Angels of Death
Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, Ed. Gary Garrels
and others, with a preface [by the popular Norwegian writer] Karl Ove Knausgaard and four essays, Yale University Press, July 2017, pp.152, £35.00 (Hardcover)
The exhibition takes place at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Munch Museum in Oslo, in 2017-18
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was the son of an army doctor and violent religious fanatic. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five years old and his favourite sister, Sophie, died of the same disease when he was fourteen. Munch later recalled:
I came into the world as a sick being—in sick surroundings. My youth was spent in a sickbed. . . . Disease, insanity and death were the black angels that surrounded my cradle, and have followed me throughout my life. . . . In childhood I always felt I was treated unjustly, without a mother, sick, and with the threat of punishment in Hell hanging over my head.
Alcoholism, hallucinations and partial paralysis caused his eight-month physical collapse and mental breakdown in 1908. His confinement and electric shock treatments in a Copenhagen mental asylum help explain the agony in his art.
Munch was the Kafka of painting. Both doom-laden artists hated their fathers. They were neurasthenic invalids, built (as Munch wrote) ‘of hopeless material, of old rotten wood’ and poisoned by consumption. Seductive celibates, they needed loneliness to create their icons of angst.
These self-loathing outcasts, driven by morbid melancholy and pathological guilt, came ‘frightened into the world and lived in perpetual fear of life and of people.’ Both felt the sexual act was a form of exquisite torture.
In this catalogue Richard Shiff, repeating his argument instead of persuading his readers, claims that Munch’s career was ‘peripheral.’ But Munch, like Van Gogh, fundamentally changed modern European art in the late nineteenth century. Their deeply personal and original styles, forceful brushwork and rough application of paint, emotionally charged pictures and tragic insanity, helped establish the idea of the artist as social outsider and the belief that mental illness sparked his genius. Munch’s version of Starry Night, however, with its dark landscape and distant village, its undulating coast and floating skyscape, is different from Van Gogh’s pulsating and apocalyptic Starry Night, in which the swirling sky threatens to obliterate the tranquil village. Munch’s Self-Portrait with Hand under Cheek, his homage to Van Gogh, has the same pensive pose as Van Gogh’s more troubled and seismic (even the plant seems to tremble) portrait of Dr. Gachet, who had treated his mental illness.
Munch’s quintessentially modern inner turmoil, hopelessness and despair, his raw misery, psychological penetration and visual impact, his expression of violent emotions, led directly to the self-punishing Expressionist selfportraits of Egon Schiele and the dark Nordic vision of Ingmar Bergman. It was, as Eliot wrote in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ ‘as if a magic lantern threw [his] nerves in patterns on a screen.’
The young Munch began as a conventional artist until he found his mature style and began to look like himself. In his sixty-year career he created about 1,700 paintings and 30,000 prints, and left his work to the city of Oslo, site of the Munch Museum. In a weird practice, he ‘weathered’ some pictures by leaving them out in the rain and introduced unexpected changes by battering their already wounded subjects. He appeared in over 300 exhibitions—many of them controversial and scandalous. In 1937 his works were condemned by the Nazis in their show of “Degenerate Art.” Unlike the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, who collaborated with the
Nazis, Munch rejected the Nazi overtures during the occupation of Norway.
The superb San Francisco exhibition includes about forty-five major works from the 1880s to the 1940s, and arranges them thematically by self-portraits, tormented love scenes, and morbid spectacles of disease and death. The essays in the catalogue describe Munch’s self-portraits, artistic techniques, business acumen and so-called peripherality. There is a chronology and fifty-one colour plates but with no commentary on them.
In Self-Portrait with Brushes Munch, reputed to be the handsomest man in Norway, stands full-length and full-face on a slanted brown floor and in front of a divided deep blue and pale olive wall. He wears a black frock coat, grey trousers and polished shoes, set off by a blue stock around a high stiff white collar, and clasps several paint brushes tipped in bright red. His long narrow face, accentuated by a thin moustache, confronts the viewer with a bravely self-confident expression.
Munch’s spooky Self-Portrait with Cigarette illuminates his intense stare and striking features as he rises out of the mist and is enveloped by clouds of smoke that fade into the murky background. (This bold picture influenced Max Beckmann’s Self-Portrait in Tuxedo, in which he also flourished a cigarette.) In Munch’s The Night Wanderer, painted thirty years later, the haunted insomniac is isolated and exhausted. Hollow-eyed and dreamily distracted, he is bent over and confined in a claustrophobic room whose windows look out onto an endlessly dark and gloomy northern night. But when freed from confinement in the outdoor Despair, the heavy-lidded figure, who stands on a wooden bridge above a swirling landscape and beneath a blood-streaked sky, is deeply depressed. Another outdoor scene, Red Virginia Creeper, also fails to provide the solace of nature. It portrays the extreme tension of a wide-eyed man, placed in the foreground in front of a voracious plant that claws, crawls and covers an apparently bloodsoaked house.
Love in Munch’s pictures, inspired by jealousy and his own disastrous liaisons, is ‘begotten by Despair upon Impossibility’. In 1902, for
example, during Munch’s violent breakup with his fiancée Tulla Larsen, they struggled for a gun and he shot himself in the middle finger of his (fortunately) left hand. In The Dance of Life— more like The Dance of Death—the kiss resembles an assault. The Death of Marat is Munch’s homage to Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of the French revolutionary who was murdered while treating his skin disease in a bath. In Munch’s version, which gives his own suffering a heroic dimension, the naked man is stretched out on his funeral bier, his right arm dangling down to the floor (as in David) and his body apparently exhausted by his sexual efforts. The naked, red-haired woman, in a rigid frontal posture with her arms hanging straight down and feet touching at the heels, stands beside him and bisects his prone body. She is completely isolated from her lover and both of them seem miserable. As Conrad observed in Heart of Darkness, ‘We live, as we dream, alone.’
In Separation the grieving man with downcast eyes clutches his bleeding heart. The wraithlike, featureless woman glides down a curving path and away from him, but her long, undulating blonde hair refuses to release him and curls around his neck. Even Munch’s Madonna— naked, full-breasted, snake-tressed, haloed, vampiric and quasi-orgasmic—assumes the cruel posture of the crucifixion.
No one has noticed the profound influence of Degas’s Interior: The Rape on Munch’s Ashes, where the men and women reverse positions and roles. In Degas the woman crouches on the left and the man stands on the right. In Munch the man crouches on the left and the woman stands on the right. In both paintings the bare-shouldered woman is dressed in a white shift, and in both the lovers have had sex but are now physically and psychologically separated by the bright space between them—a gulf that can never be bridged. A series of contrasts structure both paintings: blackwhite, standing-crouching, dressed-undressed, straight-curved, facing in-facing out. Both antagonists share a terrible kind of intimacy. Both pictures portray disconcerting emotions, an anguished atmosphere and the damaging emotional effects of sexual passion. Degas’s most fascinating painting is sad, brooding and enigmatic. Munch’s picture makes the woman
responsible for the man’s pain and grief, and portrays himself as the victim.
Edgar Poe famously declared, ‘the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world’. Like Poe’s stories, Munch’s obsessional and traumatic deathbed scenes are unbearably sad. The bed, site of conception, is also the place where most things end. No patient ever recovers, there appears to be an inaudible death rattle and (as in Poe) the dying women seem to be placed in their coffins while still alive. Even the family mourners, like the moribundi in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, seem half-dead and destined for the still more straitened circumstances of the grave.
In the ghastly Inheritance the pathetic homunculus, ravaged by the red syphilitic chancres that burst through his skin like bullet holes, lies like a pietà on the lap of his red-faced weeping mother. Munch did a posthumous portrait of Nietzsche, whom he called ‘the man to whom I owe a greater debt of gratitude than to any other human being,’ and who died insane of tertiary syphilis. In the portrait Nietzsche has a high forehead, strong nose and thick portcullis mustache that extends to his chin. Like Zarathustra, he gazes prophetically into the vertiginous mountains. Munch also designed the stage sets for Ibsen’s Ghosts, which deals with the disastrous legacy of syphilis. And his powerful portrait, Ibsen in the Grand Café in Kristiana, Norway, captures the stern Master with one eye closed, a towering tuft of hair and mutton-chop whiskers that droop beneath his exposed chin. The window behind him looks out on a busy street whose inhabitants seem unaware of the tragic aspects of life depicted in his plays. The greatest fictional work on syphilis, Mann’s Doctor Faustus, was based on Nietzsche’s disease and appeared three years after Munch’s death.
Puberty, with early menstrual blood on the sheets, anticipates The Sick Child and suggests that life is doomed soon after it begins. The adolescent girl, lonely, naked and vulnerable, sits on the edge of a bed with her long bony hands and knees pressed tightly together and modestly covering her genitals. An amorphous black shadow looms behind the child, touches her body and threatens to overwhelm her.
Munch’s two masterpieces in this genre, which reconstruct Sophie’s tragic extinction, are Death in the Sick Room and By the Deathbed. In the former six black-clad family members—three with bent heads, two in profile and one facing the viewer—pray hopelessly for the dying child. A white cerement covers her face and head as she looks backward at the chest that displays her useless medicines. In the latter, five family members hover despairingly—with clasped hands, bent heads and futile prayers—over the now-dead child. Sophie is laid out on a white bed, ready for burial. In The Smell of Death a dreary doorman admits the last four mourners who cover their noses as they enter the disgusting chamber to pay their respects to the corpse, already buried and invisible under the heavy green blankets.
Two other grim pictures complete the morbid scenario. On the Operating Table portrays the procedure executed by three indistinct surgeons and witnessed by a vague mob of spectators in the gallery. The blood of the victim, who tightened his fist and is laid out like Mantegna’s Dead Christ, stains the sheet and fills the large bowl held by the dutiful nurse. The morgue in Anatomy Professor Kristian Schreiner portrays the last stage of morbidity. The stiff doctor holds a skull after performing the inevitable amputation and autopsy on the two human remains. This Munch exhibition, which unleashes powerful emotions, is a valuable and searing experience.