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Issues of the Day Edvard Munch: Archetypes

During a recent visit to Madrid I spent four hours at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which along with the Prado Museum and the Reina Sofia is one of the three vertices of the city's Golden Triangle of Art. What prompted me to take the time to visit the Thyssen was its exhibition, Edvard Munch: Archetypes.


Other than Munch's iconic "The Scream" (1893)  and several pieces held by the Israel Museum I admit to remaining indifferent to and generally avoiding Munch, mainly because of the unsettling feeling that his best-known piece inspires.


"The Scream" is among the eighty works by Munch displayed in the Archtypes collection but it is given no greater prominence than any of the other paintings and sketches that are featured. In fact, it is just another steppingstone in the nine-room exhibition that provides a view of the author's personal and artistic development.


These works in ensemble retrace the evolution of Munch's internal searching, his evolving self-understanding, and the way in which he communicated the changes he went through in life to generations of admirers.


Successive Traumas

Munch, a Norwegian with strong ties to the countryside experienced the loss of his mother from tuberculosis while he was a boy. His sister Sophie also died of the disease. In his early teens another sister, Laura, was institutionalized with schizophrenia and his only brother died at the age of thirty. Edvard was often ill with fevers and later bouts of mental illness and alcoholism. His father was a military doctor of modest means whose religion included notions of divine retribution.


The successive traumas of Edvard Munch's life are clearly identifiable in his work which are artfully gathered around the themes of the exhibition rooms. They begin with the room called Melancholy which features piercing portraits of his disturbed sister Laura, seated and staring absently into the distance. "Mother and Daughter" wrenchingly depicts an expressionless young woman in white standing stoically and her mournful mother dressed in black and seated. The painting conveys life as something endured until its certain and  bitter end comes. One imagines that this reveals the emotional reaction of the young Edvard to the death of his mother and sister.


Death is the title of the next suite of works depicting a bed-bound young girl attended by distraught family members in paintings that move chromatically from black and white, through well-formed images and somber colors, to more diffused shapes and faded hues in tandem with the deterioration of the girl's, presumably Sophie's, condition.

The exhibition room called Panic follows and includes the famed "The Scream," wherein a distraught woman on a bridge calls out in alarm while covering her ears. Another painting portrays crowds of sojourners trailing through narrow passes.


Panic, Woman, Melodrama, Love

Following Panic, comes Woman, where female sexuality is explored and associated with a range of emotions from disconcerted Puberty through more satisfying, seductive and erotic portrayals. Then comes Melodrama, where more complicated moods are presented including jealousy, a painting titled "Consolation" and another named "Jealousy II." There is redemption in the next hall, Love,  including "The Kiss IV," a modernist pairing of two figures, which is then transformed into "Kiss on the Shore by Moonlight," a more colorful depiction bearing an indefinite message.


Nocturnes includes a commanding but tame piece called "Starry Night" which is evocative of and a tribute to Van Gogh's Starry Starry Night.  Munch's renderings here reintroduces the image of bridges, found in his earlier work along with boulders along the shore and other symbols suggesting forlornness and loneliness.

"Under the Stars," depicts an anxious woman with coal-like eyes clutching a collapsed youth and is followed by "The Red House in the Snow"  in which an isolated house set back in deep snow along a lonely road. Another painting in Nocturnes depicts a stand of trees by a lake in darkness, a scene seemingly unperturbed by human presence.


Vitalism and Solidity

Vitalism is the theme of the next hall and begins much more self-confidently and assertively than the other rooms. It starts with a self-portrait of a solid figure, an owner of his own moodiness. It is accompanied by a painting showing a contemporary man and a woman open to encounter in "Adam and Eve," which represents a decidedly nuanced and multi-dimensional rendering of a moment in an ongoing narrative. In this, the painting struck me as the most un-Munch of Munch's works, precisely because it is full of possibility.


Nudes follows, where models, both male and female appear frontally, sometimes unabashedly as in "Male Nude" but also distraught as in "Weeping Nude," and matter-of-factly as in "Model by the Wicker Chair." There is also a painting that I found disturbing called "The Artist with His Model" in which Munch seems to be making an admission of some sort concerning an unkindly view of women.


I find it sad that Munch does not portray happiness in his work: One assumes that was an emotion he did not know well or often. A certain melancholy, dark and cold like Nordic nights that is only occasionally brightened by glorious stellar displays pervades his oeuvre.


A Melancholy Journey

His bridges convey a sense of journey through a string of dismal realizations concerning human fragility and foibles. Sexuality appears without joy and is more akin to capitulation to base passion. Individuals, chiefly men, are susceptible to "falling," that is, succumbing to female persona who are alternately innocent, bleak with weariness or illness, or cunning with seductive intent.


Munch's paintings anticipate Existentialism: there is the moment, only the moment, and that leads us through a string of experiences with each having a definite beginning and end. The only evidence of transcendence in the artist's worldview is changeless nature, stolid and sure, into which we come and into which we pass.    


While the curators organized Edvard Munch: Archetypes to "explore the painter's contributions to the history of modern art, accomplishments that make him, along with Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent Van Gough – one of its founding fathers" what I left this remarkable exhibition with was a great appreciation for the frankness, courage, creativity and insightfulness with which Munch revealed to us the sad tidings of his early life and his admission of the lasting hurt he felt. 

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved