Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

The (Partially-Aborted) Munch Lecture: Part One

On Monday, August 27th, I gave a (partial) lecture entitled “Edvard Munch: His Life and Work in Context” for the venerable Nerd Nite lecture series at the Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge.  (It was even written up on the blog Four Letter Word.  While I didn’t think I was “timid”,it was a very complimentary write up, so a breezy island-style mahalo for that.)  I had planned on speaking for about an hour and a half, and less than 24 hours before the event was informed that the talks generally last 20-30 minutes.  “You should have found out ahead of time how long it was supposed to go!”, the sapient reader shouts at the screen.  Well, no shit.  I blame-a-myself.
After covering about a third of the material during the lecture I was politely informed that I had been speaking for 40 minutes, at which point I apologized, took fifteen minutes worth of questions, and with a mixture of heartfelt remorse and gratitude shared my hopes that the little taste comprising the first 36 years of the octogenarian’s life might at least offer a taste that would encourage further exploration within the audience on their own.
So, with the ningyo editions gallery gone and my usual depression and lethargy in momentary abatement, why not use the forum of this blog to deliver the lecture in writing (in 3 or 4 sections  – maybe more)?  Much of this you may get from any monograph or Wiki search, and for those of you looking for a thorough immersion I recommend Sue Prideaux’s excellent 2007 Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream.  The advantage (or disadvantage, as some may see it) in the case of reading about Munch on this blog is that you get it in my own voice.  If that annoys you, you’re probably not reading this anyway.  In any case, let’s begin.

“Poor Pale Edvard” and his mother, Laura Munch

In this somewhat free-form written lecture/quasi-educational diatribe (replete with ramblings only blogs will allow) I will try to point out some common misconceptions of the great Norwegian known primarily for his iconic, much-parodied The Scream of 1896.  Any schoolboy in knee pants who has read extensively on Munch will be familiar with much of what I’m saying, but the rest of you may hopefully learn something about the man, his work, and the trends, obsessions and fears that plagued his cultural milieu.  You will also come to see that while history has certainly made his legacy that of a tormented genius, he was also an astute business man, very much attuned to the above-mentioned trends and fashions and capable of incorporating them into his work and thus capitalizing on turn-of-the-century preoccupations with sex and morbidity.

“Two of mankind’s most horrible enemies were granted to me as an inheritance… tuberculosis and mental illness.  Sickness and insanity were the black angels that guarded my cradle… (They) stood at my side, followed me out while I played, followed me in the sun in springtime and in the glories of summer.  They stood at my side in the evening when I closed my eyes and intimidated me with death, hell, and eternal damnation.”

Munch was born in 1863 as Norway was coming out of its “Night of 400 Years” (the name given to a period of a lack of national solidarity and ever-shifting rule).  The glory days of the Vikings vanished during the Middle Ages, and his was a country in search of an identity.  It remained under Danish rule, shared a king with Sweden, and did not become its own country until 1905.  Art was an important means of establishing (and maintaining) identity, and in the mid 19th century a pastoral, agrarian Realism was the order of the day.  Artists traveling to Paris were returning having absorbed Impressionism and Symbolism, while Romanticism was shunned for its Teutonic stigma (Norway aligned itself with France during political turmoil with Germany at this time).  However, all art was grist for the mill for the young Munch.

A lot has been written on Munch’s family life and upbringing: the son of an Army corps doctor and full-time mother, Munch had 3 younger siblings (Peter, Laura and Inger) and an elder sister (Sophie).  In 1868, when young Edvard was five years old, his mother Laura died of tuberculosis.  While there is little evidence to support that the young Munch could remember very much about the death, he writes a great deal about his dying mother’s attempts to gently instill the fear of God into her children, and to have them understand that they would meet again in heaven.  Alas, in his later years he writes “but they did not understand, and they wept.  Wept bitterly.”  The image of the dead mother was one that he would continue to produce throughout his life, and is the first life-event that would become a major staple in his biographical oeuvre.

While there are dozens of images to choose from, this painting from 1897-99 is apt for its incorporation of both the gloomy setting of the sick room and the much used clutching of the head with both hands as a universal gesture of despair and horror.

On the heals of his mother’s death, his elder sister Sophie assumed the role of a maternal figure for Munch.  His father, Christian Munch, was becoming increasingly unhinged and given to violent fits of religious fervor, as depicted three decades later in the woodcut Man Praying, shown below:

It was when Munch was 14 years old that the most traumatic blow struck.  His sister Sophie died (like his mother, of tuberculosis), leaving him the eldest sibling in an increasingly unstable home life due to financial concerns and a fanatical and at times maniacal father.  It was at this time he started painting seriously, and soon gained the attention of what was referred to as the Kristiania Bohème (Christiania being the name given to Oslo from 1877 to 1925) for his precocious talent.

An 1885 etching of the Christiania Boheme

The Kristiania Bohème was a circle of artists and writers who met regularly at cafes to discuss art and philosophy and to disparage the false morals of the bourgeoisie.  It’s then-leader was a relatively well-to-do writer and patron of the arts named Frits Thaulow (I would insert a picture here, but am going to have to start being a bit selective in the images I show or this will run a mile long.  Anyone wishing to view any of the images I skip over is free to use the Google).  It was Thaulow who gave the young Munch his first break in sending him on a scholarship to Paris in 1882 when the artist was 19.  It was here, amidst interminable classes drawing “boring nudes” and plaster casts, that Munch created his Impressionistic scenes imbued with an uncharacteristic psychological depth, as well as his first great masterpiece, The Sick Child of 1885.

Seen as through a veil of tears with its relentless horizontal strokes and obsessive scraping and reworking, it is safe to employ the banal, well-worn expression that no one had ever seen a painting like this before.  Upon his return to Norway and to the Bohème, his work was hailed by his peers and colleagues as a masterpiece – the future not only of Norwegian painting, but of painting itself, with its revolutionary use of line and form to express emotion in ways that Van Gogh and Gaugin were only beginning to touch upon in France, and that the German Expressionists were still close to a quarter century from exploring.  It placed the heightened, febrile emotion of the Symbolists within a domestic, biographical setting and used the application of the paint itself as an emotional device.

In 1886 the 23 year-old Munch, having traveled to Berlin, returned again to Norway and to the Kristiania Bohème.  The next five years saw him gain further admiration within his ilk and continuing to travel to Paris and Berlin while concomitantly gaining the scorn and harsh disapproval of his maniacally pious father, not only for his choice of career, but for his style and subject matter.  At this time he began producing revolutionary paintings on themes of adolescent sexuality.  Two of canvases of this period bear reproducing here.

“The Morning After” of 1894 depicts the sordid aftermath of drunken sex. Whether the result of a simple lapse in judgement on the part of the woman, or a more sinister violation remains ambiguous.

Puberty, 1894

The pose in Puberty presents the universal body language for shame, fear, and the covering of oneself as Eve after the fall.  It depicts the sudden, terrifying realization of the sexualized nature of nakedness that comes with late childhood and adolescence when the confusing awareness of the body’s potential sexual functions begin emerge.  The drama of the scene is exacerbated by the menacing phallic shadow cast behind the girl, whose arms Munch painted to exaggeratedly absurd lengths in her attempt at protection.

In this early work we can see that Munch was not without his influences, and the girl’s pose here can likely be directly traced to an etching entitled The Greatest Love of Don Juan (1879) by the French etcher Félicien Rops, whose work Munch was almost sure to have seen during one of his trips to Paris (where erotic themes – adolescent and otherwise – were common, especially when compared to the still-puritanical Norway).  In Rops’ tableaux, a young girl finds herself having inadvertently sat in a puddle of the great lover’s semen.  Fears of disease, impregnation and premature virginity loss were Rops’ focus, themes that prove far more blunt and prurient next to Munch’s more subtle (but far more disturbing) image of awkward sexual awakening and vague phallic threat.

Since we’re looking, it’s always worth taking a moment to marvel at the splashes of cum on either side of the hapless girl as she seats herself.

At this time, the Kristiania Bohème had a new honcho, the write Hans Jaeger who had been imprisoned for his novel From the Kristiania Bohème in which he described many lurid details of the Norwegian counterculture (again, this was Norway, not France, where it was common for books such as Octave Mirbeau’s violently sexual novel The Torture Garden, Geoges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye, or the poems of Charles Baudelaire to be widely read, not to mention the ongoing popularity of the centuries-old works of the Marquise de Sade).  The book adhered to certain strains of thought emphasizing the importance of masturbation as a means of avoiding insanity.  It described the story of a woman who was raped by a cop and forced to become a prostitute.   It called for the liberation of women’s sexuality.  Jaeger was more dogmatic than the mild patron Frits Thaulow, and laid down a series of maxims to which all members of the Bohème were expected to adhere, the first being “sever family ties” (a particularly sore spot for Munch, who had a deep concern for his father’s well being, vestiges of financial dependence from his family, and an awareness of his younger sister Laura’s incipient insanity).  The other dictates included “write your life story”, “embrace free love”, and “commit suicide.”

When it came to “write your life story”,  Much was a diligent, sedulous transcriber of his emotions, and his extensive writings read like poems, vignettes, dialogues and declarations alternating in the first and third person and the past and present tense (for a near complete collection of the English translations of these writings, see The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are the Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth).  We should bear in mind that while Munch’s writing served as a supplement to his work and a means of giving voice to his imagery, it also served as a verbal shock tactic meant to be read by a public increasingly hungry for lurid accounts from the bohemian underground.  This is to say that the writings, in addition to being a secondary means of purgative self-expression, were a carefully thought out means of self-promotion.  The dictum “embrace free love” was somewhat more complicated, and not only for Munch.  In an age where the concept of women as beings with their own sexual volition was fast emerging, the concept of free love was common in most artistic, literary and bohemian circles.  In accordance with the dictum, Munch promptly fucked Millie Thaulow, the wife of his initial benefactor – a short-lived affair that left the young artist on the outside of the first of many ill-fated love triangles.  Several more followed, proving that Munch had little stomach for the heartbreak and uncertainty bound up in ménages à trois and brief affairs.  For the young, sensitive artist, the time-proven, no-nonsense exchange of money for sex – devoid of emotional attachment – was infinitely easier on the nerves.  Alas, like the proverbial moth to the the proverbial flame, avoiding affairs within bohemian society was easier said than done.

“Melancholy” of 1892 shows a lone figure (the artist’s friend and literary associate Jappe Nillsen) alone on the Norwegian coast as two lovers – undoubtedly the other two thirds from an unsuccessful ménage à trois in which the figure was once one third – embark on a boat together, leaving our protagonist to suffer the agonies of jealousy, rejection and isolation.

A second version of “Melancholy” done the following year presents a slightly more resigned man in the same circumstance.

In 1892 Munch had his first major solo exhibition at the then-extremely conservative Association of Berlin Artists.  Along with his brothers-in-arms within the Kristiania Bohème, Germany was the first country to embrace his talent and prescient vision, as though it bypassed the vague, more or less meaningless term “Post Impressionism” and anticipated the rise of an emotive new art that would come to be known as Expressionism.  As Munch remained somewhat apolitical during his earlier years – he had no allegiance to the style of any particular country, and the rivalry between France and Germany meant nothing to him.  All artistic styles and trends were grist for the mill.

The show was, in many respects, a flop, though perhaps scandal would be a more accurate term.  Exhibited works included The Morning After, Puberty and The Sick Child.  The general public was clearly not ready for Munch’s loose style, harsh, acidic colors and blunt sexual overtones (though it was the decidedly un-sexual The Sick Child that caused the most outrage for its endless scraping, reworking, and anatomical vagaries- at once “unfinished’ and “overworked”).  What’s more, in a move of staggering audacity, Munch charged admission to the the show – a first not only for a gallery exhibition, but for any art-viewing establishment.  This is perhaps the first real indication we get of the Tortured Genius as equal parts Shrewd Businessman.  Of course, who could resist seeing such scandalous pictures? The public readily shelled out the fees to see what all the fuss was about.  They came in droves if only to hiss, ridicule and shake their heads in scorn.  As a result of public dissatisfaction (an understatement), the exhibition closed weeks ahead of schedule, but at this point it was too late.  Munch’s reputation as a provocateur was sealed, and the massive amounts of publicity brought about by every aspect of the Berlin exhibition catapulted the 29 year-old artist to fame.

end of part one


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