Munch’s Melancholy Formed Ethereal Works

Posted August 2, 2010 at 3:35pm

It was once said that Edvard Munch created not with colors but with “sorrow and screaming and melancholy and decay” — the emotions that gave hues to life as he knew it. Now we can see the world through his angst in a harrowing collection of the Norwegian’s best prints on display at the National Gallery of Art.

Consisting mostly of prints on a variety of media, the works exude, above all, an ethereal and fatalistic loneliness informed by sorrowful nostalgia. To behold them is to feel the creeping darkness that Munch himself must have often felt. By the time the artist was hitting his early teenage years, both his mother and older sister were dead — from tuberculosis — and he had come close to death himself. He was left in the care of his father, who was almost psychotically religious. “From him,” Munch wrote, “I inherited the seeds of madness.”

From the man’s tumultuous existence, the gallery has produced a cohesive collection in which all but two of the 59 pieces come together — from three separate owners’ collections — into about a dozen different sets of themes or images.

Aside from being a highly influential painter, Munch was “the most sophisticated printmaker since Rembrandt,” according to curator Andrew Robison. Munch used printmaking to produce multiple works from a single plate, stone or woodblock, playing with the media and coloring schemes, often over the course of years or decades, to produce different effects with the same basic image.

The collection’s greatest example of this is a series in which Munch uses six pieces to reflect on a secretive relationship he had with a married woman. His emotions on the subject seem to go from morbid guilt to lusty passion, then romance, and almost 50 years later, hazy nostalgia.

The first piece in this series, “Death and the Maiden,” depicts a dark skeleton kissing a seemingly pure, naked woman, one skinny leg penetrating through her plump ones, closely gripping her waist. In “The Kiss,” produced one year later, a naked man and woman hold each other in a similar embrace. Their faces and hair melt anonymously into each other, a motif that becomes magnified in the work’s ensuing variations. The shapely, nude bodies, half-reclined at an apartment window above the street, give the etching an unmistakably sexual air.

In the next three works, the figures are barely distinguishable without the context of the previous works. Their clothed bodies and faces are now one warped, anonymous figure. Most remarkable is how drastically the medium affects the mood in these three — the darkest print seems sinister, while the light, yellow-green version with the same figure feels innocent. With obvious nostalgia, Munch returned to the series decades later, in the year before his death. “The Kiss in the Field” shows the same compound figure with the vague outlines of mountains and a horizon behind them. The bodies are almost the same color as the rest of the picture, leaving an impression of fading away.

This show — and Munch’s body of work — is unique in that it grants the viewer a look into the artist’s thought process and a way to judge his ideas against each other. What kind of impression do you get from a color lithograph of an image, compared with a color woodcut? Why did he come back to an image 10 years later, and what did he change about it? Is one color or composition scheme more fitting than another?

One of the most deeply personal series in the collection consists of four variations on “The Sick Child,” inspired by Munch’s childhood memories of his 15-year-old sister on her deathbed. Three of the printings are nearly identical in their hazy composition, but they range in color from reddish to pinkish to a mix of light colors.

The fourth incarnation, however, is done mostly in black and white, with a blood red color for the girl’s hair. The lines of the girl’s face are more finely articulated, accentuating her grim expression. From one color composition to another, Munch swings from a dreamy to a morbid remembrance of his departed sister.

“Edvard Munch: Master Prints” runs through Oct. 31 at the National Gallery of Art.