Munch’s Nightmarish Narcissism Prophesied Century’s Obsessions

Here’s an ironclad guarantee: Visitors to Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul, an overview of paintings, drawings and prints by the Norwegian artist at the Museum of Modern Art, will snap to attention upon entering the second gallery of the exhibition.

The canvases that greet the viewer there—Despair (1892), Angst (1894) and Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892)—won’t necessarily be identifiable as individual pictures, though the latter two should be familiar to Munch aficionados. Rather it is their cumulative impact that rings a bell. Piece the paintings together—an undulating blood-red sky here, a gaunt figure there and a careening rush of space—and you essentially have The Scream (1893), Munch’s signature masterwork and one of the most widely recognized images in the world.

Is there anyone who hasn’t come across this painting reproduced in one form or another? Surely somewhere there’s an art-history graduate student busy cataloging all the ways this stark vision of psychological terror has been co-opted. A purveyor of novelty items offers a life-size, inflatable version of Munch’s grimacing everyman—perfect for Halloween! A political button from 1992 asks the question “President Quayle?” with The Scream printed as a backdrop. The list goes on. The picture has become as enduring (if inadvertent) a popular symbol as the Pillsbury Doughboy or Andy Warhol’s Marilyn. Commercial culture, ever omnivorous, makes for strange bedfellows.

A measure of the painting’s hold on the imagination can be seen in its dramatic theft from Oslo’s Munch Museum in 2004. It has yet to be found (another version was stolen, then recovered, a decade earlier). Munch painted four variations altogether. The definitive one resides in the National Gallery in Oslo, an institution that is presumably unwilling to let it travel. Cultural patrimony is to be safeguarded, particularly if it involves a nation’s most significant painter.

In a recent news report, MoMA director Glenn Lowry pooh-poohed the absence of The Scream from their current exhibition, insisting that the curators never considered it indispensable. New Yorkers visiting The Modern Life of the Soul must settle for two lithographs of The Scream, one augmented with watercolor, along with the aforementioned rebus-like re-creation from three disparate canvases.

All the same, the icon’s failure to appear does prove that Munch was no one-hit wonder. The Scream, however singular in terms of its reach, is just one part of the flow of anxiety that surges through the oeuvre. The Sick Child (1896), the hellishly erotic Madonna (1894-95), The Dance of Life (1899-1900), Vampire (1893), Red Virginia Creeper (1900) and, if you believe the curators at MoMA, Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-42)—each painting encapsulates the artist’s preoccupations with physical vulnerability, sexual avarice, emotional alienation and the futility of faith.

Munch’s work can seem prophetic. A line can be drawn from his nightmarish narcissism to Expressionist art, certainly, but also to a century preoccupied with Freudian theory and to contemporary figures like Matthew Barney and (I insist) Oprah Winfrey. Munch’s art helped to usher in a culture wherein an unapologetic celebration of self, however unsavory or amoral, is considered a societal good or, at least, a societal necessity. In this view of things, coherently realized artistic statements are hopelessly antiquated and beside the point. Self-expression is paramount, catharsis the goal. Letting it all hang out is Munch’s legacy.

Kynaston McShine, the exhibition’s curator, demurs. He argues for the universality of Munch’s art. “Through his own will and force,” Mr. McShine writes, “the narrative of Munch’s life and work somehow transforms his personal experiences into a far-reaching examination of … ‘the modern life of the soul.’” (The phrase is the artist’s own.) Yet how modern was Munch as a painter? He was knowledgeable about contemporary developments in art—Munch’s Impressionist pictures, though minor, aren’t unsophisticated. The later paintings, with their choppy, impatient brushwork, betray more than a passing acquaintance with the art of Paul Cézanne and the Fauves.

Yet the best work, dating largely from the 1890’s, draws its strength not from Munch’s sophistication, but from his remove from the radical artistic changes that came to be known as modernism. Isolation can limit an artist’s ability to channel tradition; it can make the work seem small or rootless. In Munch’s case, though, isolation was a boon—it compelled him to bring forth a world defined by its own cloistered logic. The resulting stylistic quirks are indelible and true.

The land is morphing and liquid, the rhythms slow and agitated. Flesh is membranous and taut, as if it could barely contain the contents of the body. Shadows are rendered concrete. Color is reduced to a dour blur. Paint is slurred, wispy. The individuality of figures is subsumed by mood or symbolic portent. Metabolism (1899), with its cadaverous Adam and Eve, posits a world immune to good works. Fertility (1898) is a curse on spring, The Kiss (1892) a eulogy for love. The wonder of the paintings is not how effectively they embody dread, but how blithely they avoid looking ridiculous. Visionary excess, not pictorial skill, counts for a lot in them.

Munch’s paintings of the 20th century—and it is somewhat surprising to realize that he lived to 1944—form a disappointing coda to a decade that witnessed paintings as evocative as The Storm (1893) and Mystery of the Beach (1892). Indeed, modernism ruined Munch. The final galleries at MoMA overflow with the work of a 19th-century sensibility that couldn’t fully grasp the radical artistic transformations taking place around him. The results were a flurry of fractured surface effects and painterly affectations that fatally detract from the dark, unbounded poetry of Munch’s imagery.

The decline in pictorial authority is particularly telling in the part of the exhibition devoted to self-portraiture. Here the canvas isn’t a means for exploring the depths of character, but a mirror for preening. However spooked or existential he may appear, Munch the artist trumps Munch the human being. Display, not insight, is the chief attribute of these paintings.

You need only compare works like Self-Portrait in Bergen (1916) or Self-Portrait by the Window (c.1940) to almost any self-portrait by Max Beckmann or, especially, Pierre Bonnard to sense the emotional fraudulence and self-serving nature of Munch’s efforts in this vein. It is one thing to give body to ugly, confessional emotions. It is quite another to advertise them. Therein lies the distinction between Munch’s art of the 1890’s and the hasty pictures that followed in its long, all but negligible wake.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul is at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, until May 8.

New from Nozkowski

Randall Jarrell once wrote (in an essay published a half-century ago) of the disappointment he felt when reading books by his fellow poets. But as a sharply attuned spectator of the ruthless march of history and its judgments, he cautioned that the critic really “should be uneasy about liking as many as he does. Posterity won’t.”

Yet, despite the glut of throwaway accolades that surge forth from an indulgent art press, the ongoing vitality of our culture depends in part on critics’ going out on a limb for their enthusiasms. The experience of art is nothing if not fueled by ardor. After being dazzled by Thomas Nozkowski’s intimately scaled abstract paintings at Max Protetch Gallery, I’m prepared to say that these pictures will still thrive after posterity has had its say.

This isn’t so brave a prediction—the limb onto which I’ve climbed is precariously weighted with Nozkowski devotees. Over the past 30 years or so, the artist has garnered a sizable, if somewhat stealthy, following. His paintings are in the collections of major museums throughout the country. The critical plaudits listed on his bio would be the envy of any artist, the word-of-mouth among his fellow painters even more so. In other words, he’s a known quantity.

All the same, Mr. Nozkowski’s brand of abstract painting, with its distinctive melding of organic forms and systematic structures, continues to flit below the radar. That’s the point—or a big part of it, anyway: His work is the antithesis of—and the antidote to—the quick fix that prevails in today’s visual culture. Though their painterly seductions are immediately apparent, the pictures are slow-burning and mysterious, and they insist on your undivided attention. It would be good to have one hanging over the mantelpiece, but it would also be a responsibility—the damned thing would never let you leave.

Each composition is a deft synthesis of contradictory elements: hard edges and soft forms, open spaces and snuggling shapes, diagrammatic underpinnings and full-bodied phenomenon. Mr. Nozkowski permits the stubborn voices of these conflicting impulses to speak even as he negotiates a concord between them. On canvas, this process lasts months, even years. Inspired by “the real world”—people, places, things and ideas—he layers, tweaks, nips, tucks, obliterates and then restates it. This approach, which welcomes improvisation, somehow honors the original source even while obscuring it and trumpeting its transformation. The resulting images are both the culmination of a process and its ongoing gestation—a nice conundrum.

A Nozkowski painting is instantly recognizable, yet each of the 13 on display offers a distinct experience—no variations on a theme here. There are, to be sure, recurring quirks in the pictorial vocabulary. Typically, there’s a surface that bears traces of its evolution, with a heraldic event silhouetted within. The tension between figure and ground has long been a staple of the work, though its primacy is lessening somewhat in the new paintings. An elegant yet roughhewn strain of biomorphism—sometimes cartoonish, at times calligraphic—is a constant. Meticulous yet never fussy, Mr. Nozkowski’s skill as a paint-handler has deepened even as it has become loose-limbed. The artist seems happiest allowing the images to develop according to their own immutable logic, taking cues from the often-vexing demands of his materials.

In the best piece at Protetch, a ribbon-like form shimmies against a flexing blue ground riddled with cobbled, geometric apertures. There’s no explaining its oddball blend of sensuality and uniformity—it’s like trying to explain a joke—yet the image seems to embody so much. Mr. Nozkowski packs more mystery, tenderness and sly good humor into one 22-by-28-inch canvas than most artists muster over an entire lifetime. Here’s betting that posterity will recognize his idiosyncratic and deeply principled art for everything it’s worth.

Thomas Nozkowski: New Paintings is at the Max Protetch Gallery, 511 West 22nd Street, until March 18.

Munch’s Nightmarish Narcissism  Prophesied Century’s Obsessions