1863-1944 Rome, Complesso del Vittoriano

by Donald Goddard

Edvard Munch Portrait

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Woman Combing Hair
Young Woman Combing Her Hair, 1892.
Oil on canvas,
46"x 28 ‡".
Bergen (Norway), Bergen Art Museum,
Rasmus Meyers Collection.

During his years in Paris and his travels in southern France between 1889 and 1892, Edvard Munch was taken with the lightened palette, divisionist brushstrokes, and airy subject matter of French Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism, but they were qualities that verified rather than changed his own practice, saturating even further the varied and highly structured, light-filled, scumbled, and unscumbled realism of his work since the 1880s. Young Woman Combing Her Hair, painted at Nice in 1892, is not transparently organized and atomized to reveal the mysteries of mass and light in nature, but pushes toward the foreground, so that one is intensely aware of the interlocked jostling of shapes, the jostling of consciousness, of conscience. The light blues and greens of the window and table at the upper right push against the dark reds and browns of the young woman on the left, forcefully meeting at the center focused by her hand and hanging skein of hair. The diagonal of the yellowed curtain descends through the swoop of her arm, joining the two halves, back and front, right and left. Light enters and vaguely outlines the crossbars of the window but is ultimately blocked off, opaque, and our attention is drawn to the person in the foreground.

It is presence within the room that is important, as it is literally, for instance, in Death in the Sickroom of 1893, which depicts groupings of the artist himself, his sisters and brother, and his father and aunt, at the moment his fifteen-year-old sister Sophie died of tuberculosis in 1877. The back wall in this, the most interesting of several versions of the scene, is blue, perhaps like the sky or the sea, and at the focal center is the vertical brown rectangle of the bed table, in front of which slightly flutters the wisp of a sheet from the bed. The brown of the floor is channeled between the triangular shadow projecting up from the group of Edvard with his sisters Inger and Laura and the skirt of Sophie seated on the right, between her father and aunt. Paradoxically, the room is like a landscape, with a blue wall sky and brown floor earth, mutating like a landscape as it is shaped by the artistís marks moving through it. The figure groupings are like promontories of land very purposely drawn into this context. Only the bed table at the center is a pure geometric figure, something like the sun or moon in other paintings, and even that is brushed by the transparent bed sheet.

The painting is nothing but drawing, outlines and interior lines of paint that arrive at a particular moment of recognition or recollection, with the elder Munch and Inger facing forward, the others facing sideways or back, Sophie hidden in her chair. Some facial features are missing entirely, others are only cursorily drawn in, as though expression were always in a state of becoming, or devolving to death. The figures and images, in a sense, are fugitive, in the midst of change, like the ghostly shapes that would appear in some of Munch's long-exposure photographs. They are isolated within their own spaces and are yet indelibly and literally linked with each other within the painting. What is immaterial has become material. Again, as with the entry of light in Young Woman Combing Her Hair, the tension is toward the back of the scene--death, the drama of sky and water--but the weight of the picture is in front. This inversion of traditional perspective, leading to the artist himself, would remain characteristic in Munchís work throughout his career.

Death in Sickroom
Death in the Sickroom, 1893.
Oil on canvas,
35.8"x 42.9".
Oslo, Munch Museum.

The web of this world is always present, stretching out beyond the Oslo harbor into the Skagerrak and Kattegat, along the beaches of southern Norway, into the forest on Munchís property at Ekely, and finally into the unkempt rooms of his house there, where he died in 1944. In 1892 he was terribly anguished by the sight of a red sunset sky over Oslo (thought to be now an after-effect of the catastrophic eruption at Krakatoa half way around the world, many years before, in 1883), in which he sensed "blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city,"and "an endless scream passing through nature." He painted The Scream in 1893 and many times after, as well as other works in this setting. (The exhibition had only a later version of the painting Despair and an 1895 lithograph of The Scream.) Calmer but no less compelling is Moonlight of 1895, which looks out over the beach and water at úsgrdstrand, southwest of Oslo, where Munch spent several summers from 1889 into the 20th century.

The long reflection of the moon plunges into these alike a spike, connecting distant space with the immediate foreground. In narrow verticals, the living tree trunks span the same depth of field, the horizontal, almost geological layering of sky, sea, beach, and grass. This is the primordial scene of Munchís "Frieze of Life,"the theme within which he grouped paintings on "Love ís awakening," "Love blossoms and dies," "Fear of life,"and "Death." It is the setting of The Dance of Life of 1899-1900 and, with the beach turned and plunging into the distance, of The Three Stages of Woman (ca. 1894) and Melancholy (a version of which is in this exhibition), all representing struggles of sexual characterization and relationship. At one time in his articulation of the Frieze, the unifying factor was "the undulating line of the seashore. Beyond that line is the ever-moving sea, while beneath the trees a life in all its fullness, its variety, its joy and sufferings. The Frieze is a poem of life, love and death."

Moonlight, 1895.
Oil on canvas,
36.6"x 43.3".
Oslo, National Gallery.

Portrait After Influenza
Self-portrait after the
Spanish Influenza,
Oil on canvas,
59"x 51.6î.
Oslo, National Gallery.

Munch Self-Portrait
5elf-portrait in His Studio at Ekely, ca. 1930. Photograph.

By 1916, when he bought his final home at Ekely, also southwest of Oslo, Munch had been named a knight of Norwayís Order of St. Olav in 1908, stopped drinking and recovered from a breakdown at a Copenhagen clinic in 1908-09, was famous throughout Europe (especially in Germany, which cause him some problems during the war), and was in demand as a portrait painter of important people. He continued to make new versions of many of his old themes, such as The Sick Child of 1925 in this show, but his work also seemed to become more "realistic,"in that he dealt with scenes, landscapes, and models with which and whom he was in contact every day; more colorful, in the manner of Matisse, the Fauves, and the German Expressionists; and more cheerful, in his general outlook on the abundance of nature and perhaps of human nature. It may be more accurate, however, to say that he was adding layers to an already abundant view of "reality,"color, and the complexities of life. If possible, Self-portrait after Spanish Influenza of 1919 is even more intense than any of Munchís work along the shore, which is always hidden, to a certain extent, clothed in symbolic form and gesture. Here it is Munch himself, sitting in a chair like the one his sister died in, facing outward, open-mouthed like the figure in The Scream, parallel to and up against the picture plane, the product of an uproarious commotion of brushstrokes, seared by the hot yellow and orange of the wall behind him, trapped in but liberated by this place of art. More than ever, the whole thing takes place directly in front of us, almost in our space, a riot of color that is nonetheless profoundly controlled.

There was a great deal missing in this exhibition, partly because there is so much to Munch, all those pictures from the 1910s through the 1940s with their life energy rushing into the foreground--horses drawing a cart; workers emerging from a factory; farmers working in the field (there was one of Potato Gatherers of 1924); the radiant sun filling up the entire space of the canvas; The Murderer in the Lane of 1919, in which the murderer almost disappears below the bottom of the frame; the paintings Munch did after his right eye hemorrhaged in 1930 in which everything is seen through a large, ominous blockage of his vision; the glorious celebrations of his garden at Ekely. The most difficult to do without, perhaps, are Munch's late self-portraits, particularly the one of him between the clock and the bed of 1940-42. This is partly made up for by the exhibition of photographs Munch took of himself around 1930. His face appears unsmiling, as usual, and blurred because of the long exposure, sometimes in front of a painting. He seems to be amazed that he is there, and as closely as he looks at the lens, still unknowable.

Donald Goddard © 2005

The exhibition was on view at the Complesso del Vittoriano in Rome.

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