The torment of Norway's greatest artist

Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul

February 19 – May 8, 2006
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Girl Kindling a Stove (1883)On my first visit to the Edvard Munch exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art I was overwhelmed by the number of people swarming through the galleries. There must have been 60 in each room at any one time. It was impossible to concentrate on the works which have been presented as The Modern Life of the Soul. To understand the meaning of "soul" in this context required a second visit, at a quieter time -- an effort that was repaid with a certain sympathy for an artist who both experienced and graphically depicted the anguish underlying the scientific and social changes of the late modern age.

What is drawing so many people to see the Munch retrospective? Probably few would know the Norwegian artist at all except for his famous 1893 picture, The Scream -- and yet that image alone is powerful enough to make one want to know more. What kind of experience produced such a tormented vision? Is it something we can look on with mere curiosity, as belonging to another era, or does it shine a light into the deeper layers of today's glossy and individualistic culture? Perhaps the greatest revelation that Munch has to offer us post-moderns is that, under the surface we cultivate so assiduously, we actually have a soul which may be screaming for attention.

The phenomenal show currently on view at the MOMA is the first to be held in America in almost three decades. It takes a complete look at Edvard Munch’s diverse and stylistically rich artistic career from the 1880s to 1944. The exhibition includes 87 paintings and 50 works on paper grappling with the fundamental truths of human existence: birth, life and death.

The exhibition is organised chronologically. In the first gallery, the viewer is introduced to a young Munch who is beginning to find his own voice as he struggles with the pain of ageing, family death, and thwarted love. The immense second gallery is somewhat daunting with its enormous number of paintings, drawings and woodcuts separated into sub-sections. The final gallery, also sub-partitioned, focuses on late works -- mainly studio paintings, naturalistic explorations and self-portraits.

Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892)Munch remains a product of his age and country. He was born in 1863 outside the small Norwegian town of Kristiania. Early in life, he lost his mother and his beloved sister Sophie, traumas which deeply influenced his later works. He associated with the bohemian community in his home town, and later developed his style in avant garde communities in Paris and Berlin. In 1909, he returned permanently to Norway after years of travel and time in sanatoriums dealing with illness. He died in 1944 after living his final days in semi-seclusion. His overarching desire was, he wrote, to use his art to “understand the meaning of life [and] help others gain an understanding of their lives”.

Munch’s stylistic development reflects his biography. In the 1880s and early 1890s there is a youthful innocence and naïve depiction of people and naturalistic settings that follow an academic rigor and planned symmetry, such as in Girl Kindling a Stove (1883) or Karl Johan Street in Rain (1891). But in 1891, his style changed dramatically, as one can see in the painting Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892). He begins to depict the interior state of the soul with haunting faces gliding down the street framed by lonely, unwelcoming buildings.

The Dance of Life (1899-1900)Over the next decade he became more and more introspective. The Frieze of Life (a series developed during the 1890s and displayed in 1902 in Berlin) examines aspects of human love and its development. The key painting of this period is The Dance of Life (1899-1900). In his words, it embodies “the awakening of love, the dance of life, love at its peak, the fading of love, and finally death”. The dancing figures are metaphors for the passing years and different stages of love: the woman in white on the left embodies innocence, the red-gowned woman in the centre personifies lust, while the woman in black on the right is an emblem of death and old age. The 1892 painting Despair foreshadows his most famous work, The Scream.

As his popularity increased in the early 1900s, he reverted to more conventional portraits, landscapes and studio pictures, like a middle-age adult who has sown his wild oats. Some of the major pieces of this period are The Avenue in Snow (1906) and Black Man Wearing Green Striped Scarf (1916–17).

Late in Munch’s life, his work reflected a concern with his mortality. A self-portrait, Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-42), epitomises his sense of resignation. This is one of his most haunting images of the exhibition because of its lack of hope and joy. Is this the message of “Modern Life of the Soul” -- that when there is no hope in an afterlife or in a transcendent meaning, life and death are experiences of great loneliness and anxiety?

After studying art history at Stanford University, Elizabeth Heil spent over six years working at the Vatican Museums. She is currently completing a Masters Degree in Arts Administration at Columbia University in Manhattan.


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  • Elizabeth Heil