home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

munch and expressionism

21 july 2016

I saw the deeply impressive Munch and Expressionism exhibit earlier this year at New York's Neue Galerie, wrote away for the catalogue soon after, and have been saving it for a treat most of the summer. I'm going to save it as a treasure for years to come.

The Wikipedia page for Norwegian Art lists two categories of Norwegian artist: "Edvard Munch" and "Other Names." Munch spent most of his life in Norway, isolated even from Norwegian art circles after a while. For the last few decades of his life, he kept most of his paintings, the bulk of which now form the core collection of the Munch Museum in Oslo. (Munch also did monumental paintings for several Oslo public buildings.) He's thus rightly associated with his native country, dominant in the history of its art: but earlier in his career he studied and worked in Paris, and for several key years was a major figure in the German art world, with important exhibitions in Berlin, Munich, Cologne, and Dresden.

It was during those years, in the two decades before the First World War, that Munch sided with and against various proliferating "secessions" that shaped the German art scene. He was influenced by rising young Expressionists, and he influenced them in turn. Some of them, like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, spent a lot of time denying that Munch influenced them (the "anxiety of influence" apparently extending far beyond the English Romantic poets where critic Harold Bloom first defined it). On the other hand, Munch wasn't very anxious about influence, though was anxious about nearly every other facet of existence. He freely admired all sorts of new art trends, borrowed when he felt like it, and went his own way regardless of fashion. Munch was legendary: a little scary, a little foolish (alcoholic, mad, chronically ill). He became a hero to the artists of the Weimar Republic, was honored by Hindenburg, and was initially praised by Goebbels as an "heir of Nordic nature" (50). That didn't last long; within months, Nazi-inspired art "reforms" noticed that Munch's actual work had everything in common with the art of the Expressionists they regarded as entartete, degenerate. Munch's paintings were confiscated from German museums, sold abroad for hard currency, sometimes lost or destroyed. He stayed in Norway, spurned the eventual German invaders, kept aloof, and kept working.

The 2016 show in New York stressed the connections among Munch and the many artists who form the focus of the Neue Galerie's interests: Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Egon Schiele, Otto Dix, and others. The catalog Munch and Expressionism, meticulously edited by Jill Lloyd and Reinhold Heller, presents several points of contact between Munch's work and theirs.

In his early work, Munch had pioneered a sort of direct, large-scale, vivid portraiture that the German Expressionists adapted in increasingly stylized ways. The younger artists typically used this kind of portrait to express Angst or alienation, qualities that Munch possessed in spades: but the curators of the Munch and Expressionism also show the joy and self-confidence that could leap out of the frames of such paintings. In Munch's hands they often portray a kind of masculinity that is not really homo- or hetero-erotic, just literally large as life.

Woodcuts make up a large portion of the exhibit, and are the topic of a separate essay in the catalogue, by Jay Clarke. Clarke conveys details about printing techniques of Munch and his contemporaries, and notes the similarity between Munch, Nolde, and others who would continually rework a motif, like Munch's "Kiss" or Nolde's "Young Danish Woman," in a variety of different colors, textures, and design layouts.

One of the highlights of the show, with a room to itself, was one version of "The Scream," an 1895 pastel and pencil drawing. Munch reworked "The Scream" continually, and though it's quite original – an outgrowth of a scene he worked at in various preliminary ways till arriving at its truly iconic form – it was adapted by Expressionists, especially Schiele, in ways that quote or echo it at a distance, and make it part of the younger artists' personal concerns.

The most impressive part of the show and catalogue, to me, consists of several large-scale pictures of people, sometimes in street scenes, sometimes on rural roads – not always individualized portraits (often they show the subjects' backs), but somehow conveying both community and loneliness. Kirchner drew on this motif for his 1908 painting (reworked 1919) called "Street, Dresden" – but then characteristically denied that Munch had had any influence on it at all.

I was haunted by one Munch painting in the show, little seen outside of Oslo and barely reproduced anywhere. It's called "Midsummer Night's Eve," was painted 1901-03, and also represents a motif that Munch tried several times before getting right. It's hard to say exactly what draws me to it. Midsummer in Scandinavia, and the eerie quality of light that goes with its supernatural associations, is a common theme in the art of Nordic countries. There's nothing very creepy about Munch's treatment: a family (mother and children) stand in the foreground and look up a road towards a group of well-dressed people out to enjoy the holiday night. I think the picture appeals in part because of its title: we know it's midsummer, thus a sort of not-dark darkness that casts everything in a light that is unnatural, or natural only at one brief season of the year. The houses in the distance are homely yet enigmatic; the road, in the simplest of gestures, disappears to a vanishing point beyond them. It's powerfully strange, and strangely powerful. "Midsummer Night's Eve" seems to represent simply how Munch saw the world, a vision that other artists would ramify into movements and systems and triumphs and sufferings. At the center of that vision was this mercurial, driven, and somewhat unapproachable master.

Lloyd, Jill, and Reinhold Heller, eds. Munch and Expressionism. Munich: Prestel [Random House], 2016.