Has there ever before been an exhibition devoted to the paintings of the Norwegian master Edvard Munch (1863-1944) in a New York gallery? Munch’s prints are well known, of course, and justly admired. Yet it is only isolated examples of his paintings that we get to see, even in our museums. I cannot recall ever seeing an exhibition of them in a commercial gallery before now. The current show, called Edvard Munch: Paintings, 1892-1917 at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery, is therefore something of an event, at least for those of us who have a keen interest in this extraordinary artist.
This show of nine paintings–the bulk of them from what is generally thought to be the artist’s best period–could not have been an easy exhibition to assemble. Munch’s copious oeuvre has long been fraught with vexing problems. He hated parting with his paintings, and sometimes made copies of them when he was obliged to sell the originals. Of the many pictures that he kept in his own possession, he was not an ideal custodian. There are photographs of the paintings sitting out of doors, for viewing in the Oslo winter landscape–a practice that guaranteed the pictures would prove a nightmare for the conservators who ultimately had to deal with them. In other words, Munch was as neurotic about the care and possession of his paintings as he was about every other aspect of his life.
Fortunately, he allowed the National Gallery in Oslo to acquire a sizable number of his works in his lifetime, and then left his own huge collection of paintings, drawings, prints, letters and documents to the city of Oslo on his death. It was to house this bequest that the Munch Museum at Toyen, outside Oslo, was created in the 1960’s. But that sometimes led to further problems, as certain items from the bequest turned up on the European art market. Nothing about Munch’s oeuvre , or the man himself, is simple or tidy.
Be that as it may, Munch remains one of the pivotal figures in modern painting, the artist who introduced what Oskar Kokoschka–no mean master of the genre himself–called “the modern Inferno” into the art of his time. In a period like our own a century later, in which depictions of extreme states of feeling are commonplace at every level of cultural life, it might have been expected that Munch’s characteristic imagery of erotic anguish and other varieties of psychological panic would have lost some of its edge. Yet this turns out not to be the case, at least in my experience of his work.
In the current exhibition, the most explicit account of these extreme emotions is to be found in the painting called Vampire (1917), yet an undercurrent of the same vein of anguish haunts even a relatively placid painting like Fertility (1894), with its obvious allusions to the Garden of Eden and its fable of lost sexual innocence. It is there, too, in landscapes like Mystery of the Beach (1892) and By the Shore (1898-1904), for nature itself is never a benign presence in Munch’s painting. Munch once described Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm as “the greatest winter landscape in Norwegian art,” and Munch himself was clearly intent upon investing his own landscape art with a similar spirit of psychological intensity and symbolism.
It was owing to both the originality and the intensity of the vision he brought to his painting in the 1890’s that Munch became something of a hero and an influence in the avant-garde milieux of Paris and Berlin in the decade preceding his nervous collapse in 1908. This was the period of his friendships with Ibsen and Strindberg, with the French poet Mallarmé and the German critic Julius Meier-Graefe. Open to the most radical currents of the period, Munch drew upon French painting and German philosophy–specifically Gauguin and Nietzsche–to bolster the authority of his own life experience as the basis of his art. As a consequence, he was himself to exert an enormous influence on the Expressionist movement in Germany in the early years of the 20th century, and even in France something of his influence can be discerned in the early paintings which Bonnard, who was so very different from Munch in other respects, devoted to the subject of sexual anguish.
To see Munch’s paintings in any quantity, however, you still have to go to Norway. This is what I did some 40 years ago, traveling by ship to Oslo in the dead of winter, an experience that provided many keys to Munch’s work. For much that we might otherwise attribute to a macabre symbolism in his paintings–the shadowy distortion of faces and figures on the ill-lighted streets of nocturnal Oslo, the blood-orange disk of the sun as it rises in a lavender sky at midday in winter, the look of weary panic engendered by the overlong season of darkness and cold and ice–turn out to be the sheerest realism of everyday life once you are there. To visit Oslo in winter affords not only an opportunity to see Munch’s paintings, but to encounter their existential roots as well.
Edvard Munch: Paintings, 1892-1917 is no substitute for an experience of that sort, and the show itself is slightly undermined by some of the absurdly elegant frames that strike such a false note in relation to the dour sensibility of the paintings themselves. Still, for anyone interested in one of the key figures in the history of modern art, this is a show that is not to be missed, and it remains on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery, 1018 Madison Avenue at 78th Street, through March 10.