Becoming Edvard Munch, Influence, Anxiety and Myth
The Art Institute of Chicago
14 February-26 April 2009

Catalogue:
Becoming Edvard Munch, Influence, Anxiety and Myth
Jay A. Clarke
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
232 pages; 245 color and 48 b/w illus; chronology, checklist of exhibition; bibliography; index of works.
$50.00
ISBN: 978-0-300-11950-3

We all know the script: unstable artistic personality suffers through self-destructive life while producing tormented, but brilliant, artwork. It is the stuff of La Bohème, Lust for Life, and endless biographies of [pick one] Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, etc., etc., etc. The cliché of the romantic suffering artist has become a signature trope of western art history as well as popular culture. It is both seductive and marketable. Becoming Edvard Munch, Influence, Anxiety and Myth, an exhibition developed by Jay A. Clarke while at the Art Institute of Chicago, faced that particular narrative directly in a re-examination of the work of Edvard Munch, an artist who embodied the anxiety-driven painter as much as any of his contemporaries.[1]

What Clarke presents, however, is a more realistically grounded view of how Munch both genuinely experienced some of his personal afflictions, and how he manipulated the image of the suffering artist as a successful marketing strategy. As she notes in the first chapter of the exhibition catalogue: "The myth of the artist we know as Edvard Munch was constructed during his lifetime by art historians, critics, and the artist himself; since then, it has been reinforced by our collective fascination with his representations of self-torment" (11). The goal of the exhibition was to examine Munch's artistic persona in the broader context of the social, economic and artistic currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and ultimately, to offer the viewer a more thoughtful understanding of the artist's contributions.

The viewer's introduction to the exhibition began with a flurry of bright banners of Munch images against intense deep orange walls in the large gathering space adjacent to the galleries (fig. 1). This fierce contrast of blue and orange captured the tension inherent in much of Munch's work while also establishing a lively environment for the installation. The first gallery presented the focal point of the exhibition "Creating a Persona," with two self-portraits that exemplify Munch's neurasthenic pose (fig. 2). According to the didactic wall text, it was the critic Andreas Aubert who first described the artist as "neurasthenic" in 1890, and it was a label that Munch took to heart. In his Self-Portrait with Cigarette (1895) he offered a stark and staring image of his own disembodied form against an abstract, hazy blue background, holding a "smoldering cigarette, a badge of his bohemianism" (108), (fig. 3). This type of painting underscored Munch's public image as "physically and morally unstable, and thereby degenerate. Although the canvas was praised just as vociferously as it was denigrated, it became virtually an icon of the sick, socially aberrant artist" (108). In earlier decades, this description of the artist as degenerate—or at least bohemian—would have been a conclusion rather than a starting point for discussion. In this exhibition, it is only the beginning of an exploration into the artistic influences and marketing techniques that Munch employed during his career.

The next gallery, "Isolation and Influence," addresses the key question of the artistic environment in which Munch developed his own particular voice. Although he was loath to admit that other painters inspired or shaped his work, there can be no question that he was fully conscious of the various artistic trends of his time. Two early paintings of his sisters, Evening (1888) and Summer Night: Inger on the Beach (1889), are juxtaposed in this gallery with works by Eilif Peterssen and Claude Monet, reflecting the range of influences that affected Munch (figs. 4 and 5). Peterssen's Summer Evening at Sandø (1884), like Monet's On the Bank of the Seine at Bennecourt (1868), not only provided a compositional model, but also more importantly, attempted to capture the solitary female figure lost in thought in a peaceful landscape. Contextualizing Munch's work in relation to both the French avant-garde and the Norwegian contemporary art scene challenges the perception that he "was an isolated, historically amputated figure" and helps to position him within a European frame of reference (14). One of the most rewarding aspects of this exhibition, in fact, is the presence of artworks drawn from Naturalist, Impressionist and Symbolist movements as well as the myriad national interpretations of these trends.

Because Munch's work has so frequently been interpreted in psychobiographical terms, his connection to other European movements has been overshadowed. Throughout this exhibition however, his awareness of other painters' work is clearly and repeatedly referenced, some as direct influences and some as significant elements in the larger aesthetic environment of fin-de-siècle Europe. First and foremost is the Norwegian art community's tradition of "blue mood" paintings, best exemplified by the work of Peterssen or Frits Thaulow. This blue tonality was associated particularly with Norway's northern landscape of fjords, mountains and most of all, the long summer nights when the sky never entirely loses its blue tinge. A painting such as Mystery on the Shore (1892), which portrays a blue-violet summer sunset, was viewed by German critics as being distinctly Nordic because of its "wild passages of color" (18). Clarke adds in her catalogue essay that the image "also includes folk-inspired anthropomorphic elements such as a smiling, troll-like rock and a tree stump that resembles a woman's flowing hair. …This early work clearly emerged from the distinctly Norwegian tradition of blue mood paintings…" (18). The link between folk traditions and Norwegian regional identity was also part of the nationalist movement towards political independence from Sweden; in fact, Munch's uncle, Professor Peter Andreas Munch, had published a well-known, eight-volume series on Norwegian history (1852-63) entitled Det norske folks historie which strove to distinguish ethnic Norwegians as uniquely distinct from the ruling Swedes.

Munch's awareness of artistic currents in other parts of Europe is documented as well. In the gallery labeled "Melancholy," his 1894-96 painting of the same title was compared to works by Gauguin, van Gogh, Jean-Charles Cazin and Max Klinger in order to illustrate the wide range of sources that influenced Munch's development during this formative decade (fig. 6). Gauguin's Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889) serves as model for the artist's self-image as a solitary, misunderstood figure; van Gogh's compassionate drawing, Weeping Woman (1885), captures the sense of human sorrow of loss and loneliness so prominent in Munch's painting, as does Klinger's isolated woman on a beach in Abandoned (fig. 7). More unexpected is Cazin's brooding figure of Ulysses leaning against a rocky outcropping in Ulysses After the Shipwreck (1880-84), again emphasizing the plethora of imagery, sources, and ideas that Munch absorbed in the process of creating his own artistic reputation.

A more direct borrowing can be seen in the gallery entitled "The Street" where Gustave Caillebotte's A Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann (c. 1880) was an obvious source for Munch's painting, Rue Lafayette (1891) (fig. 8). During a span of about three years between 1889 and 1891 when Munch received a scholarship to study in France, the artist explored images of the street in both Paris and Kristiania (now Olso), absorbing ideas and technical approaches from such diverse sources as the Naturalist paintings of Christian Krohg's Village Street in Grez (1882) and George Clausen's Schoolgirls, Haverstock Hill (1880) to Caillebotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) and Monet's iconic Impressionist painting of Boulevard des Capucines (1873) (fig. 9). Munch's visual responses to these images in turn evolved from the 1889 Naturalist painting, Music on Karl Johan, to the strikingly abstract and frenetic 1891 Rue de Rivoli (fig. 10). As Clarke described him in the opening chapter of the catalogue, "…Munch was like a sponge, soaking up motifs, painting styles, technical tricks, marketing strategies, and aesthetic postures from a wide variety of sources" (11).

Back in Norway by the spring of 1892, Munch had already begun the process of analyzing the most effective marketing techniques for his work, part of which included the creation of his own image as a decadent, unstable and tortured artist. Munch's diaries, which have often provided psychological and personal explanations of his imagery, turn out to have been largely created for just this purpose. Curator Clarke comments that the diaries were written "…with an eye to publication as literary works and are marked by a keen desire to shape his posthumous reputation. In 1929, Munch himself admitted that these texts were ‘partly true experiences, and partly produced by my imagination'"(61). Not unlike Gauguin's Noa Noa, Munch's diaries were intended to promote his legacy as an artistic pioneer living solely for the sake of art in spite of the personal anguish this created. This is not to minimize the very real mental and physical illnesses that plagued Munch's family; his older sister Sophie died of tuberculosis as a teenager and his youngest sister Laura suffered from either schizophrenia or bipolar depression. Further, all five of the Munch children were left motherless shortly after Laura's birth, and were raised primarily by their Aunt Karen. Nonetheless, Munch learned early in his career that such adversity could also enhance his reputation as a shockingly outré artist.

The exhibition that launched Munch's career as an international artist opened in November 1892 at the Verein Berliner Künstler, the rather conservative, state-sponsored art society of Prussia. Berlin under the control of chancellor Otto von Bismarck was not the most welcoming environment for paintings that echoed, however distantly, the Symbolist tendencies of French art, so the exhibition's abrupt closure four days after its opening was not entirely unexpected. Munch's works were at the heart of the scandal, but it was the fact that the Verein board of directors shut down the show that turned the episode into a cause célèbre. Modernist artists within the Verein seceded while conservative advocates petitioned that the show be permanently closed. Critics weighed in with popularized versions of pathological analysis condemning Munch as an example of the "hyperstimulated, diseased artist" who produced morally corrupt images that might well endanger the German public. In contrast, there were also positive reviews from less partisan critics who understood both the expressive and formal innovations of the work. In short, the whole affair brought Munch a wealth of publicity and welcome international attention, a fact that he commented on in a letter to his Aunt Karen: "Well, I never thought there would be so much commotion…The whole uproar has been most amusing… I could hardly have had better publicity" (65). It must be noted that this shrewd—and even enthusiastic—perspective was recorded in a personal letter rather than in the artist's diaries. The lasting result of the "Munch Affair" was that the artist spent the next nine months touring his scandalous paintings throughout Germany, not expecting to sell anything, but charging an admission fee at every gallery. This experience proved to be a valuable lesson in marketing which Munch continued to implement for many years.

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The paintings that caused all the fuss in Berlin included the original version of The Sick Child (1885-86) and Kiss by the Window (1892) (fig. 11). At the Art Institute of Chicago, these works and a number of other presumably scandalous paintings were included in a series of galleries dealing with sexuality, illness and anxiety. These spaces were all painted a dark olive brown with spotlighting on the paintings (fig. 12). This design worked surprisingly well in terms of showcasing the art, but it also tended to foster a somewhat sleepy environment so that moving into the sunnier galleries at the end of the exhibition felt like a welcome relief from so much gloom. As in the earlier galleries, Munch's work was displayed in the context of his contemporaries. The gallery entitled "Anxiety" incorporated one of his most enigmatic paintings, The Storm (1893) as well as the better-known works, Evening on Karl Johan (1892) and Anxiety (1894) (fig. 13). Here are the mask-like figures of good Norwegian citizens as well as the skull-like faces that are most famously seen in The Scream (fig. 14). James Ensor's 1911 painting, The Intrigue, hangs nearby, offering a remarkable counterpoint to these earlier images; despite their apparent similarities, the cynicism of Ensor's spiteful crowd provides a startling contrast to the sheer loneliness of Munch's eerie figures when seen side by side.

In the next gallery, "The Dance of Life" is explained in the wall text: "Here he sought to distill his inter-related motifs of purity, sexuality and death, bringing the events, landscapes and loves of life together at one moment in time." Again, there is an impressive range of images culled from both famous and obscure works. Dance of Life (1899-1900) itself is of course included, as are examples of similar scenes from Anders Zorn and Gauguin, as well as Jósef Rippl-Ronai's The Country Dance (1896), which seems very close to Munch's work as well as that of Emile Bernard's Brittany paintings. This gallery flows into the next, which is labeled "Sexuality and Ambivalence", by way of a small transitional space where two large paintings depict the rather painful sexual awakening of adolescence. Munch's 1894-95 image of a teenage girl, titled Puberty, conveys all the awkwardness, ambiguity and nascent sexuality associated with that stage of life (fig. 15). Although this painting has been read as both a threatening image of incipient female carnality and as the depiction of the natural ambivalence a young girl might feel about growing into womanhood, there is no clear answer. The interpretation remains in the emotional and psychological character of the viewer—whether that is the misogynistic perspective of many earlier male critics or that of a more sympathetic contemporary viewer. Hanging at right angles to Puberty is Magnus Enckell's The Awakening (1894), a portrayal of a similar stage of life for a young man. Clarke points out in the catalogue that "…historiographically, this representation of a young man has been read primarily as an intellectual awakening, whereas that of the girl in Puberty has been seen as sexual. In fact, the anxious faces and bodies of both figures contain elements of physical and psychic arousal" (81, 86). Both paintings are powerful representations of familiar and disturbing coming of age phase of life.

In the adjacent gallery were many of Munch's troubling sexual images of women as vampires as well as isolated figures consumed with longing and desire (fig. 16). These are also very familiar images, here put into the context beside the work of Auguste Rodin, Félicien Rops and Odilon Redon who conducted similar explorations into the fear of female sexuality and power. The image of the femme fatale provides the focus of the following gallery, which announces its subject matter with the Art Institute's own overwhelming Beata Beatrix (1872) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (fig. 17). In this single image are contained all of the presumably dangerous qualities associated with women: beauty, sexual desirability, inaccessibility, and sadly in this particular case, suicide. Beata Beatrix embodies the artist's muse as well as death, themes that recur not only in Munch's imagery, but also throughout the late nineteenth century. In addition, this gallery offers more active images of women—and perhaps more genuinely dangerous women—in works such as Toulouse-Lautrec's poster of Jane Avril (1893) and Eugène Grasset's The Acid Thrower, (1894) (fig. 18). Jane Avril was no suicidal flower, wilting away under psychological pressures, but rather a woman who controlled her own destiny as much as possible for her time; likewise, Grasset's acid thrower is an anarchist, fired by the injustice of oppression and willing to engage in violent guerrilla tactics. Not only do these images offer alternatives to the more static projections of women as vampires or demons whose sole preoccupation seems to be the destruction of men, but they also remind the viewer of the many variations on the theme of the femme fatale.

Adjacent to the galleries dedicated to images of dangerous women is another transitional space, this one devoted to a single image, "The Sick Child". Munch's 1896 version of The Sick Child was shown here in conjunction with three transfer lithographs featuring the head of the ailing girl in different color palettes. The theme of the sick child had generated an extraordinary public response, so much so that the artist eventually created six versions of the oil painting and a large number of prints on the same subject. In this small space with dark blue walls, the visitor had the opportunity to view several states of the lithographs, and to compare these more intimately scaled images with the larger oil on canvas. It also served as a reminder that Munch was well aware that his work held appeal for a middle class audience that could afford to purchase prints. A discussion of Munch's printmaking was included in this gallery as well, although a more comprehensive exploration of this crucial aspect of his work is the subject of a full chapter in the catalogue. The theme of "The Sick Room" continues in the following gallery with images of death and dying, encompassing Munch's images of dead mothers as well as Hans Heyerdahl's 1889 painting of The Dying Child which was the original inspiration for The Sick Child, and Anna Ancher's beautiful depiction of A Funeral (1891) which Munch may well have seen in Copenhagen at the Charlottenborg Palace (188) (figs. 20 and 21).

Ironic though it may seem, intimations of a more optimistic perspective begin to appear in the gallery devoted to the theme of "Persecution and Renewal." Here the images of the artist as a Christ figure dominate: Ensor's Christ Tormented (1888) and Christ Tormented by Demons (1895); Henri de Groux's Christ Among his Tormentors (1894-98); and Klinger's Suffer! (1884). All testify to the prevalence of the self-imposed perception of the artist as a particularly persecuted individual in the late nineteenth century. Munch's composition of Golgotha (1900) fits well with this group of images, even going so far as to label the composition in bright red paint in the upper right corner with an inscription reading "E. Munch Kornhaug Sanatorium 1900" (fig. 22). This reference to his stay in a sanatorium for treatment of alcoholism and emotional exhaustion—a result of his first attempt at breaking off his tumultuous relationship with Tulla Larsen—certainly could have become an exercise in self-pity and paranoia. However, Munch's choice of the traditional visual language of Christianity also seems to suggest a certain level of faith in the promise of redemption, even in the face of the menacing crowd swarming at the foot of the cross.

The shadowy color palette of the walls gives way to a light blue grey in the next gallery where the thematic focus shifts to the topic of "Myth and National Culture" (fig. 23). In some ways this is a reprise of the earliest galleries where Munch's Norwegian blue mood paintings were featured prominently. This gallery introduces a Nordic world full of mermaids, sea nymphs and water spirits, most of them engaged in acting out well- known tales from a magical past. Munch's Summer Night: Mermaid (1893), set on the rocky shore of his summer home at Åsgårdstrand, creates an enchanting blend of myth and reality—almost convincing the viewer that mermaids are a perfectly normal occurrence in the land of the midnight sun. Equally fascinating, albeit more overtly sexual, is the Mermaid (1896) created for the house of the industrialist Axel Heiberg three years later. Surrounding Munch's works are paintings based on recollections from a variety of Nordic tales and epics. Akseli Gallen-Kallela's depiction of a misguided love story from the Finnish Kalevala, for example, captured all the freshness of the crisp northern landscape, rather cheerfully portraying the aging Väinamöinen as he struggles to grasp the beautiful Aino, who flees from her unwanted suitor into the sea where she will be transformed into a nymph. Among all of these fantastical images, there is a spirit of celebration in the beauty of the landscape and the richness of the traditional tales. This aspect of Munch's work, exemplified by his return to Åsgårdstrand nearly every summer of his life, has long been overshadowed by his moodier, more disturbing images, and yet it recurs consistently throughout the "decadent" decades around the turn of the century.

The following gallery picks up the theme of redemption sounded earlier in Munch's Golgotha with an exploration of "Bathing and Regeneration" (fig. 24). These are primarily paintings of male bathers enjoying the healthful benefits of fresh air, sunshine and invigorating sea bathing—all while exercising in the nude and displaying their virility. Munch had begun visiting Norwegian spas in 1899 in pursuit of a cure for his own physical and psychiatric ailments, and it was at this time that he began to paint these scenes of bathing men (172). Clarke explains that the phenomena of the health spa emerged in the 1890s, coincident with "advent of private sanatoria focused on alcoholism, neurasthenia, and tuberculosis" (172). This is a very different world from that of the vampire women, dying children, and angst-ridden burghers. Gone too is the artist-martyr, once again emphasizing the remarkable diversity of Munch's production. Equally telling is the fact that the artist "…remained in control of his public image, his exhibition and marketing strategies, and his artistic production" even when he was visiting health spas or checked into psychiatric clinics for alcoholism (157). The "mad Munch" was a convenient and profitable persona designed to accommodate the artist's genuine afflictions while simultaneously deploying a highly sophisticated marketing program.

And then there was the Munch Scholar's Day. In connection with the exhibition, Jay Clarke and her project team organized a symposium of art historians with a particular interest in Munch. The presenters at this event included some of the best Munch scholars working today as well as some excellent newcomers to the field. Most significantly, all of the participants and speakers gathered early in the morning to view the paintings before the arrival of the general public in the galleries. This event—rare enough in itself—afforded an unprecedented opportunity for a relatively small group of art historians to actually sit around in front of the paintings and talk about them. Throughout the day, participants and presenters alike repeatedly remarked on how exceptional the event was, and how much everyone would like to see more of this type of programming at museums. To say it was a rare treat would be an understatement.

Finally, it should be noted that Becoming Edvard Munch opened up some new avenues of exploration in Munch's work, as well as offering a welcome expansion of art historical insight into his thematic scope as well as his pragmatic handling of the business of art. Although entirely necessary to a full art historical assessment of an artist, a psychobiographical narrative can also divert scholars from a thorough comprehension of both the individual and the artwork. This exhibition might serve as a model for addressing that issue, and for applying equally judicious amendments to other artists suffering not from degeneracy and decadence, but from an excess of public appreciation for a great bohemian story.

Janet Whitmore
Harrington College of Design
janetwhimore[at]earthlink.net



[1] As of 4 May 2009, Jay A. Clarke became the Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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