindberg, Przybyszewski-and-wife, Munch interaction in Berlin. Strindberg in his autobiographical Inferno spells out the relationship of Dagny Przybyszewski to the three men, but it is sufficient for these purposes that Strindberg related that he replaced Munch in her affections before she married the Pole. Dagny was the ideological focus or model for the woman in these paintings and Munch includes himself in Ashes and Vampire as the victim or "the offering" at the altar of all-consuming love. The amazing similarity of Munch's portrait of Przybyszewski to the overwrought man in the Jealousy of 1894 leads one to suspect that he (Przybyszewski) was the inspiration for this representation. Indeed, this observation is borne out by Munch's own admission to his friend, Rolf Stainersen, in an unguarded moment many years later.Historically as well as artistically important, the Institute's Jealousy is more than intimately connected to the subject matter, form and color solutions of these paintings. A work of the period 1895-1897, it represents a summation or synthesis—Munch called the process "crystallization"—of his thinking and his expression on erotic themes. Munch thought of his paintings, again, as ideologically interrelated statements and was inclined to manipulate or orchestrate his established forms into new visual and emotional harmonies. This can be seen in the central head in the Institute's Jealousy, which is a refinement of Przybyszewski used in the Jealously of 1894, which in turn is related to the portrait. Much less naturalistic or detailed in execution, this passage represents the development towards greater freedom in expression as a result of mastery of formal problems. The woman, boldly painted in rich color and enclosed in a mandorla similar to that in the Vampire, is also an advance and consolidation of developments seen in the earlier works. The long hair now falling in great waves of warm color rather than the ropy strands of the earlier works is more emotionally charged and less tentative. The profile view is related to the Eve in Jealously of 1894 and points ahead to the figure of the maiden in the major work, Woman in Three Stages, in the Rasmus Meyer Collection, Bergen. The bearded old man at the left is something of an enigma. Used often as a symbol for the concept underlying "the wages of sin," and in reference to vitality lost in continually giving new expression to love, it alludes perhaps to the state of dejection in Ashes. The confrontation of woman and man—in youth and old age—may be a symbol of the inaccessibility of woman to man throughout his life, which would account for the absence of a contextual setting. The painting is a profound statement of inner emotional experience externalized in means designed to convey the intensity of that feeling, and as such is a very successful work of art.Johan H. Langaard, Director of the Oslo Municipal Collections and of the Munch Museum and recognized as the leading Munch scholar, suggests that the painting is a commemoration of Przybyszewski's death and should therefore be titled "Tragedy." The painting, published here for the first time, has borne the title "Jealously" from the time it was given by the artist to his close friend and champion in the press, Jappe Nilssen. Some confusion might arise if the name is retained, but considering the origins of the painting and the environment of its inspiration, its present title is justified. A part of the Frieze of Life and an excellent example of Edvard Munch's art in the flowering of his expressionist period, this painting will be a fine addition to the Institute's growing collection of important expressionist paintings.Ray A. Boe
Department of Art
University of MinnesotaReferenced Works of Art
  1. Jealousy. Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944) c. 1897. Oil on canvas, 30 3/4" x 47". Lillian Z. Turnblad Fund.A deeply personal statement of inner experience synthesizing Munch's ideas on Freudian themes.
  2. Jealousy. Edvard Munch, 1894. Oil on canvas. Rasmus Meyer Collection, Bergen.One of Munch's earlier paintings on the Jealousy theme conveying through motifs from the artist's own life the tension and paralysis of inner conflict.
  3. Vampire. Edvard Munch, 1893-94. Oil on canvas. Oslo Municipal Collection.Woman's hair as a symbol of man's subjection, a frequent theme in Munch's Frieze of Life.
  4. Portrait of Stanislas Przybyszewski. Edvard Munch 1893 or 1895. Pastel. Oslo Municipal Collections.Munch's poet-novelist friend in Berlin.
  5. Ashes. Edvard Munch, 1894. Oil on canvas. Oslo, National Gallery.Self-portrait of the artist conceived as a symbol of dejection.
  6. Jealousy (detail). Edvard Munch, 1897. Oil on canvas. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.The simplified execution of the man's head and sweeping design of the woman's hair mark a new synthesis of expression and mastery of formal means in Munch's art.
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Source: Ray A. Boe, "Jealousy An Important Painting by Edvard Munch," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 55, no. 1 (January-February, 1956): 3-11.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009