Before Munch’s famous breakdown of 1909, the great Norwegian threw himself into printmaking with a fervor shown by very few of history’s great artists: not only as a master printmaker in the tradition of Rembrandt, Goya, and Cassatt (among others) but as an innovator of striking originality whose influence on subsequent printmakers still resonates, primarily but not exclusively in woodcut.
Munch took up drypoint in 1894 – the first of the mediums he was to conquer – for he seemed to have a natural instinct for all available printmaking methods, before taking up etching and lithography on a few weeks later. Copper was probably the easiest substrate to work on as he could carry it around with him, along with needle in pocket, and draw on site at the gatherings of artists at Zum Schwarzen Ferkal (The Black Piglet, the famous watering hole to the Berlin Bohemia). Drypoint also made sense as an introductory print medium for its simplicity and lack of chemicals. Munch’s main focus, however, was on further developing his established motifs from his The Frieze of Life series (which included his most famous early works including The Scream, Jealousy and Puberty among others) in print form. He seemed to grasp the medium immediately, with a delicacy that his patron Julius Meier-Graefe (the most famous German art-historian of the day, biographer of Dostoyevsky and the first to encourage Munch to try his hand at printmaking, publishing of Munch’s first portfolio of prints), when describing the drypoint version of Night in St. Cloud, wrote: “Like all decent engravings,” (in this case drypoints/etchings) “these prints appear colorful, without any color. One must be blind – or highly cultured – if one cannot recognize this effect… all of them with the same subject as exceptionally good paintings, which one does not miss here.”
- Perhaps Munch’s very first drypoint, Death and the Maiden of 1894, with subject matter alluding to sexual attitudes propagated by his fellow tortured bohemians: the Polish writer Stanislav Przybyszewski and the Swedish playwrite/misanthrope August Strindberg. The fetuses at the border would become an important theme in Madonna and other later print work.
Etching and Lithography
It seems criminal to lump these two very different media into one heading, but the fact that Munch started in on both these techniques concomitantly seems justification enough.
Munch took to etching for a few reasons: drawing over etching ground allowed for a much greater and easier fluidity of line, obviating the need to press down upon the copper with the needle to create a burr. Furthermore, the drypoint’s burr wore down quickly after successive trips through the press. As a business-minded artist, quantity was important. Munch was also fascinated by the idea of open bite (the leaving of large open spaces of copper to be etched, producing an irregular tonal effect in the print), which spoke to his somewhat rough style of painting. His etchings number in the hundreds, but perhaps we should leave off discussion of this medium in the interest of having superficially covered Munch’s mastery of intaglio printing with a few examples, bearing in mind that this was a medium that he never fully abandoned, learning for the most part without instruction (as he did all techniques save for lithography, which involves considerable know-how and a good deal of chemistry).
Munch began making lithographs more or less concomitant with etchings, and seemed more attracted to lithography less for its expressive nature than its reproductive potential. Etchings were more laborious to print, the plates requiring more preparation (e.g. several trips into the acid bath). Drypoints, as we have mentioned, wore down quickly, compromising the image. Lithography, in the truest and most traditional spirit of printmaking, allowed for virtually endless copies, and catered to Munch’s love of drawing (the technique of drawing on stone with lithographic crayon and ink-like touche was as easy as drawing on paper, and is in general a more sensual experience). Munch finally had a way of mass-distribution of his drawings. In fact, the first book written on his printed work was Gerafikeren: Edvard Munch by Paul Gaugin’s son Pola Gaugin in 1946, two years after Munch’s death.
- This 1896 lithograph of the mad playwrite August Strindberg prompted the writer, with his typical petulance, to become irate over the border suggesting electrical currents (of which he had a paranoia, claiming they possessed mind-controlling powers), as well as the misspelling of his name, both of which were corrected by Munch.
Munch began making lithographs in Berlin, where the medium was becoming increasingly popular at the time. He also spent time in Paris at the Atelier Clot, creating a version of Angst for a portfolio for Eduard Vollard (France’s most famous print advocate and publisher of the day) as well as several others. Though Munch was to continue to work in lithography for many years, the burden of the incredibly heavy Bavarian limestone used for the technique was burdensome, and a few years later he turned to woodcut, which was to remain his primary, but not exclusive, print medium (both for its ease and expressive qualities) for the rest of his life.
It is the knife of Munch, which in contradiction to all classical idealism and Renaissance taste, first spoke its own barbaric dialect in rough wood. – Historian G.F. Hartlaub
It is impossible to overstate Munch’s creative invention in the realm of woodcut. He approached a traditional Germanic medium in such a creative, hands-on manner that very few artists have dared attempt his techniques (not, I suspect, because of the difficulty involved but because their sheer originality, like his painting, defies imitation).
Munch single handedly invented a technique wherein he would use a jigsaw to cut his blocks into individual areas, usually using two blocks (one for the primary image and one for background) both carefully cut to puzzle-like shapes that were then inked in multiple colors before being reassembled and printed in one pass. In addition, along with Gaugin (who was working completely independently of Munch), he was the first artist to exploit the grain of the wood for expressive purposes.
These woodcuts became immensely popular with the emerging German Expressionist group Die Bruke in the early 20th century. The group included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, and Emil Nolde among its luminaries, and it fell to the great Karl Schmitt-Rottluff to approach Munch in 1906 with an invitation to join the group as its “Spiritual Father,” a position the eternal loner and outsider declined.
Although Munch continued to work in other print media until his death, the surface of wood is perfectly suited to his imagery and working mentality: its brutality, carving and gauging speak to his frequently heavy-handed use of the brush when painting: piling strokes one upon the other which then exist alongside vast areas of wash with canvas showing through. In this same way, the wood can have a great variety of marks, creating a frenzied concentration in certain areas while contrasting with large areas of fluid, grainy background.
A digression on the Japanese influence on European printmaking should be addressed here as Munch could not have helped but to see examples of Ukiyoe (“Floating World”) prints in Paris, which had made there way to Europe as packing for the porcelain craze following Japan’s reopening to the West in the 1850s. Impressionists such as Cassatt, Manet and Toulouse Lautrec were soaking up these prints’ treatment of large colored areas, pattern and detail in a sub-movement referred to as Japanism.
As always, with his unique jigsaw technique and undulant grains, Munch took this to ever more innovative techniques. It should be noted that Japanese woodcut is differently printed (apologies for the Wiki link, but it is succinct, and many readers are already familiar with moku hanga) than the Western etching press technique used by Munch. His wood was of a much softer variety, eschewing the hard cherry wood of the Japanese for the rough grains of spruce, pine, plywood and mahogany. These were also easier to cut, as cherry wood is incredibly hard and suited more to the meticulous detailed of Japanese prints.
I show this last example from 1930 of the Norwegian folk heroin Birgitte to show that Munch was tireless in his pursuit of the woodcut, and that though they became less innovative in their use of pieced and puzzled assemblies and inkings, their directness provides an expressive quality and immediacy that never left the artist.
Munch’s influence on modern printmaking cannot be over-emphasized, , although it is worth noting that, unlike many contemporary printmakers (both of his day and ours), Munch showed little interest in producing editions, except in the case of formally produced portfolios by publishers (in which case he had printers at his disposal, and viewed the experience as a business venture as much as a creative one). He was more drawn to the possibilities inherent in the experimental nature of printmaking: the infinite variety of inking, assembly and papers. It is important to note that, in woodcut, he rarely made the same print twice.
It is also notable that much of the drive to create prints was financially motivated, in that he could sell them considerably cheaper than his paintings, and saw the process as a means of increasing his (already formidable) income.
It is estimated that in his lifetime Munch produced 748 registered print images with between 20,000 and 25,000 impressions. Topping even the giant Picasso, this seems to make him the most prolific printmaker in history, if not the most innovative.
For further reading I suggest Gerd Woll’s catalogue raisonne of Munch’s prints: Edvard Munch: The Complete Graphic Works (2001); The Symbolist Prints of Edvard Munch by Elizabeth Prelinger et al (1996); and Edvard Munch: Prints by Peter Black and Magne Bruteig (2009).