“In my art I have tried to express my own life and its meaning. In so doing I hope that I will also help other people understand their own lives.”
Munch and Expressionism
Neue Galerie, New York: February 18-June 13, 2016
Though it is difficult to determine when exactly Edvard Munch was first exposed to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, one cannot help but think of Existential philosophy’s mustachioed poster boy when considering the Norwegian painter’s work. As with Nietzsche, Munch’s public legacy is colored by an emphasis on his psychological torments and eventual nervous breakdown. His acutely personal exploration of formidable themes such as angst, vulnerability, sin, and alienation only amplify the connection. Both men have become posthumously appointed pop icons, their cantankerous eccentricities tidily smoothed over or reduced to a manageable shorthand—in Munch’s case, the visual meme of “The Scream.”
This we do know: in 1905, Ernest Thiel, a Swedish banker and occasional translator of Nietzsche’s texts, commissioned Munch to execute a portrait of his idol, who had passed away five years earlier. As research, Munch traveled to Weimar, where Nietzsche spent the final years of his life, to pore over the great thinker’s writings and survey his former surroundings. Though the task of portraying a dead man was atypical and challenging, Munch’s final product fluently captures the spirit of its subject, who leans on a railing above an eddying landscape, too lost in thought to consider the heaving, mountainous countryside below him. In Nietzsche, Munch found a kindred spirit, a man who had not only shared his own intellectual intensity and originality, but who had also possessed an all-too-familiar propensity towards illness and depression.
Indeed, The Birth of Tragedy would have been an apt title for Munch’s unwritten childhood memoir. “Sickness and insanity and death were the black angels that hovered over my cradle and have since followed me throughout my life,” he once wrote to a friend. When Munch was five years old his mother died of tuberculosis, and nine years later his sister Sophie—his favorite of four siblings—succumbed to the same disease at the age of fifteen. Munch’s father, a military doctor who came from a long line of intellectuals, was greatly altered by these events, funneling his grief towards an increasingly obsessive religious fervor. The previously convivial patriarch with a vast reserve of historical sagas and ghost stories was gone, replaced by an underemployed and withdrawn figurehead. He himself had become a ghost.
Edvard, a sickly child who frequently had to be pulled from school, was understandably afraid of succumbing to the same transformation. Haunted by the illness and insanity that genetically encircled him, he developed a particularly macabre imagination at a young age, and quickly came to see these qualities as pre-conditions for his art. His aunt, who had taken a significant role in raising her sister’s children, was the first person to notice this creative intensity and encouraged him to abandon technical school for the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania, as Oslo was then called.
It was there that Munch first encountered the artistic and philosophical forces that were the focus of Nietzsche’s widely panned first publication, The Birth of Tragedy. At the time, Kristiania was an insular, staid, and overwhelmingly middle class city completely in thrall to the progress, clarity, and logic of the Apollonian mindset. Inspired by the reappraisals of traditional values already underway in Paris, Munich, and other European centers, members of Kristiania’s bohemian minority began to fight for their personal and artistic freedom in the early 1880s. Not surprisingly, they were met with outright hostility. Because of this especially negative reaction, the freethinking creatives took an increasingly antagonistic approach, embracing anarchism and nihilism along with a comparatively benign affection for Impressionist painting and the novels of Zola.
The bohemians’ mutinous efforts were led by figures like the writer Hans Jaeger, who was briefly imprisoned in 1885 following the publication of a scandalous, largely autobiographical novel. Though Munch did find inspiration amidst this heady scene, painting a notable portrait of Jaeger and several depictions of café society, socially he was a bit of an outsider. The generally debauched environment was difficult for a young man prone to illness, and his reserved disposition made him more of a spectator to his companions’ animated polemics, rather than a participant in them. Though many in his circle were infatuated with Nietzsche, Munch was at least implicitly aware that their aversion to Apollonian order had resulted in an excessive embrace of Dionysian liberation, which had significant consequences like syphilis, suicide, alcoholism, and brawling. Though reveling in the face of death had its creative merits, Munch’s own history of tragedy prevented him from romanticizing mortality and helped him see that great art needed to combine passion with coherence.
Still, Munch’s consistently individualistic path brought continual challenges and attacks. Possessing a “contempt for realism” from the start, he even began to chafe at the restrictions of Impressionism, pushing beyond them with his landmark 1886 painting “The Sick Child,” (the first of six eventual versions), which depicts his sister Sophie on her deathbed. Aside from its radical deployment of color contrasts and flat surfaces, the painting is remarkable for the way Munch was able to vividly convey the scene as something actually experienced. The thick impasto brushstrokes are layered with a disorienting verticality, allowing the viewer to join the painter in looking back through the thick and misty film of remembrance. To further the effect, Munch slashed at the still-wet surface with the end of his brush, adding several bunches of horizontal streaks that expose previously applied coats of paint. Despite its vibrating dynamism—or perhaps because of it—the painting was cruelly eviscerated by critics and the general public for its alleged moral indecency, as well as its clear opposition to academic naturalism.
During this period, Munch was met with outrage and revulsion everywhere he turned, only exacerbating his sense of singularity. Though he received continual support from elder figures, Munch would often bridle at their attempts to offer guidance, especially during a tempestuous apprenticeship under the naturalist painter León Bonnat in Paris. But as luck would have it, Munch’s stay in the City of Light coincided with the 1889 Exposition Universelle, which exposed him to the work of three artists who proved highly influential: Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin. As always, Munch was able to take aesthetic guidance while still fashioning his own course, realizing that the vibrant colors the post-Impressionists had used to depict reality could also serve his own art derived more from symbols and emotions.
Because of his unwavering independence, it feels alternately fascinating and peculiar to examine Edvard Munch through the context of coexistence with other artists, which is exactly what the Neue Galerie’s current “Munch and Expressionism” exhibit sets out to do. Comprised of thirty-five paintings and fifty works on paper, most of them prints, the show posits that Munch’s influence helped launch the Expressionist movement led by German and Austrian artists such as Emile Nolde, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Egon Schiele. It was in Berlin that Munch established an international name for himself, residing there for sixteen years beginning after a solo show sponsored by the Verein Berliner Künstler was shut down by censors in 1892. (“The whole uproar has been most enjoyable,” he wrote to a friend. “I could not have asked for better publicity.”) During these years he completed many of his iconic paintings, including the first versions of “The Scream,” “Madonna,” and “Puberty,” all of which appear in various iterations at the Neue. Since the exhibit is otherwise light on masterpieces from the first decades of Munch’s career, the playing field is as level as could be possible, and it becomes increasingly credible to the viewer that Schiele, Kirchner, and others repackaged Munch’s style in much the same way that he did with that of the post-Impressionists. But while the Expressionists were also reacting to outdated visual modes and communicating emotional extremes through subjectivity, their touchstone was the mounting volatility of the modern age, whereas Munch’s simmering intensity came from within. Subjective to the extreme, his deranged sincerity emerges unparalleled.
This is not to say that Munch was unable to communicate to a wide audience. By revealing the dark corners of his mind in a continually direct manner, his work acquired a universal quality without slipping into solipsism. “The Scream” has become so iconic because of the astonishing force with which it communicates the panic of human isolation—during this eternally preserved moment of dread even nature conspires to overpower the embryonic being stranded under the flame of an apocalyptic sunset. Like Baudelaire before him, Munch confronted his audience with morbid realities but also communicated that a flash of imaginative brilliance could momentarily order the chaotic reality of the world and transport both artist and viewer into a realm of previously unknown splendor.
A bit of wall text at the Neue asserts that Munch—along with several artists from Die Brücke collective—was influenced by Nietzsche’s idea that nature was a vital source of regeneration and that an engagement with it could bring about a path to a new humanity. Yet Nietzsche’s thoughts on this theme—as with every theme—are full of intended contradictions, as are Munch’s. Though subjective interpretation of reality may prompt occasional moments of transcendence, it can also actively prevent us from engaging with our surroundings in a palpable way. In addition to “The Scream,” numerous paintings in the exhibit investigate this creative paradox, including “Melancholy,” which portrays a man sitting solemnly on a beachside jetty, too distracted to notice the gently arcing shoreline, the purpling evening sky, or the couple standing on a dock in the distance. In “Separation,” Munch furthers the suggestion that emotion can impede connection to the outside world: an ashen-faced man dressed in black clutches at his heart with a blood-red hand as an ethereal, wispy-haired woman in white passes by. The two figures stand at the edge of a forest that opens out on a shoreline awfully similar to the one in “Melancholy.” The latent misogyny of the work—a man loses himself to thought and memory, while his former lover recedes into a natural world so often characterized as female—presents a dilemma for the contemporary viewer, but it simultaneously posits the claim that humans must try all the harder to unite with their environment. The red mandrake root at the man’s feet, with its folkloric, restorative powers, offers an opportunity for redemption, an antidote to self-involved reflection.
Several other paintings and prints at the Neue underscore Munch’s recurring implication that people’s vanities, neuroses, and past horrors prevent them from connecting with their primeval surroundings. Still others, like “Madonna,” in which a serene yet indifferent woman leans away from her unseen lover (as well as the viewer), hint at Munch’s struggles to connect with people, especially women. After an ill-fated early affair with the wife of a cousin, Munch promised himself he would never marry, instead entering strained and undefined relationships thereafter. If one cannot ever know another human, he seems to have thought, how can one possibly “know” nature?
Clever enough to withhold the answers, yet compelled to keep supplying questions, Munch offers a flicker of respite in the form of the painting “White Night,” completed in 1901. Materializing like the “darkening blue” world of Rainier Maria Rilke’s nearly concurrent poem “Evening,” the painting arrests us with its total engagement with setting and its seeming lack of human presence. Munch’s vantage point from atop a slope invites us to hover over a cluster of knotted pines and look past the jagged outline of a low-lying spruce forest towards a frozen-over fjord embellished with what could be the swirling trails of ice skates. An unseen moon seems to hang behind the viewer, throwing shadows onto the snow below and illuminating the smooth shell of ice, the roof of a tiny windowless house, the ascendant treetops. Despite the iciness of the scene, the sinuous, nearly elastic contours of the trees themselves provide an underlying vivacity, a sensation enhanced by the smattering of stars that float above.
I kept drifting back to “White Night,” enraptured by its sense of yearning as well as my own desire to fully recall the lines from Rilke that I could no longer regard as separate from the painting. “The sky puts on the darkening blue coat/ held for it by a row of ancient trees;/ you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,/ one journeying to heaven, one that falls,” wrote the young German poet (as translated by Stephen Mitchell). Like Munch, Rilke was a preternaturally intense artist devoted to transforming the emptiness of human longing into something momentous. For both men, forests epitomized nature in its most heightened and encompassing form, providing a dark and timeless antithesis to civilization, a place where sense and instinct reign supreme. Such a setting can provide solace, but it can also draw out instinctual fears, prompting the artist to explore his own internal emptiness, to get so lost in this alienating vastness that it becomes a source of comfort and beauty. Rilke and Munch reached for an unconventional creative balance that Nietzsche would have approved of, and both were spurred on by the proclamations made by his character Zarathustra. If God was dead then the duty of the artist was to fill this spiritual void with a more nuanced and inventive deity.
Whether investigating a landscape, himself, or others, Edvard Munch instilled each of his paintings with a throbbing vitality immediately apparent from his gyrating brushstrokes alone. The dynamism and effortlessness with which he gave visual expression to his personal philosophies made him something of a replacement god to the German Expressionists, or perhaps more appropriately, an übermensch. But while Munch possessed the creativity, independence, and spiritual genius required of Nietzsche’s ideal human, he did not long to impose his prejudices and assumptions on the public as an overarching truth, nor aspire to become the all-knowing synthesis of multiple perspectives that characterize the übermensch.
Genius though he may have been, Munch was far too human to accept such an unfeasible station. When, in 1906, he was invited by letter to join Die Brücke, he never deigned to mail a response. Three years later, after an alcohol-fueled bender landed him in a sanatorium, he moved back to Norway, to an estate in bucolic Ekely, where he would more or less spend the rest of his life. During these final decades, the “god” was inspired by the Expressionists he himself had influenced, adopting a looser style and a more vibrant color palette. The version of “Puberty” on display at the Neue is a reinterpretation of his formative 1886 work dated between 1914 and 1916. As with the original, Munch is able to bestow a powerful current of empathy upon the young girl who sits naked upon her bed, her arms crossed diffidently in front of her and her eyes fixed on the unseeable mystery of adulthood that confronts her. While there is certainly an unsettling quality to each version, the rhythmic swatches of red, pink, green, and blue that line the bedroom wall in the later rendering could be seen as the glimmers of brighter experience that Munch brings back to the composition. While the original was painted by a somber young man just through with puberty himself, the later interpretation seems to represent the changing and overlapping perspectives acquired by an individual over the course of a lifetime. As always, Munch was aware that a symbolic exploration of the particular would allow him to most effectively communicate his monumental, often harrowing themes; what had changed was that the solitary painter was now willing to add other layers to his already multifarious worldview, unwittingly drifting all the closer towards Nietzsche’s beacon of awareness, direction, and compassion.