It used to be that the best place to view Edvard Munch’s art was in fact not the Munchmuseet in Oslo. Munch lovers found a far more rewarding experience at Norway’s National Gallery (Nasjonalmuseet), which held that painting (I am yet to view the new Munchmuseet which boasts over two hundred of his artworks on permanent display, or the new Nasjonalmuseet since their moves last year). Second to the Nasjonalmuseet is the truly stunning Munch collection held in one of Bergen Art Museum’s galleries, known as KODE 3. The Courtauld Gallery assembled their new exhibition, “Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen,” from the KODE 3 gallery’s largest single loan of Munch’s works.1
Edvard Munch (1863–1944) remains a hugely popular artist and not just because of The Scream (1893). His tortured, angst-ridden attempts to reconcile humanity are readily appreciated in any age—not least our own, of course, with its daily diet of disasters fed to us by the media. Munch did not require any manufactured stimuli; his fears—death, rejection, betrayal—were internally driven, as was his art. The exhibition cleverly focuses on this, with the hugely impressive Melancholy (1894–96) on its promotional poster, dominated by dark brown and ominously purple water lapping on the shoreline. The focus of the foreground is the profile of a disconsolate soul, his head supported by a palm partially holding up his chin. In the distant background, a splash of white denotes a lady talking to her male companion on a quay, with a boatman striding towards them carrying his oars, ready, one presumes, to take them away. The lady is just out of reach of the dejected figure, believed to be a friend of Munch’s who had been cast into depression after a failed loved affair. This is quintessential Munch from his most recognizable middle period.
Early in this intimate exhibition we encounter Morning (1884), one of Munch’s first major paintings, created when he was just twenty years old. It is a remarkably accomplished piece of social realism rendered quite beautifully—but in a style completely at odds with that of his most recognizable works. Next to Morning is another female subject, Inger in Sunshine (1888), where we discern a rapid approach to the brush strokes that progresses away from the precision of realism. Part Impressionist, part Norwegian Naturalist, Munch painted his upright and vigorous sister in a white dress against a blue fjord background in summer sunlight; it is immediate and affecting. His painting the following year of Summer Night, Inger on the Beach reveals how quickly Munch was moving into his more familiar style of bold, coarse brushwork and dark sentiments. Gone is the warm sunshine. His sister’s white dress matches her pale face as she now sits on the boulders of the same shoreline, but deliberately without the warmth, energy, or sunlit precision. Not designed to be uplifting, Summer Night, Inger on the Beach is rather somberly contemplative, as is the sister. As with Melancholy, subject and setting wonderfully combine to reflect an uneasy state of mind. The piece marks a major milestone in the development of Munch’s style.
Munch’s engagement with troubled minds is not always subtle, as The Scream exemplifies. But his directness is what appeals: it cuts straight to anxiety and longing. These emotions appear in the thick strokes and deep colors of his 1890s period, the one most familiar to us. Somehow his frankness does not preclude ambiguity, leaving the observer room for personal interpretation. This creates an immediate bond between painter and viewer. House in Moonlight (1893–95), one of the standout pieces of the exhibition, captures this connection. The vague outline of a woman, only given form by her white apron in the darkness, stands at the gateway to her house. Easily confused with Munch’s customary swirling dark patterns on the ground is the diagonal shadow of a man approaching her. It is a typically eerie Munchian scene that might denote a nocturnal assignation of infidelity or something more sinister. In all likelihood, the inspiration for the painting comes from the painter’s affair with a married woman from a decade earlier. Clearly the event does not sit at ease in his conscience. But then, nothing did.
Alienation and its most complete form, death, dominate two other superb works in the exhibition. Evening on Karl Johan (1892) is a startlingly unsettling street scene. Most of the crowd is walking directly towards the viewer, pressing upon him with zombie-like faces in Munch’s first instance of such a ghoulish depiction. The people in the scene are frantically trying to distance themselves from the darkness of the fading sunset, representing Death, at their backs. The sense of unease and psychological stress is palpable. Visitors to the exhibition will note a sharp contrast with Spring Day on Karl Johan (1890): impressionistic and almost (broad-brushed) pointillist, all light and airy. What a difference from just two years earlier.
At the Deathbed (1895) is another familiar scene for Munch. “Disease, insanity, and death were the black angels that stood by my cradle,” he wrote. The loss of close family members (his mother, brother, and sister) affected him deeply, and his self-declared “fragile mind” was exacerbated by alcoholism. At the Deathbed depicts his sister’s death when Munch was thirteen. There is no religious consolation here, only the impact of overwhelming grief. Only the female figure at the back of the painting stares directly at the viewer, with wide-open, blank eyes and no other facial features, capturing the shocking vacuity of death and its confrontation with the living. As Munch wrote: “I try to dissect souls.”
The exhibition, curated by Barnaby Wright, is subtitled “Masterpieces from Bergen.” It is a subjective judgment; of the eighteen paintings on display, not all fit that description. Munch’s later pieces, such as Children Playing (1901–03) and Youth (1908), delineate a new, less successful direction that lacks impressionistic and emotional complexity. This direction is best seen in Self-Portrait in the Clinic (1909), painted when Munch recovered from a breakdown. With his new and unattractive technique of flattened features, disconnected parallel brush strokes, brighter colors, and patchy canvas, one misses profoundly the coherent, curvilinear fluidity of his earlier work.
A number of powerful pieces presented here are associated with Munch’s The Frieze of Life (the term that Munch later assigned to his series of most recognizable works from the 1890s, such as The Scream and Melancholy), of which the large canvas Woman in Three Stages (1894) is the most imposing. The theme itself of this work is not original, but the inclusion of a fourth, male figure on the right, separated from the women by Munch’s blood-red “Flower of Pain” motif (the pain from his bleeding heart nourishing artistic creation), adds an enigmatic and alienated Munchian dimension.
This small, intimate exhibition stays in the mind both to console and unsettle it—just as Munch would have wanted.