Review of Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

Review of Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

An artist on the fringe, Edvard Munch was born in Norway in 1863. Norway, at that time, was a country far removed from the European centrality of popular Western painting. His father, though loving to his children, was an extremely pious Christian who imposed his stern beliefs and preoccupation with death upon his children. Suffering much sorrow and loss in his life – losing first his mother and then beloved sister to tuberculosis- was compounded by his artistic life in Oslo. Throughout the year, Norway experiences periods of seasonal variation of daylight hours, occasionally shrouding the Norwegian world in darkness. His life experiences as well as natural setting, contribute to the manifestation of art work that explores themes of emotional turbulence and anguished silence that often pervade human existence. Munch’s work now appears in Symbolism in Print, at the North Carolina Museum of Art until 10 February.

Munch’s preoccupation with anxiety, death and the darker aspects of human existence separate him from his Impressionist predecessors and draw comparisons to his contemporary Van Gogh. Both artists investigated the inner workings of the human psyche, the inevitable experience of human demise, and the dark truths of life that are so often ignored throughout the canon of art history. Munch’s most well-known work of art, The Scream, painted in 1893, has become a well known image in popular culture. Reflective of his personal life experiences, Munch’s art represents an anxiety about life which directly correlates itself to the losses of his youth and the darkness within which he lived he both physically and emotionally lived in.

Beginning his early artistic work experimenting with Impressionist techniques, he felt that it was very superficial and felt a need to explore more emotional and personal situations. He began to explore issues that run deeper than the currents of modern society, such as what is death? Life? Love? Human existence? These are questions that may never be answered but whose elusiveness is consistently inherited by subsequent generations. Cultivating an interest in artistic symbolism, his work possesses a series of symbols that speak to Munch’s personal emotional state as well as a drawing upon a wider set of symbols that represent the collective human psyche. Due to the cultural popularity of The Scream, Munch is often thought of only as a painter, but he also spent much of his career experimenting with printmaking. Working principally with lithographs and woodcuts, his work embodies the graphic quality made famous by Parisian artist, Toulouse-Lautrec and a haunting representation of the human experience.

One such preoccupation was the death of his sister, which prompted a series of graphics attempting to grapple with the emotional turmoil that accompanies the death of a child. His print work explores a personal anxiety but also a social one. Many of the prints featured in Symbolism in Print, explore an apprehension towards women which began to emerge in the later half of the 19th century. Kvinnen II (The Woman II), depicts three women who represent the three stages of a woman’s life: the naïve virgin, the brazen temptress and the regretful mother. This work ultimately represents the misogynistic understanding of the sexual evolution of women. Forced into loveless marriages, external affairs by men were widely accepted and fervently ignored, but if a women did the same she suffered unending scrutiny and inescapable public shame.

During the 19th century, women began to join the work force and forge lives for themselves as single women. Breaching the boundaries of acceptable feminine behavior, women went out alone, supported themselves and conducted themselves in a manner that was, up until this historical point, extremely unconventional. Although not a stranger to a sordid love affair, the promiscuity of the female sex for Munch was both magnetic and a source of internal despair. His woodcut, Kiss IV, visually represents this despair as he depicts himself and his married lover losing physical features as the emptiness of the endeavor begins to take its toll. Refusing to part with his paintings, which he viewed as “his children,” his prints were his source of financial income and were often of his paintings. Although not immortalized in oil, his prints posses the same emotional impact. Delving head first into a psychological examination of society, Munch’s work, both prints and paintings, would prove highly influential upon the German Expressionists whose dealings with the social anxiety incited by the onset of WWI reflected the earlier psychological motifs explored by Munch.

The North Carolina Museum of Art draws upon Munch’s graphic works from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art to provide another view of the artist Edvard Munch. Featuring 26 works of art, Munch’s graphic experiments evoke an emotional rawness that still finds relevance in today’s society.

Edvard Munch, Symbolism in Print, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC, 23 September –February 10, 2013.

Sarah Richter

1. Edvard Munch, Attraction I (Tiltrekning I), 1896, lithograph, composition (irreg.): 19 x 14 3/8 in., Publisher: the artist, Paris; Printer: Auguste Clot, Paris; Edition: more than 100; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. J. Hall Collection, © 2012 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
2. Edvard Munch, Ashes II (After the Fall), 1899, lithograph with watercolor additions, composition: 13 15/16 x 18 in., Publisher: the artist, Kristiania (present-day Oslo), Norway; Printer: Petersen and Waitz, Kristiania (present-day Oslo), Norway; Edition: approximately 50–100; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. J. Hall Collection, © 2012 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
3. Edvard Munch, Anxiety, 1896, lithograph, composition: 16 5/16 x 15 3/8 in., Publisher: Vollard, Paris; Printer: Auguste Clot, Paris; Edition: 100; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund, © 2012 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York