I went in expecting to learn little more than what the reviewers had said. I found that there is a great deal more to say about Mr. Munch and still more to learn.
"For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art."
The exhibition consisted of 44 painting, 17 of which are considered self-portraits and he seems to appear in other paintings as well. The scale is larger than I thought..ranging from a few smallish but most were 4x6 feet up to 6x8 feet. Oddly, many were 5 ft. squares, a shape frame usually avoided by artists. 2/3 of the paintings were done after 1900 and most done during the Nazi occupation of Norway. This is considered his studio work after his sojourns to Germany and France. Both his mother and sister died tragically when he was young and a lasting impression was made and so set the gloomy tone of his work. However, nothing is self-indulgent here.
"It suites my pictures to hang together; they lose something displayed with others."
There is a consistency of value and color that unites all his canvases. The effect is like songs in a concept album. they work together and the story they tell runs through the pictures. The first impression is that the lights are very low. Like a Poe novel, a dark somber mood is set by turning the lights way down. The originals are much darker than the reproductions and the palette is orange, black, muted reds and blues and disagreeable shades of green. With bits of raw linen canvas visible, it appears that he used no ground. the paint is laid on in oil washes on raw canvas with drips and all. This also lowers the value level as the canvas is tan colored. The surface is flat matte and the de-saturated colors play a supporting role in setting the moods. stylistically he is more akin to Matisse than the German Expressionists. No hint of any preliminary drawings. Of course, Matisse used a much lighter palette and color played a much bigger role.
"Nature is not only all that is visible to the eye..It also includes the inner pictures of the soul."
Munch had one foot in the 19th century and the other in the 20th. Clearly modern in his sensibilities, he still never broke the surface of the picture plane like the Expressionists. His drawing skills come through though his figures are not recognized as any particular individual except in a few of his self-portraits where his figure emerges from the gloom fully formed. Other figures occupy the canvases, but most look down or away from the viewer. Those that do look have no eyes or on close inspection completely distorted facial features. All the positive forms use contour lines that are either bent or broken or both. The effect is the figure dissolves into the background. Some figures dissolve into each other. The swirling application of paint supports the composition and adds to the dreamy effect. For what these works really are are paintings of dreams. Dreams with a heavy sense of melancholy. The use of paint varies in his work. Some are completely still and the muted color forms into smooth pools. In other, the line becomes agitated and squiggly. In two paintings of the sick child, both methods are applied. His picture space is created with the subtle use of perspective. He counters this by employing patterns, like Matisse, to flatten space. This push and pull of space and the swirling paint lines create a dynamic effect that cannot be seen at all in reproductions. Importantly, he never breaks the picture plane. This is really what separates his work from some of the Expressionists. I went down to the permanent collection after the show to see two Max Beckmann paintings on display. Here all the paint is on the surface and space is completely negated.
"I painted the picture, and in the colors the rhythm of the music quivers. I painted the colors I saw."
I noticed that there is a subtext of sexual tension in his work. The bedroom scene with male and female figures are full of agitated paint strokes. Some area are hints of Cezanne with staccato brush work that vibrates the canvas. There is a large female nude attacked a slashed with the brush..scary as anything done by de Kooning. Other paintings ar almost serene and populated with Chagall like figures. All in all, other than being a Modernist, I would be hard pressed to put Munch into any category.
"Painting picture by picture, I followed the impressions my eye took in a heightened movements. I painted only memories, adding nothing, no details that I did not see. Hence the simplicity of the paintings, their emptiness. "