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Editorial

Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed

by Sura Wood

A reassessment of the artist’s last 30 soul-searching years

Norwegian artist Edvard Munch survived two world wars, lost his mother and teenage sister to tuberculosis and was hospitalized in 1908 following a breakdown induced by alcohol abuse and hallucinations. These events may or may not explain the brewing subterranean disturbance that erupted in his most famous painting, “The Scream” (1893), an oft-reproduced visual embodiment of a primal cri de coeur.

A revolutionary, transitional figure bridging the late 19th century’s symbolist movement and 20th-century modernism and German Expressionism, Munch had a career that spanned six decades, from the 1880s through the 1940s. By the time he died in 1944 at the age of 80, he was credited with 1,750 paintings, 18,000 prints and 4,500 watercolors as well as ventures into sculpture, graphic art, set design and film.

But despite his prolific output and professional success, he was, by his own estimation, a late bloomer who didn’t really break through until he was in his 50s. “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed,” a thoughtful reassessment of the artist’s late career, now at SFMOMA, focuses on those last 30 soul-searching years. “He was a painter who set the course for what would be modernism after impressionism,” says Caitlin Haskell, SFMOMA’s associate curator of painting and sculpture. “He was always looking for a new language of storytelling, always pushing himself to be more innovative throughout his career.”

The 45 paintings here, organized along existential themes such as love, the bed, the sickroom, confessionals, etc., convey the inner turmoil, dramatizing tendencies and role playing of an artist known for extending the frontier of personal anguish. A solitary soul, he was the most self-referential artist since Rembrandt, painting over 70 likenesses, 15 of which are included in the show. “Self-Portrait under the Mask of a Woman” (1893), which intimates a tension between sexuality and identity, is considered his first overtly psychological self-portrait.

“He was very interested in identity and expressing what it meant to be human,” explains Haskell. “He documented his experience with near daily frequency and constantly depicted himself. It was through artmaking that he came to terms with the important events of his own life.” But he could also be an unreliable reporter even when he appeared to be in confessional mode, as when he painted himself bedridden with Spanish flu, which he apparently never contracted. He made cunning use of himself as a character or actor in his work, strategically reinventing his persona in the allegorical “Self-Portrait in Hell” (1903), where he assumed the otherworldly guise of a winged demon or dark angel out of Dante’s “Inferno,” rising above a reddish glow, or in “Self-Portrait with Cigarette” (1895), for which he adopted the demeanor of a cosmopolitan sophisticate, his face illuminated from below by a silver-blue haze suggesting glamour, subterfuge and clandestine assignations.

It seems Munch found little refuge or solace in love, which for him was closer to the narrative of a horror movie, judging from works that veer towards the surreal in a gallery devoted to the subject. Swathed in darkness, lovers merge in an all-consuming embrace (“The Kiss,” 1897) that one author compared to a “puddle of liquefied flesh,” while in “Eye in Eye” (1899-1900), originally titled “Tête à Tête,” a man and woman stand under a tree, nose to nose, in profile, expressionless, no mouths and a sickly pallor, locked in a magnetic gaze like a gothic Adam and Eve before the fall. “His paintings of love are extremely intense,” Haskell notes. “Nothing, including his relationships, was undertaken in a light-hearted manner.”

The fusion of autobiography and art is a practice Munch shared with Vincent van Gogh, with whom he felt an instinctive kinship, though the two artists never met. “Fire and embers were his brushes,” Munch once wrote of him. “I have wished . . . to follow in his footsteps. . . Not to let my flame burn out, and with burning brush, to paint to the very end.” Intensely, vehemently alive, and bordering on delusional, both of them were extremists, “putting everything out there in the service of expression,” says Haskell. As fellow post-impressionists, they admired Paul Gauguin’s audacious, symbolic style and were also similar in their feral representations of themselves in their work and their ferocious application of paint to canvas. Munch reprises Van Gogh’s pose for his own “Self-Portrait with Hand under Cheek” (1911), which references Van Gogh’s depiction of his physician, Dr. Gachet,while the shimmering “Starry Night” (1922-24) pays homage to the Dutch artist’s “Starry Night over the Rhone” (1888), which Munch reportedly saw at the Salon des Indépendants exhibition in Paris in 1889. Munch’s rendition is part of Nocturnes, a section composed of foreboding paintings cast in oceanic blues, twilight grays or the pitch-black of the witching hour. Calm before impending doom haunts “The Storm” (1893), in which a two-story inn on the Norwegian coast, windows warmly lit, beckons as wind whips neighboring trees; it was completed the same year “The Scream” debuted. In a forerunner of that melancholy masterpiece, “Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair” (1892), the familiar architecture of that more famous work is immediately recognizable: the fjord landscape, the alien-featured figure pausing on a crossing bridge and the gaseous blood-red and yellow sunset swirling in the distance.

From one fierce, desolate painting to the next, encountering his work in person is a far stranger and more powerful experience than one might expect.

Through October 9

SFMOMA

151 Third St., San Francisco

sfmoma.org