Anxieties Made Public

A Munch retrospective at Met Breuer.

Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch, Self Portrait between the Clock and the Bed, 1940–1943, oil on canvas, 58 7/8 × 47 7/16 in. Munch Museum, Oslo EM.043 © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © Munch Museum.

Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, is the title of the current retrospective of the artist’s work at Met Breuer. It’s also the title of Munch’s last self-portrait, and signals an intent to reassess his later paintings. Munch’s late work was more directly the subject of a 2001 exhibition and monograph, a show that didn’t travel to New York. The Met’s exhibition isn’t the greatest hits show that the Museum of Modern Art put on in 1979, but it’s still extraordinary—this is Munch, after all, the first artist to present a tormented visual autobiography in full view of the public, and an artist for whom the designation “Expressionist” too narrowly circumscribes his range and impact.

As noted in the introduction to the catalogue, the conventional wisdom is that Munch’s work declined following a nervous breakdown in 1908-9. Indeed, most of Munch’s signature paintings and prints were created during the first half of his life (In MoMA’s 1979 show, the terminal point came when the artist was thirty-seven). Already a credible landscape painter in his teens, he began work on three masterpieces—The Sick Child, The Morning After and Puberty—when he was twenty-two and still an art student. After 1910 the paintings are looser in handling, with a Fauvist palette. A comparison of two canvases, each titled Starry Night, is instructive. The later painting, though more colorful and rhythmic, doesn’t carry the ominous stillness or tender beauty of the 1893 work. As he forgoes the big themes in favor of more prosaic images, such chronological comparisons hold true throughout the exhibition (an exception is The Artist and His Model of 1919-21, in which psychological and physical spaces are deftly integrated). Munch tacitly acknowledged the significance of his early works, devoting a substantial amount of energy in his later years to copying them, at one point gaining permission to make a replica of The Dance of Life, then in the collection of the National Museum in Oslo. 

Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Cigarette, 1895, oil on canvas, 43 1/2 x 33 11/16. The National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design/National Gallery, Oslo.

The interpretation of Between the Clock and the Bed is that it signifies the artist’s coming to terms with his own mortality—the clock is the passing of time, the bed a final resting place. Very well. But I don’t find it exemplary as a late self-portrait, and am resistant to assigning it either the personal or historical significance the exhibition seeks to confer. By omitting or minimizing his material surroundings, Munch’s earlier self-portraits are most effective in communicating abstract states of mind. In Self-Portrait of 1886, Munch painted his head filling the small canvas. He’s a self-conscious and contemptuous youth, a template that Egon Schiele would follow nearly three decades later. At twenty-three, Munch was a painter who’d found his voice, and he received public blowback for his troubles. Initially it seems it wasn’t morbid subject matter that appalled Munch’s fellow Norwegians so much as his unorthodox paint handling, with scraped surfaces and heavy use of a knife. His great self-image dates from 1895, wherein he stands before us holding a cigarette, hauntingly illuminated from below and painted with such a liberal quantity of turpentine that the thin pigment was left dripping in places. I first saw this in the MOMA retrospective, just after I’d moved to New York to study at the League. The impact on a young artist was profound. The painting holds up better than one might expect of a piece of smoke-filled romanticism, and can be viewed now as a precursor to film noire. At the time, it was seen as indicative of excessive self-absorption and outright insanity. Many years later, when he painted Between the Clock and the Bed, Munch was long famous, and there was no longer a need for self-dramatic posturing. Instead he stands upright, frail and small within the interior of his home. It is perhaps humility, born of either resignation or fatigue, that is the work’s strongest asset.

Munch’s most notable interiors were views of the sickroom where his sister died. His youth was punctuated and largely defined by tubercular death and mental illness, and the great paintings were those that expressed his anguish. Several versions of The Scream are represented here, as well as an early prototype for the idea, Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair. The earliest painting is Morning, a canvas whose naturalism and encrusted paint display the influence of Christian Krohg. The original version of The Sick Child, which Munch rightly deemed his breakthrough, is missing, though two later versions are here. In all he painted six versions, at least a few of which may have been commissioned.

Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1885−86, oil on canvas, 120 x 118.5 cm. Göteborgs Konstmuseum.

There are two other paintings here in which a bed, stretched across the width of the canvas, plays an integral role. The Death of Marat is the less fraught of several versions Munch painted in 1907. He appropriated the title from David’s famous painting, which depicted the French revolutionary’s murder at the hands of a woman. Munch’s painting has little to do with the ostensible subject, since it really refers to an incident which occurred five years earlier, when, after a fight with his lover, the artist accidentally shot himself in the hand. The general idea is consistent with Munch’s oft-presented theme of women as victimizers. Symbolic images of Woman as vampire and succubus were popular then, but Munch’s variations differed from those of Symbolist artists in that they drew directly from the events of his own life. The Death of Marat implies that a woman was responsible for the artist’s self-inflicted wound.

The other painting is Puberty, and here, too, a blander version from the Munch Museum, rather than the more charged canvas from Norway’s National Gallery, is featured. It is nonetheless remarkable as a sympathetic portrayal of youthful sexual confusion, all the more so since Munch was able to imagine the anxiety of a girl, her arms outstretched in protective modesty. Her long, dark shadow looms behind her like a separate and menacing presence. Standing before it, I was immediately aware of the appearance: an older man looking at a painting of a nude adolescent female. This was just before the widely reported controversy surrounding Balthus’ painting, Thérèse Dreaming, at the Met, with a petition demanding its removal from public view for its eroticization of a pre-teen. Admittedly, these aren’t apples and apples. Puberty is an honest reckoning of a vulnerable stage in maturation that was then newly recognized; the Balthus is a characteristically coy bit of provocation: is the girl innocent or sexually precocious, and either way, what business do we have looking at her exposed underwear? Balthus complicated the equation because he was a very good painter—if he’d been a dauber the picture would be easy to dismiss as a bit of trash. Is it okay because the artist was gifted? (A current New Yorker essay poses much the same question about the ubiquity of teenage girls hooking up with middle aged men in Woody Allen’s movies) The Met has thus far refused to take the canvas down, and for the moment we’re left with a gray area between cultural sensitivity and censorship. I’ve been asked what I think about it, and realize that a man—even if figurative painting is his province—is hard pressed to defend an image of a little girl with a raised skirt, all the more so in an environment that’s increasingly and justifiably alert to the issue of paedophilia.

If at times Munch settled on reliable tropes—the femme fatale and the narcissistic self-portrait—he also ventured into landmark territory that would become fertile ground for the expressionists who followed. His embrace of melancholia, obsessive interest in the sickroom and honest exploration of personal psychological trauma transcended nineteenth-century symbolism and heralded the twentieth century as an age of anxiety. There is no more potent nor well-known symbol of that discomfort than The Scream, an image that is at once singular and oft-repeated by the artist. In returning to the subjects of his youth, Munch’s hardly to be faulted for copying himself. Nobody else could.

Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed continues at the Met Breuer through February 4, 2018. 


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