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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Munch extended through Sunday at the National Gallery of Art

Edvard Munch, The Vampire, 1895 (printed 1896/1902) lithograph and color woodcut with watercolor on thick china paper. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund and Gift of Lionel C. Epstein
© Munch Museum/Munch Ellingsen Group/ARS, NY 2013

A few precious days remain to see 20 of Edvard Munch’s prints and drawings in a special exhibition at the National Gallery of Art which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth (December 12, 1863).
Probably the most celebrated artist from Norway who drew one of the world's most recognizable works, if not the most recognizable, The Scream (1895), Munch said he used art to interpret the world and "explain life and its meaning to myself."
If you don't know anything about Edvard Munch, the etchings in the one-gallery show reveal his turmoil, depression, sadness, and anger at women who dominate the display. (They are in 18 of the pieces.)
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, 1895, lithograph sheet: 45.6 x 31.5 cm (17 15/16 x 12 3/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection
© Munch Museum/Munch Ellingsen Group/ARS, NY 2013
He was born in a farmhouse in Norway, the son of a doctor and a woman half his father's age.
When Munch was only five, his mother died of tuberculosis, and he and his four siblings were raised by their conservatively religious father (whose father was a minister) and aunt. It was an oppressive environment where the father often admonished his children about their behavior, saying their mother was watching them from heaven, upset by what she saw. (“She knows when you are sleeping, she knows if you’ve been bad or good…”) He told his children tales of horror, including some by Edgar Allan Poe.
Said Munch: “I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”

Contributing to his lifelong angst was the death, when he was 13, of his beloved sister, Sophie, at 15, another victim of tuberculosis, who had become somewhat of a substitute mother for Munch.

His first major work, The Sick Child (1894) represents his break from impressionism and naturalism, and captures the pain and his immense sadness over his sister's death. The label quotes Munch: "Scarcely any painter has ever experienced the full grief of their subject as I did."
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1894 (printed 1895), drypoint on thick cream paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection
© Munch Museum/Munch Ellingsen Group/ARS, NY 2013

His love life was often in shambles.  Two married women drew Munch's ardor (because they were unavailable?), an obsession he experienced for several years, and, later, he spurned marriage with a long-term lover who finally gave him up after a shooting incident and married a younger man. 

Bitter and angry, Munch took to the drawing board.

Could he have been a misogynist? Carrying anger remaining from the death of his mother who "abandoned" him, grief which engulfed him at the time of his adored sister's death, and lovers who wouldn't love? They all "left" Munch.

As a viewer moves from print to woodcut in the show, one cannot escape the obvious:  Edvard Munch was extremely troubled by women and their desertion of him.

The entrance to the tribute show for Edvard Munch at the National Gallery of Art/Patricia Leslie
Nothing affirms this in the show quite as well as Love and Pain, later titled Vampire which is as the name suggests:

A woman engulfs a man in a haunting embrace with her arms and bloody red hair, the major color in the woodcut. Both anonymously faced subjects look down.

Is the man a child seeking comfort in his mother's lap? Or sympathy from a lover who seems to suck blood from his neck? Every man? Every woman? Is this a perpetual trap by women with their fangs out? (I am here to tell you it doesn’t work.) Munch was unsettled by the women’s “revolution” of the late 19th century and their growing independence.

In 1889 he moved to Paris where art by Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec excited and influenced him. Three years later, his one-man show in Berlin closed abruptly due to controversy.  Even then, "bad press was good press," and Munch relished the talk.

From time to time his father had helped him with living expenses but frowned upon the nudes his son drew and was known to have destroyed at least one of Munch's impressions, but, like many artists, Munch's works became "his children,” and he resisted letting them go.  Or selling them sometimes.

During his later years Munch drew many nudes from the models who visited him at his home near Oslo where he lived in solitude and feared the creeping Nazis and what they would do to his art which filled the second floor of his home.  Munch died in the house January 23, 1944, four years after the Nazis invaded Norway. 

Last year the most colorful of his Screams sold for almost $120 million.  Munch's works are the first by a Western artist to be exhibited at the National Gallery in Beijing.

The Nazis called works by him, Picasso, Klee, Matisse, Gauguin, and others, "degenerate,” and they removed 82 of Munch's pictures from German museums.  Munch illustrated life's sorrows and their emotions and pain.

Wikipedia quotes Adolph Hitler: "[These] prehistoric Stone Age culture barbarians and art-stutterers can return to the caves of their ancestors and there can apply their primitive international scratching."

Enjoy “scratchings” in “the cave” at the National Gallery of Art!

The exhibition curator was Andrew Robison, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Art.

What: Edvard Munch: A 150th anniversary Tribute

Admission: No charge

When: Now through Sunday, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., and from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., all other days

Where: Ground Floor at the West Building, the National Gallery of Art, between Fourth and Seventh streets at Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.

Metro stations: Smithsonian, L'Enfant Plaza, Archives-Navy Memorial, or Judiciary Square

For more information: 202-737-4215



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