Nature radiates, vibrates, mutates. It chants, sways and dances. Two shows at the Clark Institute illuminate this joy and complexity through the phenomenological renditions of Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and his intimate relationship with nature, as well as eight “positions” of contemporary artists reflecting on the Anthropocene.
Half of Edvard Munch’s works engage with nature, yet he isn’t widely known as a landscape artist. The Clark Institute addresses this misperception in an authoritative new show, “Trembling Earth,” which centers Munch’s enduring longings with more than seventy-five paintings, prints and drawings that act as visual diaries.
“It reminds me of how I see the world when I’m sick,” one visitor says. Sick he was, but there’s much more to Munch than disorder and uncanniness. His acute awareness of nature’s potency may have induced an altered vision and experience—one that’s riveting.
In “Trembling Earth,” Munch’s nature sizzles and its colors, textures, seasons and folklore are deeply experienced by the cosmopolitan artist who visited and lived in the bubbling art capitals of Paris and Berlin, yet remained rooted in small Norwegian towns such as Åsgårdstrand, Ekely, Kragerø and Hvitsten.
These sites inspired much of his art at a time when industrialization, scientific discoveries and philosophical theories engaged in an evolving relationship with the natural world and our place in it.
Munch, a well-read artist curious about ideas, connected with the tenets of German thinker Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) who defended the notion of an evolutionary world comprised of spirit and matter. He represents his adherence to monism—the belief that everything is one, life is all, and thus interconnected—in a 1930 drawing that shows three concentric energy circles stacked on top of one another. At the bottom, a trembling earth propels the others.
“The soil of the earth longed for the air,” Munch wrote aphoristically. “Everything is alive and in motion.”
Munch questioned the nature of nature. Convoking the atmosphere of Grimm’s fairytales and folk traditions, forests are haunted, eerie kingdoms. We see this in Children of the Forest (1901-1902), The Magic Forest (1919-1925) and The Fairytale Forest (1927-1929), which depict woods as secret, impenetrable worlds, with human as well as nonhuman characters. Dreamlike, evergreen trees and skies espouse the shifting shapes of flames.
Munch also recognizes the sublime, a magnetic force revealed in The Yellow Log (1912), a mesmerizing composition of depth and vibrancy that invites us to consider differentiation, as well as cyclical time—growth, decomposition, death. The viewer walks into the painting like the inside of a nave, observing the texture of the tree barks enhanced with scale-like accents.
Nature is a place of nourishment and symbolic abundance (Fertility, 1899-1900) but also quiet desolation. These distinct qualities tend to fade and merge; nature, like Munch’s work, evades strict categorization. What Munch does is capture the edge of a continuous movement via swirls and determined undulations, sculptural brushstrokes, organic matter from his plein-air practice and a distorted lens that becomes elevated.
Munch is a master of vivid liminality which is exalted in endless moonlights that melt into the sea like the wax of an incandescent candle, totemic beach stones, diffracted suns, moody wintry nights and his ingenious pairing of hues. Novelist Karl Ove Knausgård, a fellow Norwegian and fervent admirer of Munch, speaks of his “physicality of color” in a book devoted to the artist. The result is unique, color and texture converge in a song of adoration and grief.
The impressive visual range presented in the show reminds of Munch’s singular approach; he pioneered expressionism (Spring Ploughing, 1916) and included proto-surrealist oneiric scenes, as well as impressionistic touches. The disturbing, destabilizing, dizzying curvature of The Scream permeates the show and reveals a complementary sensibility.
A lithograph of The Scream (1895) makes us wonder: is Munch a godfather of eco-anxiety? The iconic painting (and emoji) may have more to shout back at us than an inscrutable void. Munch reportedly felt “a vast, endless scream [that] passed through nature,” which helps us understand his attempt at articulating conflicts between outer and inner worlds.
In a different part of The Clark, the artists included in the contemporary group show “Humane Ecology” question their multifaceted relationship with nature through the lens of displacement, indigeneity, violence, love and death. Impermanence is a guiding thread of these mycelial conversations which stretch from Los Angeles to Thailand.
Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio’s large-scale installation Mano dura (2023) and Pulmón #2 (2023) engages with uprootedness and bonding via the cultural and historical significance of the ficus rubber tree, brought to Los Angeles in the mid-20th century for its shade-friendly canopy. Aparicio turns the tree into a breathing, skin-like material in his installation that, like the Central American migrant workers who arrived around the same time (Aparicio is Salvadorian), is extracted for its sweat and blood—their two saps coalesce into a metaphoric stream of pain and healing.
Land and sovereignty unite the works of Carolina Caycedo’s Power to Nurture (2023) and Christine Howard Sandoval’s works on handmade paper. Caycedo’s meditative altars and calls to action contained in micro-manifestos anchor the trailblazing role and voice of eco-feminists, underpinning life as a desire, a choice and a responsibility to nurture. Medicinal plants underscore the healing properties of nature, the recognition of indigenous knowledge and science and the possibility of alternative models to exploitative capitalism.
Howard Sandoval, a member of the Chalon Indian Nation, remembers the destruction of ancestral land in contrast with indigenous care that she represents in material such as highly-saturated soot and bear grass, with line-work that channels dormant furrows and roads of exile. The burning marks symbolize controlled burns, a technique used to maintain indigenous habitats, as well as scars of erasure and dispossession.
The show also includes works by Allison Janae Hamilton, Pallavi Sen, and Kandis Williams. Across geography—whether urban, rural, developed or so-called developing—multiple mythologies and cosmogonies (Korakrit Arunanondchai’s breathtaking justice-driven video work Songs for Dying, 2021) and various mediums (an immersive sound-based sculptural work of Juan Antonio Olivares that re-creates a deconstructed shoreline) weave threads of kinship and community free from moralizing prescriptions.
Instead, they conjure new interrogations about what they see and experience. A beautiful Pissarro, such as The River Oise near Pontoise (1873) which is part of The Clark’s permanent collection, hints at the dawn of the Anthropocene Age with the ominous presence of a factory and its smoke. Other permanent collection pieces at The Clark, such as Romanticist bucolic landscapes untouched by human life, have often been used to visually justify colonial enterprises in land deemed “uninhabited” or under-exploited, but these aesthetic and political constructs are a fantasy. Instead, these images illustrate our collective denial of a two-way relationship and interdependency.
In Williamstown, MA, cows graze on a hill on land that belonged to the Mohican people. Beyond acknowledgment—which The Clark does, and Caycedo’s installation notably features a portrait of Ella Besaw, a herbalist from the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Tribe— the question posed is how can we crucially give back what we’ve taken, repair what has been broken? It feels too late in many ways. From Munch to contemporary artists, nature shrieks and what remains is a poignant loss.
Curated by Jay A. Clarke (who wrote a book in 2009 dispelling stubborn myths about Munch), Trine Otte Bak Nielsen and Jill Lloyd, “Trembling Earth” succeeds at channeling our gaze toward an artist whose troubled life has often overshadowed his art. Together with “Humane Ecology,” curated by Robert Wiesenberger, the two exhibitions translate our need to connect with humans and nonhuman species on deeper, affective levels of entanglement.
“Trembling Earth” is on view through October 15. “Humane Ecology” is on view through October 29.