Echoes of ‘The Scream’: the stunning views of Edvard Munch on view at The Clark

By DON STEWART

For the Recorder

Published: 08-04-2023 2:08 PM

It’s often been said by art critics that the most well known painted image is “The Scream” by Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944).

The ghostly figure, with hands held to his face under a blood red sun, has even been satirized with comic characters from Bart Simpson to the Cookie Monster aping the hysterical figure.

Munch gained fame from the various versions he made of the nightmarish scene. When you visit the Clark Art Institute’s comprehensive exhibit regarding the Norwegian’s works, however, you become aware that the painting is only a minute fraction of his lifetime of creations. The show, featuring more than 75 paintings, lithographs and woodcuts, continues through October 15. “Edvard Munch Trembling Earth” is the title of the exhibit as well as its $45 companion catalog of 450 pages.

In opening remarks during a press reception, Tone Hansen, director of Oslo’s Munch museum, recalled an experience a few days earlier while in New York. Attending a ceremony on the Hudson River during a cloudless, sunny day, she said “The sun suddenly turned blood red… and the air was full of the smell of burnt wood.”

The smoke from the Canadian blazes had returned, and for that day the city, she said, had the worst air quality in the world. One day later the smoke had traveled to the south coast of Norway.

Hansen said that she was immediately reminded of Munch’s haunting image. “It was a scream throughout nature as he would describe it himself,” she said.

The director explained, however, that the exhibit “isn’t about environmental issues. It’s about investigating Munch’s relationship to nature.”

Simply put, the painter, a pantheist, saw God in every living thing.

Revelations

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When Munch was a child, he lost his mother to tuberculosis, and at age 14 his older sister succumbed to the disease. His younger sister was later diagnosed as mentally ill. His father, an army doctor, was a religious zealot and unstable. He would entertain his children by reading the tales of Edgar Allen Poe. The boy carried a lifelong dread of madness and infirmity.

“From the moment of my birth,” he once wrote, “the angels of anxiety, worry and death stood by my side.” It took half a lifetime to extinguish his childhood fears.

At age 17, Munch shrugged off engineering studies, deciding to become a painter, a profession that his father considered an “unholy trade.” Trained at Oslo’s Royal School, within two years his works were exhibited. Rarely above controversy, one decade later he created a solo show in Berlin which organizers voted to shut down after one week. Their criticism was that the paintings seemed to be slapdash and unfinished.

“I could not have a better form of publicity,” he later wrote.

The show then toured Germany and Munch charged an entrance admission.

Ten years ago, Jay Clarke, then curator of prints and photos at the institute, began to dream of creating a unique retrospective of the artist. The innovation is that this exhibit is the first to catalog the importance of Munch’s relationship to landscapes, to people and to the earth.

Munch museum curator Trine Otte Bak Nielsen and the Clark’s curatorial researcher Alexis Goodin joined Clarke, now a curator at Chicago’s Art Institute, in a gallery tour.

“His paintings, prints and drawings aren’t just images of a certain place,” Clarke said. “They seem to have a life of their own.”

Available online, Nielsen provides a brief tour of Oslo’s new, architecturally innovative Munch museum. In the video she makes a salient point as to how the artist often worked.

“It looks like it’s painted spontaneously, very fast,” she said. “We see the brushstrokes, movement. We can also see he doesn’t wait until the paint dries. He let it slide down the canvas. It almost resembles watercolors… the realistic element is not important… It’s more the energetic force.”

The first painting you’ll see is one of the heart of a recently felled tree showing bright yellow wood. Other paintings of trees depict leaves that appear as clouds.

Lumber was a key export of Norway and painting trees was a thematic occupation for Munch. Rendered sensuously, they can seem like figures in a frozen dance. The artist was keenly aware of the destruction of the dense Norwegian forests and the rapid industrialization of the country.

A museum attendee noted that Munch could even make shoreline rocks seem alive. Look closely and, at times, you’ll find faces and hidden profiles in his work.

“It seems to me that a lot of forest imagery is anthropomorphism, parts of nature coming to life,” Clarke said. “There’s also a sense of mystery and a sense of loving mystery.”

Goodin noted that most of the works she had only previously seen in printed form, robbed of both their dimensions and intense color.

“Seeing these works in person is revelatory,” she said. “You can really see a joy of painting when you look at the layering of paint… and the joy of surprising paint combinations.”

What this show is really doing is exploring nature and exploring the actual physical object of the paint and how he approaches the subject,” Goodin said.

Munch constantly experimented with technique. Some paints are applied thinly enough so that images are translucent. The depiction of an apple tree bejeweled with fruit may remind you of Gustav Klimt and the jagged backdrop behind a swimmer may suggest Paul Cezanne.

An art historian at the time defined Munch’s style, writing that “If his art appears to deviate from reality… it never veers from nature… it portrays nature’s regularity in a cleaner and purer way.”

In his later years, the artist had an outdoor studio and kept many of his paintings exposed to the elements. To this day some works reveal dog paw prints, wax drippings, bird droppings and water damage.

The struggle

The artist was steeped in the philosophies of the time and among his friends was the playwright and novelist August Strindberg. The two complemented each other in that both sought to investigate the depths of human emotion. Munch often depicted loneliness and romantic heartbreak. Munch was also quite keen to the scientific breakthroughs of the time. He loved gadgets, was an avid photographer and anticipated that one day a handy “remote telephone… which one carries around in one’s pocket” might be invented.

Munch’s personality was a Freudian garden of neuroses. He had a violent temper and was a brawler. Until he took an eight-month cure in mid-life, he was in an alcoholic spiral. Throughout his life, when he created self-portraits or took “selfies,” his face had a fixed, severe expression.

Volumes have been written in attempting to psychoanalyze Munch, however, Clarke quipped “I just think he had the run-of-the-mill depression and anxiety like everyone in America.”

By the turn of the century his gloominess retreated and was replaced with more colorful, optimistic works. Once a starving artist, he had become wealthy and financially supported his other family members. He never married, maintaining a philosophy that his art was far more important. He considered his paintings to be his children. He had numerous lovers.

Clarke said that his experiences with women were “very complicated. He had very problematic relationships with women (yet) he adored and worshipped them.”

At age 53 he bought a 45-acre farm in Ekely, a suburb of Oslo. He tended an orchard and grain fields, kept a workhorse and a menagerie of farm animals. He happily remained there for the rest of his life.

The Nazis considered his art to be decadent and when the Germans occupied both Norway and Denmark he refused to have anything to do with them.

Concerned as to what fate his works might suffer, he bequeathed his art to the country of Norway and, in turn, they built a museum dedicated to his creations. They received 1,000 paintings, 15,400 prints, 4,500 watercolors and drawings, as well as thousands of letters and manuscripts.

Munch died of pneumonia at the age of 80.

“Edvard Munch Trembling Earth” continues at the Clark Art Institute through Oct. 15. Eight artists have contributed to “Humane Ecology,” an exploration of living entities and their environment, which runs through Oct. 29. Admission is $20. The museum is open daily in July and August, from 10 a.m. to  5 p.m., and closed Mondays September through June.

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