Evening On Karl Johan Street By Edvard Munch Analysis Essay

In our museums, Symbolism often occupies the last room of the stuffy nineteenth-century wing, while French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism bridge the divide to Cubism and the clean lines of the twentieth-century collection. So it came as a surprise when, at the Edvard Munch show at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year, I felt an unexpected connection to Munch’s Symbolist work. I started my review in the March 2006 New Criterion this way: “Once upon a time modern art had a third dimension: a mood-axis. In 1890s Europe, Symbolism plumbed the depths of myth and the macabre in order to dive beneath the surfaces of Impressionism.”

In a street scene like the famous Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892), Munch did not paint portraits. In the death-stares of the crowd, he painted a crisis. This crisis manifested itself both in the need to escape the realities of urban life through a mystical-pictorial ideal, and in the pessimism that this ideal might be attained. In its subject matter, the painting is an illustration of feeling. In its quivering surface, it is anxiety revealed. This double life is embodied in two figures. One is a dark shadow walking to the right against the human tide—perhaps a stand-in for the artist. The second is the viewer before the canvas, confronted by a stampede of figures. The perspective is such that the viewer gazes slightly over the masses. The next moments are frozen in uncertainty: Will the shadowy artist-figure reveal himself? Will the viewer rise above the reality of the street or be crushed down into it?

In his landmark study of Symbolism published posthumously in 1979, Robert Goldwater noted that Munch put “the meaning of his pictures into design and colour, and into the stance and gesture of the whole human body, whose pose and contour flowed and fused with a larger composition that gave direct expression to the mood and substance of the theme.” The Norwegian painter Christian Krohg similarly wrote: “Munch is the only one, the first one to turn to idealism, who dares to subordinate Nature, his model, to the mood.”

In the harmonic contours of his color and line, and the anxiety of his subject matter, Munch used the material of paint to depict an immaterial third dimension: an axis of heightened emotion that at MOMA spread out over the pressed, dried petals of the museum’s twentieth-century collection. As the Norwegian poet Sigbjorn Obstfelder wrote in 1892: “Munch sees … the branches of trees in waves, women’s hair and women’s bodies in waves … he feels colors and he feels in colors … he sees sorrow and cries and worry and decay. He does not see yellow and red and blue and violet.”

The feeling I found looking at Munch’s work brought me back half a decade to my graduate student days at Brown. Surrounded by the dreariness of academic life, here I fell under the brief advisement of an under-recognized professor of modern art named Kermit Champa. I wrote about Champa for The New Criterion in September 2004, at the time of his death. The year before I arrived at Brown, Champa held a graduate seminar that is still spoken about in hushed tones among the faithful. As part of his instruction on Theosophy and the occult, Champa hired a spiritual medium, a real-life soothsayer, to join the class. One day, with the lights dimmed, one by one, and twice around the room, he and his students made inquiries through her into the great beyond.

That a serious professor of art history would engage in questionable spiritual practices must reveal something about his understanding of the past. What could he have been channeling, I wondered, if not the same mystery he dedicated his career to uncovering: a secret history of modern art.

The contagion tracks back to Charles Baudelaire, the poet and critic who “cultivated … hysteria with delight and terror.” In his Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology, Henri Dorra identifies Baudelaire’s sonnet “Correspondences” of 1857, from Les Fleurs du mal, “as the preliminary manifesto of the French symbolist movement” for both its occult allusions and sensory cross-connections. Here is how Richard Wilbur translated the second stanza of that famous poem: “Like dwindling echoes gathered far away/ Into a deep and thronging unison/ Huge as the night or as the light of day,/ All scents and sounds and colors meet as one.” Baudelaire drew his occult associations from the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and the poet Heinrich Heine, whom he quoted in his Salon review of 1846: “In artistic matters I am a supernaturalist. I believe that the artist cannot find in nature all his types, for the most remarkable are revealed to him in his soul, as is the innate symbolism of innate ideas, and at the same time.”

Rodolphe Rapetti, who published an excellent, illustrated survey of Symbolism just this year, takes note of Baudelaire’s importance to the movement: “In Symbolism, the sound-and-color theory that Baudelaire developed in ‘Correspondences’ became the basis for a quest for pictorial unity.” In 1888, Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin were the first Symbolist artists to exploit the Baudelairian connections of color and sound through the development of Cloisonism, a style of painting that divided the canvas into color-rich regions. The visual musicality in their Breton women became a cornerstone for formalist abstraction. As Goldwater notes in Symbolism: “Gauguin’s formally expressive Symbolism, because it maintains its distance from reality, lays the groundwork for even greater stylization and, eventually, abstraction.”

No contention there. But Goldwater’s statement, though brilliant, was still partial to materialist form and ignored Symbolism’s more mystical influences over early abstract art. It is easy to see why. Just as Cloisonist Symbolism was experimenting with correspondences of color and music, a spiritual movement of dubious origin was underway at the end of the nineteenth century to unite science and religion through mystical experiments into the occult.

Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, and soon after wrote Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888). In Theosophy she sought a resolution to the conflict between science and religion, and was vastly influential. She was also an anti-Semite and a crank, bringing social Darwinism to the astral plane. Nevertheless, by tapping into occult and Symbolist currents, Blavatsky, along with her theosophist lieutenants Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, influenced post-Symbolist art—the art of the twentieth century—in unmistakable ways. Besant and Leadbeater’s little book, Thought-Forms (1901), which promised a “glimpse of forms natural to the astral or mental planes,” remains in print today through the Theosophical Publishing House. By imagining a Gounod chorus, for example, as an “oblate spheroid” of colors rising “six hundred feet” in the air, Thought-Forms brought Baudelaire’s “Correspondences” from the sublime to the ridiculous. Yet just compare Thought-Forms’s illustration of that “oblate spheroid” to one of Kandinsky’s “Compositions” of ten years later, or the writings of Leadbeater and Besant to Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art, and the influence of Theosophist ideals on abstraction is clear.

In his essay on Kandinsky published ten years ago in The New Criterion, reproduced in his new anthology The Triumph of Modernism, Hilton Kramer writes, Kandinsky’s “entire Weltanschauung, his worldview of life itself, was shaped by [Blavatsky, Besant, and Leadbeater’s] philosophy of the occult.”

In his latest book, Rapetti acknowledges this connection: “It is becoming easier to see today that abstraction as it emerged with Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, and Kupka was based on a spiritual background that draws its source from the Symbolist intellectual environment and the determination to produce an art detached from tangible reality. The heritage of Symbolism’s idealist foundations were still there, as was the link between art and spirituality.”

With an “analysis of appearances,” Greenberg once again located modern art along positivist lines. This is a far cry from what Gauguin wrote in 1899: “The essence of a work of [Symbolist] art, immaterial and superior, consists precisely of what is not expressed, from which lines arise implicitly, without colors or words.”

Twentieth-century art history left these “immaterial and superior” concerns for the scrap heap. Demystification was the order of the day. “Symbolism,” writes Rapetti, “appeared suspiciously passé from the politico-aesthetic perspective that many historians brought to bear on the late nineteenth century when they automatically associated the artistic avant-garde with social progress… . Its posterity was unable to offer a sufficiently powerful antidote to twentieth-century ideologies.” It also did not help that some Symbolist offshoots became dangerously intertwined with Nazism, for example through the cult of Stefan George. With its bad politics and suspicious content, the Symbolist legacy did not fare well in the new century. Even Munch, with his diabolical women, took a hit.

Against Gauguin’s better wishes, graphic Symbolism could never quite escape its connection to literary antecedents (including books like Thought-Forms). In its pictorial manifestation, Symbolism mainly found precursors in English Aestheticism and the mystical (again) literary practices of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—artists of the mid-nineteenth century such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. By drawing on the allegorical imagery of Gustave Moreau, Symbolism also gave history painting a means of reinvigoration. The Symbolist art that emerged under this influence, depicting a real unreality, can be found in the pagan demons of Arnold Böcklin, the “unreal ambience,” in the words of the Belgian poet Georges Rodenbach, of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, the phantasmagoria of Odilon Redon, and a host of lesser artists and illustrators across Europe, all experimenting with different permutations of Symbolism, mysticism, and the styles of Art Nouveau (Goldwater’s book is unrivaled in its comparison of Symbolism to Art Nouveau).

It is worth stopping for a moment at one of the more colorful attractions of these “lesser” influences. Les Peintres de l’âme—The Painters of the Soul—derived from Puvis and Moreau a new, Continental understanding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. At the center of this group, which included Carlos Schwabe, Edmond Aman-Jean, Alexandre Séon, Alphonse Osbert, Armand Point, Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Edgard Maxence, and Henri Martin, was a Parisian dandy named Joséphin Péladan—a novelist, a critic, a curator who dressed like an Assyrian king, and also something of a clown. In paintings and photographs, he stares into the great beyond with a forked beard and a bird’s nest of a haircut. He happily inhabited the boondocks of modern art. In his public pronouncements and his artistic activities, Péladan embodied the idealist, occult, Satanic, and reactionary tendencies of the Symbolist movement in the best and worse ways. He was a character out of a novel by J.-K. Huysmans.

In 1885, Péladan revived the Rosicrucian Brotherhood, a Masonic-like repository of ancient secrets. In 1890, he declared himself the Sâr, or King, and sent out a mandate, seeking to breathe “a theocratic essence into contemporary art and especially into aesthetic culture.” In 1892, Péladan established the Salon de la Rose-Croix. Carlos Schwabe designed the poster for the salon, which ran for the next six years in various incarnations. The object of the aesthetic Rose-Croix, wrote Péladan, was “to restore the cult of the IDEAL in all its splendor, with TRADITION as its base and BEAUTY as its means… . To Ruin realism, reform latin taste and create a school of idealist art.” Péladan encouraged submissions of art that dealt with “the Catholic Ideal and Mysticism. Next comes Legend, Myth, Allegory, Dream, and Paraphrase of the great poets, and finally Lyricism.” Two hundred artists, mainly international, exhibited.

Clearly, Les Peintres de l’âme did not enjoy a Gauguin-like influence over early twentieth-century art. Yet later art practices came to rely on their style of Symbolist illustration. Surrealists like Salvador Dalí updated the allegories of Moreau by supplementing mythology and religion with the unconscious. In Belgium, where Symbolism found deep roots, René Magritte followed a similar path.

Symbolism was always stronger in its literary rather than graphic forms, and poets like W. B. Yeats were drawn in by its more mystical connections. As graphic art rid itself of interest in the occult, however, popular culture took up the slack. With Wagnerian mythology, Symbolist lyrics, Pre-Raphaelite hair, and a mystical correspondence of color and sound, rock bands like Led Zeppelin brought Symbolism to the concert stage. Zeppelin’s LP cover for “Houses of the Holy,” which depicts a photo-collage of blond children climbing the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, finds antecedents in the Symbolists Hans Thoma, Léon Frédéric, and Charles Maurin.

Yet it is through the real unreality of video art, for better and often worse, that allegorical Symbolism has seen its day. Matthew Barney in particular mines the literary and specifically Rosicrucian legacy of Symbolism like a postmodern robber baron. With costumes that are directly borrowed from Rosicrucianism, and with a private mythology that even one-ups Péladan, Barney has long had this secret history of modern art all to himself. In researching the Rosicrucians, I found the visual connections between Barney’s iconography and the contemporary cult, which thrives today in many sectarian (albeit non-aesthetic) forms, to be uncanny.

Rapetti writes that “although numerous source texts … attest to the links between Symbolism and the artistic innovations that immediately followed it, mid-twentieth-century art historians, with only a few exceptions, remained strangely deaf to them, occasionally to the point of adopting an autistic silence… . The selective process behind the formalist criticism that initially sought … to insert abstract expressionism into a lineage going back to Manet, was obliged to eliminate all obstacles to the demonstration of that thesis.”

Until we come to terms with this oversight, the discussion of Symbolism will continue to be a secret history, ignored by everyone except for a few clever treasure hunters. But we don’t need another Sâr Péladan, reincarnated as the absurd Matthew Barney. What we need is another Kandinsky, or another Munch, or even another Schwabe or Fernand Khnopff (one of my favorite Symbolist artists), to take the ideas that Péladan embodied, without embarrassment, and to turn them into great art. Classical Realism, or Christian art, or re-spiritualized abstraction might play a part. One hundred twenty years ago, Péladan predicted a “new era is about to start, that of secularized … and compulsorily thoughtless art!” In this regard, Péladan was unfortunately a critic far ahead of his time.

 

Notes
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  1. A version of this essay was first delivered as a slide lecture called “Painting with the Ouija Board: Symbolism Past and Present” at the New York Studio School on October 25, 2006. Go back to the text.

Becoming Edvard Munch, Influence, Anxiety and Myth
The Art Institute of Chicago
14 February-26 April 2009

Catalogue:
Becoming Edvard Munch, Influence, Anxiety and Myth
Jay A. Clarke
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
232 pages; 245 color and 48 b/w illus; chronology, checklist of exhibition; bibliography; index of works.
$50.00
ISBN: 978-0-300-11950-3

We all know the script: unstable artistic personality suffers through self-destructive life while producing tormented, but brilliant, artwork. It is the stuff of La Bohème, Lust for Life, and endless biographies of [pick one] Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, etc., etc., etc. The cliché of the romantic suffering artist has become a signature trope of western art history as well as popular culture. It is both seductive and marketable. Becoming Edvard Munch, Influence, Anxiety and Myth, an exhibition developed by Jay A. Clarke while at the Art Institute of Chicago, faced that particular narrative directly in a re-examination of the work of Edvard Munch, an artist who embodied the anxiety-driven painter as much as any of his contemporaries.[1]

What Clarke presents, however, is a more realistically grounded view of how Munch both genuinely experienced some of his personal afflictions, and how he manipulated the image of the suffering artist as a successful marketing strategy. As she notes in the first chapter of the exhibition catalogue: "The myth of the artist we know as Edvard Munch was constructed during his lifetime by art historians, critics, and the artist himself; since then, it has been reinforced by our collective fascination with his representations of self-torment" (11). The goal of the exhibition was to examine Munch's artistic persona in the broader context of the social, economic and artistic currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and ultimately, to offer the viewer a more thoughtful understanding of the artist's contributions.

The viewer's introduction to the exhibition began with a flurry of bright banners of Munch images against intense deep orange walls in the large gathering space adjacent to the galleries (fig. 1). This fierce contrast of blue and orange captured the tension inherent in much of Munch's work while also establishing a lively environment for the installation. The first gallery presented the focal point of the exhibition "Creating a Persona," with two self-portraits that exemplify Munch's neurasthenic pose (fig. 2). According to the didactic wall text, it was the critic Andreas Aubert who first described the artist as "neurasthenic" in 1890, and it was a label that Munch took to heart. In his Self-Portrait with Cigarette (1895) he offered a stark and staring image of his own disembodied form against an abstract, hazy blue background, holding a "smoldering cigarette, a badge of his bohemianism" (108), (fig. 3). This type of painting underscored Munch's public image as "physically and morally unstable, and thereby degenerate. Although the canvas was praised just as vociferously as it was denigrated, it became virtually an icon of the sick, socially aberrant artist" (108). In earlier decades, this description of the artist as degenerate—or at least bohemian—would have been a conclusion rather than a starting point for discussion. In this exhibition, it is only the beginning of an exploration into the artistic influences and marketing techniques that Munch employed during his career.

The next gallery, "Isolation and Influence," addresses the key question of the artistic environment in which Munch developed his own particular voice. Although he was loath to admit that other painters inspired or shaped his work, there can be no question that he was fully conscious of the various artistic trends of his time. Two early paintings of his sisters, Evening (1888) and Summer Night: Inger on the Beach (1889), are juxtaposed in this gallery with works by Eilif Peterssen and Claude Monet, reflecting the range of influences that affected Munch (figs. 4 and 5). Peterssen's Summer Evening at Sandø (1884), like Monet's On the Bank of the Seine at Bennecourt (1868), not only provided a compositional model, but also more importantly, attempted to capture the solitary female figure lost in thought in a peaceful landscape. Contextualizing Munch's work in relation to both the French avant-garde and the Norwegian contemporary art scene challenges the perception that he "was an isolated, historically amputated figure" and helps to position him within a European frame of reference (14). One of the most rewarding aspects of this exhibition, in fact, is the presence of artworks drawn from Naturalist, Impressionist and Symbolist movements as well as the myriad national interpretations of these trends.

Because Munch's work has so frequently been interpreted in psychobiographical terms, his connection to other European movements has been overshadowed. Throughout this exhibition however, his awareness of other painters' work is clearly and repeatedly referenced, some as direct influences and some as significant elements in the larger aesthetic environment of fin-de-siècle Europe. First and foremost is the Norwegian art community's tradition of "blue mood" paintings, best exemplified by the work of Peterssen or Frits Thaulow. This blue tonality was associated particularly with Norway's northern landscape of fjords, mountains and most of all, the long summer nights when the sky never entirely loses its blue tinge. A painting such as Mystery on the Shore (1892), which portrays a blue-violet summer sunset, was viewed by German critics as being distinctly Nordic because of its "wild passages of color" (18). Clarke adds in her catalogue essay that the image "also includes folk-inspired anthropomorphic elements such as a smiling, troll-like rock and a tree stump that resembles a woman's flowing hair. …This early work clearly emerged from the distinctly Norwegian tradition of blue mood paintings…" (18). The link between folk traditions and Norwegian regional identity was also part of the nationalist movement towards political independence from Sweden; in fact, Munch's uncle, Professor Peter Andreas Munch, had published a well-known, eight-volume series on Norwegian history (1852-63) entitled Det norske folks historie which strove to distinguish ethnic Norwegians as uniquely distinct from the ruling Swedes.


Figure 6 Edvard Munch, Melancholy, 1894-96. Oil on canvas. The Rasmus Meyer Collection, The Bergen Art Museum (C) 2008 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.




Figure 7 Max Klinger, Abandoned, Plate 5 from A Life, 1884. Etching and aquatint in dark brown and reddish orange ink on lightweight off-white wove paper, laid down on heavyweight off-white wove plate paper. The Art Institute of Chicago.




Figure 8 Installation showing “The Street” gallery of the exhibition. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.




Figure 9 Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873. Oil on canvas. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.




Figure 10 Edvard Munch, Rue de Rivoli, 1891. Oil on canvas. Harvard Art Museum, Fogg Art Museum. (C) 2008 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Munch's awareness of artistic currents in other parts of Europe is documented as well. In the gallery labeled "Melancholy," his 1894-96 painting of the same title was compared to works by Gauguin, van Gogh, Jean-Charles Cazin and Max Klinger in order to illustrate the wide range of sources that influenced Munch's development during this formative decade (fig. 6). Gauguin's Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889) serves as model for the artist's self-image as a solitary, misunderstood figure; van Gogh's compassionate drawing, Weeping Woman (1885), captures the sense of human sorrow of loss and loneliness so prominent in Munch's painting, as does Klinger's isolated woman on a beach in Abandoned (fig. 7). More unexpected is Cazin's brooding figure of Ulysses leaning against a rocky outcropping in Ulysses After the Shipwreck (1880-84), again emphasizing the plethora of imagery, sources, and ideas that Munch absorbed in the process of creating his own artistic reputation.

A more direct borrowing can be seen in the gallery entitled "The Street" where Gustave Caillebotte's A Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann (c. 1880) was an obvious source for Munch's painting, Rue Lafayette (1891) (fig. 8). During a span of about three years between 1889 and 1891 when Munch received a scholarship to study in France, the artist explored images of the street in both Paris and Kristiania (now Olso), absorbing ideas and technical approaches from such diverse sources as the Naturalist paintings of Christian Krohg's Village Street in Grez (1882) and George Clausen's Schoolgirls, Haverstock Hill (1880) to Caillebotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) and Monet's iconic Impressionist painting of Boulevard des Capucines (1873) (fig. 9). Munch's visual responses to these images in turn evolved from the 1889 Naturalist painting, Music on Karl Johan, to the strikingly abstract and frenetic 1891 Rue de Rivoli (fig. 10). As Clarke described him in the opening chapter of the catalogue, "…Munch was like a sponge, soaking up motifs, painting styles, technical tricks, marketing strategies, and aesthetic postures from a wide variety of sources" (11).

Back in Norway by the spring of 1892, Munch had already begun the process of analyzing the most effective marketing techniques for his work, part of which included the creation of his own image as a decadent, unstable and tortured artist. Munch's diaries, which have often provided psychological and personal explanations of his imagery, turn out to have been largely created for just this purpose. Curator Clarke comments that the diaries were written "…with an eye to publication as literary works and are marked by a keen desire to shape his posthumous reputation. In 1929, Munch himself admitted that these texts were ‘partly true experiences, and partly produced by my imagination'"(61). Not unlike Gauguin's Noa Noa, Munch's diaries were intended to promote his legacy as an artistic pioneer living solely for the sake of art in spite of the personal anguish this created. This is not to minimize the very real mental and physical illnesses that plagued Munch's family; his older sister Sophie died of tuberculosis as a teenager and his youngest sister Laura suffered from either schizophrenia or bipolar depression. Further, all five of the Munch children were left motherless shortly after Laura's birth, and were raised primarily by their Aunt Karen. Nonetheless, Munch learned early in his career that such adversity could also enhance his reputation as a shockingly outré artist.

The exhibition that launched Munch's career as an international artist opened in November 1892 at the Verein Berliner Künstler, the rather conservative, state-sponsored art society of Prussia. Berlin under the control of chancellor Otto von Bismarck was not the most welcoming environment for paintings that echoed, however distantly, the Symbolist tendencies of French art, so the exhibition's abrupt closure four days after its opening was not entirely unexpected. Munch's works were at the heart of the scandal, but it was the fact that the Verein board of directors shut down the show that turned the episode into a cause célèbre. Modernist artists within the Verein seceded while conservative advocates petitioned that the show be permanently closed. Critics weighed in with popularized versions of pathological analysis condemning Munch as an example of the "hyperstimulated, diseased artist" who produced morally corrupt images that might well endanger the German public. In contrast, there were also positive reviews from less partisan critics who understood both the expressive and formal innovations of the work. In short, the whole affair brought Munch a wealth of publicity and welcome international attention, a fact that he commented on in a letter to his Aunt Karen: "Well, I never thought there would be so much commotion…The whole uproar has been most amusing… I could hardly have had better publicity" (65). It must be noted that this shrewd—and even enthusiastic—perspective was recorded in a personal letter rather than in the artist's diaries. The lasting result of the "Munch Affair" was that the artist spent the next nine months touring his scandalous paintings throughout Germany, not expecting to sell anything, but charging an admission fee at every gallery. This experience proved to be a valuable lesson in marketing which Munch continued to implement for many years.


Figure 11 Edvard Munch, Kiss by the Window, 1892. Oil on canvas. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. (C) 2008 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.




Figure 12 Installation showing the “Anxiety” gallery of the exhibition. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.




Figure 13 Edvard Munch, Anxiety, 1894. Oil on canvas. Munch Museum, Oslo. (C) 2008 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.




Figure 14 Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1895. Lithograph in black ink on cream card. The Art Institute of Chicago. (C) 2008 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.




Figure 15 Installation showing the transitional gallery featuring Puberty and TheAwakening. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.




Figure 16 Edvard Munch, Madonna, 1895. Lithograph in black ink with additions in brush and red, green, blue, black, and yellow watercolor on mottled gray-blue wove paper (discolored to gray-green), laid down on heavyweight white wove paper. The Art Institute of Chicago. (C) 2008 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.




Figure 17 Installation showing “The Femme Fatale” gallery of the exhibition. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.




Figure 18 Installation showing “The Femme Fatale” gallery featuring Jane Avril and The Acid Thrower. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.




Figure 19 Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1896. Oil on canvas. Göteborg Museum of Art, Göteborg, Sweden. (C) 2008 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.




Figure 20 Installation showing “The Sick Room” gallery of the exhibition. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.




Figure 21 Anna Ancher, The Funeral, 1891. Oil on canvas. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.




Figure 22 Edvard Munch, Golgotha, 1900. Oil on canvas. Munch Museum, Oslo. (C) 2008 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.




Figure 23 Installation showing “Myth and National Culture” gallery of the exhibition. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago. Figure 24 Installation showing “Bathing and Regeneration” gallery of the exhibition. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.




Figure 24 Installation showing “Bathing and Regeneration” gallery of the exhibition. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

The paintings that caused all the fuss in Berlin included the original version of The Sick Child (1885-86) and Kiss by the Window (1892) (fig. 11). At the Art Institute of Chicago, these works and a number of other presumably scandalous paintings were included in a series of galleries dealing with sexuality, illness and anxiety. These spaces were all painted a dark olive brown with spotlighting on the paintings (fig. 12). This design worked surprisingly well in terms of showcasing the art, but it also tended to foster a somewhat sleepy environment so that moving into the sunnier galleries at the end of the exhibition felt like a welcome relief from so much gloom. As in the earlier galleries, Munch's work was displayed in the context of his contemporaries. The gallery entitled "Anxiety" incorporated one of his most enigmatic paintings, The Storm (1893) as well as the better-known works, Evening on Karl Johan (1892) and Anxiety (1894) (fig. 13). Here are the mask-like figures of good Norwegian citizens as well as the skull-like faces that are most famously seen in The Scream (fig. 14). James Ensor's 1911 painting, The Intrigue, hangs nearby, offering a remarkable counterpoint to these earlier images; despite their apparent similarities, the cynicism of Ensor's spiteful crowd provides a startling contrast to the sheer loneliness of Munch's eerie figures when seen side by side.

In the next gallery, "The Dance of Life" is explained in the wall text: "Here he sought to distill his inter-related motifs of purity, sexuality and death, bringing the events, landscapes and loves of life together at one moment in time." Again, there is an impressive range of images culled from both famous and obscure works. Dance of Life (1899-1900) itself is of course included, as are examples of similar scenes from Anders Zorn and Gauguin, as well as Jósef Rippl-Ronai's The Country Dance (1896), which seems very close to Munch's work as well as that of Emile Bernard's Brittany paintings. This gallery flows into the next, which is labeled "Sexuality and Ambivalence", by way of a small transitional space where two large paintings depict the rather painful sexual awakening of adolescence. Munch's 1894-95 image of a teenage girl, titled Puberty, conveys all the awkwardness, ambiguity and nascent sexuality associated with that stage of life (fig. 15). Although this painting has been read as both a threatening image of incipient female carnality and as the depiction of the natural ambivalence a young girl might feel about growing into womanhood, there is no clear answer. The interpretation remains in the emotional and psychological character of the viewer—whether that is the misogynistic perspective of many earlier male critics or that of a more sympathetic contemporary viewer. Hanging at right angles to Puberty is Magnus Enckell's The Awakening (1894), a portrayal of a similar stage of life for a young man. Clarke points out in the catalogue that "…historiographically, this representation of a young man has been read primarily as an intellectual awakening, whereas that of the girl in Puberty has been seen as sexual. In fact, the anxious faces and bodies of both figures contain elements of physical and psychic arousal" (81, 86). Both paintings are powerful representations of familiar and disturbing coming of age phase of life.

In the adjacent gallery were many of Munch's troubling sexual images of women as vampires as well as isolated figures consumed with longing and desire (fig. 16). These are also very familiar images, here put into the context beside the work of Auguste Rodin, Félicien Rops and Odilon Redon who conducted similar explorations into the fear of female sexuality and power. The image of the femme fatale provides the focus of the following gallery, which announces its subject matter with the Art Institute's own overwhelming Beata Beatrix (1872) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (fig. 17). In this single image are contained all of the presumably dangerous qualities associated with women: beauty, sexual desirability, inaccessibility, and sadly in this particular case, suicide. Beata Beatrix embodies the artist's muse as well as death, themes that recur not only in Munch's imagery, but also throughout the late nineteenth century. In addition, this gallery offers more active images of women—and perhaps more genuinely dangerous women—in works such as Toulouse-Lautrec's poster of Jane Avril (1893) and Eugène Grasset's The Acid Thrower, (1894) (fig. 18). Jane Avril was no suicidal flower, wilting away under psychological pressures, but rather a woman who controlled her own destiny as much as possible for her time; likewise, Grasset's acid thrower is an anarchist, fired by the injustice of oppression and willing to engage in violent guerrilla tactics. Not only do these images offer alternatives to the more static projections of women as vampires or demons whose sole preoccupation seems to be the destruction of men, but they also remind the viewer of the many variations on the theme of the femme fatale.

Adjacent to the galleries dedicated to images of dangerous women is another transitional space, this one devoted to a single image, "The Sick Child". Munch's 1896 version of The Sick Child was shown here in conjunction with three transfer lithographs featuring the head of the ailing girl in different color palettes. The theme of the sick child had generated an extraordinary public response, so much so that the artist eventually created six versions of the oil painting and a large number of prints on the same subject. In this small space with dark blue walls, the visitor had the opportunity to view several states of the lithographs, and to compare these more intimately scaled images with the larger oil on canvas. It also served as a reminder that Munch was well aware that his work held appeal for a middle class audience that could afford to purchase prints. A discussion of Munch's printmaking was included in this gallery as well, although a more comprehensive exploration of this crucial aspect of his work is the subject of a full chapter in the catalogue. The theme of "The Sick Room" continues in the following gallery with images of death and dying, encompassing Munch's images of dead mothers as well as Hans Heyerdahl's 1889 painting of The Dying Child which was the original inspiration for The Sick Child, and Anna Ancher's beautiful depiction of A Funeral (1891) which Munch may well have seen in Copenhagen at the Charlottenborg Palace (188) (figs. 20 and 21).

Ironic though it may seem, intimations of a more optimistic perspective begin to appear in the gallery devoted to the theme of "Persecution and Renewal." Here the images of the artist as a Christ figure dominate: Ensor's Christ Tormented (1888) and Christ Tormented by Demons (1895); Henri de Groux's Christ Among his Tormentors (1894-98); and Klinger's Suffer! (1884). All testify to the prevalence of the self-imposed perception of the artist as a particularly persecuted individual in the late nineteenth century. Munch's composition of Golgotha (1900) fits well with this group of images, even going so far as to label the composition in bright red paint in the upper right corner with an inscription reading "E. Munch Kornhaug Sanatorium 1900" (fig. 22). This reference to his stay in a sanatorium for treatment of alcoholism and emotional exhaustion—a result of his first attempt at breaking off his tumultuous relationship with Tulla Larsen—certainly could have become an exercise in self-pity and paranoia. However, Munch's choice of the traditional visual language of Christianity also seems to suggest a certain level of faith in the promise of redemption, even in the face of the menacing crowd swarming at the foot of the cross.

The shadowy color palette of the walls gives way to a light blue grey in the next gallery where the thematic focus shifts to the topic of "Myth and National Culture" (fig. 23). In some ways this is a reprise of the earliest galleries where Munch's Norwegian blue mood paintings were featured prominently. This gallery introduces a Nordic world full of mermaids, sea nymphs and water spirits, most of them engaged in acting out well- known tales from a magical past. Munch's Summer Night: Mermaid (1893), set on the rocky shore of his summer home at Åsgårdstrand, creates an enchanting blend of myth and reality—almost convincing the viewer that mermaids are a perfectly normal occurrence in the land of the midnight sun. Equally fascinating, albeit more overtly sexual, is the Mermaid (1896) created for the house of the industrialist Axel Heiberg three years later. Surrounding Munch's works are paintings based on recollections from a variety of Nordic tales and epics. Akseli Gallen-Kallela's depiction of a misguided love story from the Finnish Kalevala, for example, captured all the freshness of the crisp northern landscape, rather cheerfully portraying the aging Väinamöinen as he struggles to grasp the beautiful Aino, who flees from her unwanted suitor into the sea where she will be transformed into a nymph. Among all of these fantastical images, there is a spirit of celebration in the beauty of the landscape and the richness of the traditional tales. This aspect of Munch's work, exemplified by his return to Åsgårdstrand nearly every summer of his life, has long been overshadowed by his moodier, more disturbing images, and yet it recurs consistently throughout the "decadent" decades around the turn of the century.

The following gallery picks up the theme of redemption sounded earlier in Munch's Golgotha with an exploration of "Bathing and Regeneration" (fig. 24). These are primarily paintings of male bathers enjoying the healthful benefits of fresh air, sunshine and invigorating sea bathing—all while exercising in the nude and displaying their virility. Munch had begun visiting Norwegian spas in 1899 in pursuit of a cure for his own physical and psychiatric ailments, and it was at this time that he began to paint these scenes of bathing men (172). Clarke explains that the phenomena of the health spa emerged in the 1890s, coincident with "advent of private sanatoria focused on alcoholism, neurasthenia, and tuberculosis" (172). This is a very different world from that of the vampire women, dying children, and angst-ridden burghers. Gone too is the artist-martyr, once again emphasizing the remarkable diversity of Munch's production. Equally telling is the fact that the artist "…remained in control of his public image, his exhibition and marketing strategies, and his artistic production" even when he was visiting health spas or checked into psychiatric clinics for alcoholism (157). The "mad Munch" was a convenient and profitable persona designed to accommodate the artist's genuine afflictions while simultaneously deploying a highly sophisticated marketing program.

And then there was the Munch Scholar's Day. In connection with the exhibition, Jay Clarke and her project team organized a symposium of art historians with a particular interest in Munch. The presenters at this event included some of the best Munch scholars working today as well as some excellent newcomers to the field. Most significantly, all of the participants and speakers gathered early in the morning to view the paintings before the arrival of the general public in the galleries. This event—rare enough in itself—afforded an unprecedented opportunity for a relatively small group of art historians to actually sit around in front of the paintings and talk about them. Throughout the day, participants and presenters alike repeatedly remarked on how exceptional the event was, and how much everyone would like to see more of this type of programming at museums. To say it was a rare treat would be an understatement.

Finally, it should be noted that Becoming Edvard Munch opened up some new avenues of exploration in Munch's work, as well as offering a welcome expansion of art historical insight into his thematic scope as well as his pragmatic handling of the business of art. Although entirely necessary to a full art historical assessment of an artist, a psychobiographical narrative can also divert scholars from a thorough comprehension of both the individual and the artwork. This exhibition might serve as a model for addressing that issue, and for applying equally judicious amendments to other artists suffering not from degeneracy and decadence, but from an excess of public appreciation for a great bohemian story.

Janet Whitmore
Harrington College of Design
janetwhimore[at]earthlink.net



[1] As of 4 May 2009, Jay A. Clarke became the Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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