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On Being Sideswiped by Edvard Munch

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education. This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


Edvard Munch's art has an insistent quality that requires viewers to take account of their private worlds. His artistic and spiritual journey covered a lifetime. While many artists of that period are now assigned to comfortable niches, this strange Norwegian continues to speak to us in startling ways. That is why the exhibit of his work now on display at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., is such a stunning event. To view his work is to be sideswiped unexpectedly by an emotional experience. Those of us who thought of Munch as ‘just another expressionist" will now have to rethink our categories. Here is an artist whose work overwhelms all categorical statements about him. That, after all, is a definition of genius.

Munch (1863-1944) was a member of an extraordinary circle of artists and writers who were active in the last years of the 19th century and into the time between the world wars in Europe. Strindberg was a close friend. His paintings were exhibited in important shows in Europe early in the century and on equal terms with Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh, whose public acceptance has been secure. His own work exhibits a fascination with themes assumed to be very modern—alienation, hysteria, loneliness, sexuality. And no painter has more thoroughly explored the experience of death. But infused in this somber view is a graphic vitality and affirmation of life that saves the work from desolation.

The program of Munch, developed very early in his career, is to probe in visual and symbolic ways the tensions between outer and inner worlds. His work is hard to classify with other painters and takes on a uniqueness. Appearing to be influenced by Impressionists or Expressionists, the surface of his paintings is actually indifferent to his sense of the symbolic power that persists throughout the work. Even in his earliest work, elements of the later Munch are evident. His evocative realist painting, Morning, Girl at the Bedside (1884) shows a sense of the diffusion of light and his fascination with interior and exterior space. Light, space, color, form—the tools of all artists, in his hands become informed with symbolic power. These elements take on signification and are used like musical themes throughout the mature Munch years. Living as he did in the land of the midnight sun, it was appropriate that he use the sun as a part of the symbolism of melancholia. The frequent use of the midnight sun, light in darkness, is a reminder to the viewer of the landscape of a private loneliness.

Munch's paintings reveal increased psychological intensity as he moved from realism to symbolism. But the structural themes remained. A persistent device was the emphasis upon angularity of world and consciousness. In his urban paintings and in his seascapes, bridges and streets seem to careen off the frame, accentuated by the rational horizontal lines of a row of buildings or a shoreline. One has the sense both of rationality and acceleration. In these frames appear solitary persons, faceless, interior selves, victims of the velocity of the exterior truths and the private nightmares. The Scream (1893) is the most famous of these statements. The impact of the diagonal line of the bridge (linking two mysterious masses) and the swirling lines of a dark abyss (suggesting a precipice) contrast sharply with the blood-red horizontal line of the sky. The figure in the foreground, alienation heightened by two shadowy figures beyond, partakes of the vertigo in its own form. One almost hears the scream.

Remote bleakness in his landscapes heightens the sense of melancholia. In these Norwegian environments, deepened by the long twilights, human emotions are exaggerated. Munch's Melancholy, Yellow Boat (1891-92) uses the tension between the diagonal (the seashore) and the horizontal (horizon) but provides a provocative brightness in the boat (which parallels the horizontal) and in the bright dress of the woman on the pier. The jealousy of the figure in the right lower corner is manifestly evident. But this is no soap opera, although the somewhat Victorian theme may provide some suggestion of that. In Munch's hands, the theme has a psychological intensity that is conveyed not merely by the conventional story, but by the visual impact of images as symbols.

The dark, melancholic environment may be an interior environment, as in the evocative Night in St. Cloud (1890). Again, a single figure occupies the space of the painting. Note that his solitary forms are seldom dominating the painting but are frequently subdued or located off-center. In this case, only the barest shadow, almost indistinguishable from the furniture, suggests the lonely vigil. The brightness of night outside contrasts ironically with the darkness inside! In this deep darkness, the night light casts a shadow on the floor of the room, forming a symbol of the double cross. It is assumed that the painting represents Munch reflecting on hearing news of his father's death. Certainly the painting provides vivid associations with death. A solitary boatman, the unlit lamp, formal dress, and the coffin-shaped reflection of the window all convey powerful impressions of the feeling of death's presence.

Munch lived and worked in one of the most intense periods of art in history. After a long period of classicism and formalism of a variety of types, artists in the late 19th century sought to break out of conventional molds and find fresh ways of speaking. The Impressionists returned to nature for the source of art, trying to catch experience on the wing. So Monet eschewed studios and endeavored to put on canvas not the form of things, or even the essence of things, but rather the experience of things. His later paintings are almost all color, intense and magical. Post-Impres sionists and Expressionists pressed this quest further, outraging the accustomed tastes of Victorian canons.

The artists of the time inherited "untroubled communal myths"—family solidarity, the authority of the state, the idealization of women, the dominance of men. Munch's paintings arise out of this context, but they are interpreted through an intensely private experience. It is this private dimension of his art that creates the stress in it. Munch does not challenge the communal myths. He experiences them in anxious and existentially frightening ways. Victorian views of sexuality, for example, tended to idealize women at the same time the culture was fascinated with the theme of harlotry. Munch's personal vision was deeply affected by this dichotomy. His women possess a somber beauty that transcends the merely formal statements of the period. Their inaccessibility

becomes for Munch an occasion for terror. The woman as vampire, draining the life-blood from the artist, or the woman as Mile, Corday, the assassin of Marat, are for Munch symbols of the unresolved experience of the mystery of sexuality. This becomes yet another dimension of his alienation and loneliness.

Probably the most powerful yet subdued expression of this dilemma is his The Voice (1893). The woman is pictured in a constricted but expectant pose, her hands behind her back yet her torso leaning toward the viewer. Tension is heightened by the couple in a boat in the background, the persistent theme of an outer order. The vertical pattern of trees reflecting the pose of the woman and the bright shaft of the midnight sun reflecting on the lake create an erotic mood. The title of the painting is defied by the painting itself. The painting is soundless, but it speaks of a powerful and troubling element in Munch's own self-consciousness. The viewer is drawn into Munch's own experience of troubled sexuality.

During his long career, Munch returned over and over again to the themes of his early paintings. He reworked earlier paintings, often reproducing them in drawings and prints. Viewed over a lifetime, his work is an attempt to find the most efficient language for his statement about life. A series of self-portraits represents an amazing psychological history of an artist. The early formal works suggest brilliance and self-confidence. They progress through periods of energetic vitalism, veer toward a kind of madness, and finally are resolved into a powerful statement of steely dignity. Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed (1940-42) restates the themes of earlier works. We note the expressive and powerful colors, the economy of line, the equivocal pose of the artist—half at rigid attention and half stopped—and the symbols, now terrifyingly direct. Munch stands between the clock and the bed, the inexorable statements of his own impending death. His paintings surround him. His gaze at the viewer is direct, not asking for pity but requiring shared experience. Even the tensions and velocity of his earlier works are now resolved in a simple statement. No vertigo induced by the velocity of diagonal lines but the overwhelmingly direct statement of the finality of death is the experience of the viewer. The interior vision and the public vision are now fully expressed in a work of art by this troubling soul.

A rule of thumb for lay persons seeking to open themselves to the arts is this: be persistent in trying to see everything that the artist is saying. Being patient with art is the price of being changed by art. Munch especially requires this care. But more than most major artists of the last century, he is a modern man. R. G. Collingwood once suggested that the work of the artist is to "tell us the secrets of our own hearts at the risk of our displeasure." Munch's vision is an honest, modern vision of the interior distress of European men and women. It is profoundly religious in its seriousness and its intensity. It is questioning art, probing the secrets of human consciousness with and seeking through symbols and images to awaken honesty in others. To the Christian, the question asked by Munch is "What must I do to be saved?"


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