Munch: A lifetime framed by anguish Now on display at the BMA, the haunting prints of Norwegian Edvard Munch are symbols on both artistic and personal levels.

May 10, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In 1896 Edvard Munch created one of his most important prints, "The Sick Child II," based on the death of his sister Sophie. Decades later he wrote of how directly his personal experience influenced this work. "The only influences in 'The Sick Child' ... were the ones that came from my home. ... My home was to my art as the midwife is to her children."

Munch was one of art's greatest printmakers, and the exhibit "The Symbolist Prints of Edvard Munch" brings 60 of the finest of them to the Baltimore Museum of Art beginning Wednesday. Most of them date from the decade 1894-1903, when Munch poured his own emotional struggles into works of great intensity.

The generating force behind Munch's best work came out of the anguish of his extremely unhappy life. He lost his mother to tuberculosis before he was 5, his beloved sister Sophie to the same disease when he was 13. Another sister, Laura, suffered from lifelong melancholy. His brother Andreas died when Edvard was 32.

He became an alcoholic. He wouldn't marry for fear of passing on physical and mental weaknesses to his children. He had some affectionate friendships with women, but his love was misdirected: first toward an older married woman, later to a woman who shot him in the hand when he tried to break off their relationship, then to a lesbian.

Munch, a Norwegian, was born in 1863 and brought up in Oslo. He went to a technical college to study engineering, but soon turned to art. By the time he was 30 he had lived in Paris and Berlin and was well enough known that a book appeared on him in 1894. The same year he began making prints, a number based on earlier paintings.

In 1893 he had painted "The Scream" and in 1895 he created the print version. The image of the distorted, screaming face has become not only his most famous work but one of the world's best-known images, a symbol of all the horrors, internal and external, of the 20th century.

As such, it is an example of symbolism, a late 19th-century movement that sought to make visible the world of ideas and emotions. Paul Gauguin and Odilon Redon were among the artists who created symbolist images. Redon's "The Marsh Flower" (1885) shows a flower with a melancholy human face as a symbol of French pessimism after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war.

"The Scream" has a generalized quality that can make it a symbol of almost anything: the Holocaust, environmental devastation, the threat of nuclear annihilation. But undoubtedly its power comes from its genesis in Munch's personal experience, as he wrote later:

"I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. ... My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature."

Other works also come from his emotional life. One of the women in "Anxiety" (1896) is based on his mistress. In "Melancholy (Evening)" (1901), about the tortures of love, the principal figure is based on a Munch friend who lost his love to another.

Munch's prints on love contain a mixture of desire and fear. In the woodcut version of "The Kiss" (1898), the two figures entwine so completely that they become one form: Is this about the unity of love or the fear of losing one's identity? In other works including "Vampire" (1895), "Attraction" (1896) and "Salome" (1903), Munch shows a man's head enmeshed in a woman's long hair, as if entrapped by desire.

Among the most effective of all the show's prints are the two different versions of "The Sick Child II" (1896). One, printed in red and yellow, brings out the intense feverishness of the subject and Munch's emotional response to it. The other, printed in black with red flecks and splashes, looks stained with the dying girl's blood. Munch often varied his prints in such ways, achieving a greater range of effects than a single painting could achieve.

Munch's art provided a bridge between the more abstract, concept-oriented 19th-century symbolists and the more emotionally based expressionist movements of the 20th century - from German expressionism of the early 20th century to American abstract expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s and the neo-expressionism of recent decades.

Not all of his artistic heirs acknowledged the ancestry. The first expressionist group, formed in Germany about 1905, was called Die Brucke, or the Bridge, but not in tribute to Munch. "Brucke artists denied any influence from Munch, but that was complete piffle," says art historian Elizabeth Prelinger, author of an excellent essay in the show's catalog. "All knew and were influenced by his work."

Prelinger points out that Munch's prints anticipated 20th- century art on another level as well: that of the process-oriented work whose meaning comes from the way it was made.

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