In honor of “Munch and Expressionism,” which just opened at the Neue Galerie in New York, we turn back to the May 1950 issue of ARTnews, which featured an article that, coincidentally, has the same title. Written on the occasion of a Munch retrospective organized by the ICA Boston and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the article charted the then little-known influence of the Norwegian painter on the German Expressionists. The article follows in full below.
“Munch and Expressionism”
By J.P. Hodin
The all but unknown father of current expressionism and his heritage of violence and sensitivity revealed in his first U.S. show which opens in Boston
The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944) is the founder of modern expressionism. This great and lonely artist, who was so completely absorbed in his work, has been appreciated at his real importance only by a handful of initiated people in the West. He has remained practically unknown to the Americans as well as to the English and French. This obscurity is being lightened in America by the great exhibition of Munch’s paintings and graphics which was organized by, and has opened at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art [to May 20; it will be seen at New York’s Museum of Modern Art this summer, and will continue its travels through America in the fall].
Sheldon Cheney and Herbert Read are among the handful of critics who have recognized Munch. The latter, realizing that expressionism stands clearly in isolation and distinct from the Paris school, wrote: “Munch is an artist whose work is little known in England, but there is no doubt that he has been one of the most important influences of the last fifty years.” He comes to the conclusion that Munch’s work “ought to be sympathetic to our own Northern temperament” because of its “dramatic values, the emphasis on emotional unity in art, on the element of human feeling.”
Here we are in media res of our problem which can be sketched as follows. First: that an artist of Munch’s standing has not been given an opportunity of making himself heard because of the one-sided orientation of criticism and art dealing. Second: that the art of our time may be said to have simultaneously created two different styles. The one is built on the “pure” relationship of forms and colors without reference to any content; it is abstract, analytical and scientific in its methods; and the other, expressionism, is concerned with the unity of life, it’s indivisibility. It is introvert, subjective, dynamic and in a general sense religious. Third: that in the solution of the crisis in which contemporary art must inevitably be led when rigidly following the abstract and analytical line of development, Munch, probably more than any other modern artist, will be a decisive force because of the emphasis in his art on the human idea, the oneness of content and form. Today we do not fear to specify as the ultimate aim that the human idea shall be the nucleus and final meaning of all plastic art.
The human idea as a central creative element in the work of art loses its importance in the new development since David, Daumier and Delacroix; becomes attenuated in the work of Manet and Monet until, in Post-Impressionism, it finally disappears altogether. From this angle it does not matter that America makes the acquaintance of Munch’s art so late. It will certainly leave its mark on sensitive minds for the future.
Today it is of interest to know why Munch made such a deep impression on art east of the Rhine. We shall find that he not only influenced painting but that he created what we may call a spiritual climate. No other artist, not even Van Gogh, can be compared with him in this respect. Munch is the only painter who can be named, along with Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen, as having formed a whole generation’s attitude to life.
Munch started to paint as a realist with a fine sense of values. Among his earliest works there are landscapes, portraits and scenes of family life. For some time he belonged to the small group of artists who worked under the supervision of Christian Krohg, and fought for the recognition of a realism with a social tendency. In 1885 Munch spent a few weeks in Paris and was able to return there, thanks to a state grant, in 1889. He stayed in Paris, with the exception of the summers which he spent in Norway and short trips to Italy and Germany, until 1892. Neither the idyllic line of his first plein-air pictures, nor the social realism, nor the French Impressionist manner in which he painted in the years 1890-91 could satisfy him. There was something else he wanted to say, something closely related to the deep and dark experiences of his childhood—the early death of his mother and his sister Sophie—and later on a love affair with a macabre background. In being submitted to these personal trials he was being submitted to something more than personal so that the atmosphere of morbidity, pessimism and melancholy of the fin-de-siècle turned him into a representative person. The change in Munch’s style can easily be studied in two works, depicting the same theme and connected with the death of his sister. The realistic Spring, 1889, shows the sick girl sitting beside her mother, looking towards the window through which the sunshine flows into the room. It is the youth of the new year whose cool breath causes the white curtains to swell like a sail of hope and of dreams. In The Sick Child on the other hand, painted in six different versions, we notice the concentration on the two figures, the elimination of all realistic details, the emphasis on color and expressiveness.
We read in a diary entry of Munch’s from St. Cloud in 1889: “No more interiors with men reading and women knitting shall be painted. They must be living people who breathe, feel, suffer and love. I will paint a series of such pictures; people shall understand the holy elements in them and bare their heads before them, as though they were in church.” It was some of the pictures from this series, called the Frieze of Life, which made such a revolutionary impression in Berlin in 1892. (Munch worked on the Frieze practically throughout his life and thus, understandably, the pictures show a great difference in their stylistic conception.) This serial character of Munch’s work is very typical of him and shows the strength of the human idea as a driving force in his creative efforts. Even the nudes, as he has painted them in the beginning of his career, and tend to develop into a continuous series—The Life of the Model.
In Paris Munch was confronted with the latest trends in French art. Impressionism gave him the sensation of light and colors through the first pictures of the Frieze are painted in a dark scale—Gauguin and the synthesists strengthened his feeling for rhythmical composition, for a summarized form, for contours and for strong color accents. Even Vuillard and later Bonnard had some influence on Munch’s paintings, as had Van Gogh and the Fauves. But all these influences have no primary importance; Much took only what he could use for his own vision. He was too strong a personality and too different from Gauguin or Bonnard to Matisse to be diverted from his imagery.
The Frieze of Life depicts the spiritual situation of modern man in connection with two main problems: love and death, both conceived of as destructive forces. To give a few examples: Ashes, 1894, evokes the despair and emptiness after fleshy union; The Dance of Life, 1900, one of the most moving scenes in the whole Frieze, is a variation of the theme of the three stages of woman—the flowerlike nature of girlhood, the seductress and renunciation; The Yellow Boat, 1891, portrays melancholy, jealousy and loneliness in the foreground figure; Death in a Sickroom, 1894-5, is one of the many expressions of Munch’s vital dread of the profound unknown; The Shriek, 1893, reveals the anxiety of man facing the mystery of nature.
The impact of such pictures on Munch’s generation was tremendous. Emil Filla wrote about that time: “Much stood at the beginning of our path: at the very start when we mustered the courage to interpret our own ideas, we had the good fortune to encounter none other than he. For us he became synonymous with our ineluctable fate. It was a situation similar to that when Donatello came to Padua and Rembrandt to Amsterdam, when Michelangelo turned up in Florence or to the influence exercised by Caravaggio in Rome.” This is the evidence of a painter. Let us also hear a critique from those days, F. X. Salda, who wrote in 1905 of Munch as “a violator of dreams, a painter in terror-stricken colors ravaged by all the sufferings in life, a man possessed by ashen horror and gloom, a coarse barbarian and skillful decadent in whose work both the old world and the new inferno play their respective parts, in whose pictures objects literally shed the blood of their colors and shriek out their sufferings and the mystery of their being; a painter whose colors are no objective manifestation but a lyrical fate.” What was it about Munch’s art fascinated men of that generation? Munch’s Berlin friend Przybyszewski wrote: “The old art and the old psychology had been an art and a psychology of the conscious personality, whereas the new art was the art of the individual. Men dreamed, and their dreams opened up to them vistas of a new world; they seemed to perceive things which they had not physically heard and seen with their ears and eyes of their minds. What the personality was unable to perceive was revealed to them by the individuality—something that lived a life of its own apart from that of which they were conscious… All that is profound and obscure, everything for which the medium of language has as yet devised no system of definition and which is thus inarticulate and has manifested itself only a dim presentiment, finds expression in the colors of Munch, and thus enters into our consciousness.”
Expressionism east of the Rhine felt the strong impact of Munch’s art in Berlin in 1892, in Prague in 1905, in Vienna in 1909 (where Oscar Kokoschka, the greatest living expressionist, experienced Munch for the first time). But the ideological force in Munch, his philosophy of life affected expressionism most deeply even when formal influences had been drawn from elsewhere—from the fauves, primitive art or Van Gogh. In France, Munch found the inspiration for his future work; in Germany, where he spent most of the years between 1892 and 1908, he developed into a mature master and pioneer. By the beginning of the twentieth century he was recognized in Central Europe, but not yet in his own country. Munch told me himself that he was not generally accepted in Norway until the fiftieth year of his life.
His hectic, restless, melancholy strain led him to a nervous collapse in 1909. This first half of his life had been under the spell of revolt, decadence and the dark forces in and around us. After his illness Munch returned to Norway, and there painted a great number of landscapes in which he revealed the beauty of his country, such as the extraordinary Island, 1901, and White Night of the same year. In common with many old masters, Munch was also a portrait painter and very remarkable works from his hand date from as early as 1885, particularly the portrait of Jensen Hjell and that of his sister Inger, of 1892, both showing the conception of the portrait which is so typical of Munch and which he maintained throughout his life: over-life-size, the model generally facing the artist, the style changing according to the change in his technique. He was also one of those painters who, in decisive moments,make self-portaits. In these we can read about him as in the pages of a diary. His first self-portrait is dated 1882, and one of his latest, Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940. Everything in this picture is a symbol of death. The clock, the time which passes; the bed, the catafalque, the nude on the wall, a mummy. Here we see him returning to the symbolism of his former years. This symbolic style is also evident in other self-portraits and in his paintings of the Bohemian’s Wedding and Death. These later works recall themes from his youth when he was connected with Oslo Bohemian circles. The pictures of The Modern Faust allude to the problem of the biological tragedy of the sexes. The dramatic expressionist style of these paintings stands in contrast to his style after 1909, which followed a more naturalistic and monumental line as is foreshadowed in his triptych, The Bathing Men, which was started in 1907.
The most important works Munch executed after his final return to Norway are the murals of 1909-11 for the Great Hall of Oslo University. They reveal a complete spiritual change in his attitude to life, the harmony he achieved after long years of struggle. Painted in oil on canvas, the outstanding development of modern Scandinavian mural painting started with this work. The main themes are History, The Sun and Alma Mater. Smaller compositions of a more impressionistic character are placed between the main scenes. Munch himself has referred to the association between the Frieze and the University decorations. The former, a poem of life, love and death represents the sorrows and joys of man, while the University decorations express the great eternal forces.
Landscapes, portraits and also motifs from the life of workers and peasants complete the actives of Munch’s later period. He intended to make a large mural with workers as the main theme, but it was never finished.
Munch’s interest in graphic techniques may be seen even in Berlin in the early ‘nineties. But it was first in Paris, in 1896-97, that his chief activity was concentrated in the realm of art in which—especially in his colored lithographs—he achieved such outstanding results. Fro portraits he preferred the etching or the dry point; for themes taken from his paintings, the lithographic technique. Woodcarving and aquatint also intrigued him, and combinations of different techniques. Compared with the most important graphic artists of recent times. Toulouse-Lautrec and Daumier, Munch shows himself to be more versatile, and when studying his large graphic production in comparison with Rembrandt, Dürer or Goya we understand that his work is of no less weight.
During the International Congress of Art Critics in 1949 some of the graphic works of Munch were shown in Paris. I discussed the problem of Munch there with leading scholars, and perhaps I may be allowed to quote the remarks made by James Johnson Sweeney and his occasion: “When considering the expressionist artists, all of them seem to have developed only one part of the art, which is emotional. But Munch did not. Munch’s art with its simplicity, its balance of values, his abstractions, his distortions, has anticipated the twentieth century. But this is not enough. Like Gauguin, he turned to life and he found the relationship of the human problem and art again. He never allowed himself to run away with the pictorial conception as the sole embodiment of the emotional in a painting. Munch’s art is like a river at a point where it separates in to two streams. He is greater than both of these streams—on one hand fauvism, Die Brücke, etc., on the other hand cubism, purism, abstract art. In his art, the unity of the modern formative elements and the human content are preserved and therein he has outdated his own time.”