Edvard Munch: Not the Woman-Hater You Thought He Was

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The MoMA has done it again. They’ve brought us another huge, ambitious show, in the vein of last summer’s Cezanne-Pisarro. This time, the subject is Edvard Munch. The show is excellent—it not only rehabilitates the underrated Munch but also sheds new light on the artist. With many little-known works in addition to the greatest hits, MoMA reveals a deeper, more complex Munch than the gloomy, misogynistic caricature.

Edvard Munch spent his early career in the bohemian community in Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway. Mentored by local painters like Christian Krogh, he tried his hand first at naturalism, then at impressionism. Later, he joined the prolific avant-garde in Berlin, where he met the playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg.

Munch designed sets for Ibsen and illustrated many of his plays. Under Ibsen’s influence, Munch developed an interest in depicting the human psyche, with all its pain and inherent contradictions – appearances and reality, desire and duty. He also shared Ibsen’s ambivalence about sexuality and suspicion of women. The show includes Ibsen in the Grand Café, a portrait Munch painted of Ibsen. The playwright’s themes are easy to see in works like Inheritance I: this terrifying painting depicts a crying woman with a deformed, alien-like child in her lap.

The femme fatale figure makes frequent appearances in the most famous of Munch’s works. In Vampire, a woman kisses a helpless man on the neck while her red hair swirls around them like blood or tentacles. The Dance of Life, part of his Frieze of Life series, depicts a seductive woman in a red dress dancing with a young minister. Also not to be missed is Harpy, in which a winged, clawed woman hovers over a bone-thin, helpless man. And, of course, there is the erotic and mesmerizing Madonna. With her cold smile and sleepy, predatory sensuality, and with fetuses and sperm bordering the woodblock print version, she is life and death united.

But the man who painted things like Vampire in the 1890s did some unexpected things later in life. These are things you never see, like Sphinx: Androgynous Self-Portrait (1909). Here is Munch, with breasts and feminine long hair. Eighteen years later, he painted another, still more startling Androgynous Self-Portrait. Here is his head and strong, masculine arms joined with the sagging breasts of an old woman, rendered in bright, expressionistic smears and drips. Still later, he painted Self-Portrait As Reclining Nude, in which the already elderly Munch himself assumes the pose held by innumerable young girls in his studio.

Munch was also an expert and innovative printmaker, and I was glad to see an entire room devoted to his woodcuts. He used an experimental technique in which he sawed a wood block into several sections and inked each in a different color. These are often stylized versions of his painted compositions, such as The Kiss and The Scream. The two woodblocks are, by the way, the only versions of The Scream on view here. Many of these, such as the several versions of The Kiss, are abstract experiments with form, line, and texture that, after a few attempts, bear only a tangential resemblance to the original composition. They are a perfect means through which to appreciate the formal beauty of Munch’s work.

This is a comprehensive and well-organized show. Apart from its other good qualities, it does what any good presentation of Munch’s work must do: it leaves you reeling emotionally. The man who painted The Scream was, like fellow Norwegian Knut Hamsun, an expert at reproducing the inward struggles of the tortured psyche. All those masklike faces and northern fjords won’t fail to touch you.

-Julia Butareva

Edward Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul
On view until May 8th
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
Personally, I take the 1 to Columbus Circle, then walk.

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  1. M.R.  

    Remember, Columbia ID holders can get into the MoMA for FREE, and get to use the VIP line too if I recall correctly.

    In addition, for all you iPod monkeys, you can download and MP3 tour of the exhibit:

  2. Old News  

    Glad the Bwog is covering this--and only 2 months late!

    Thanks Bwog!

  3. Go directly to the info desk  

    ...for tickets, and skip the (oft lengthy) line.

  4. nicely done  

    There are some startling family portraits as well. One is particular, of his sister Inger, is rendered so beautifully that it's frightening.

  5. Mr. Grrr  

    Indeed, it's a fantastic exhibit. The audio tour is a must--if you don't do the iPod thing, try and find a day during the week when audio-guides are sponsored.

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