Edvard Munch: Color in Context

A new exhibit in Washington, DC, uses theosophy to interpret the Norwegian artist’s use of color

Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair by Edvard Munch.

Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
Edvard Munch, Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair (Mannerkopf in Frauenharr), 1896; color woodcut, sheet: 55.9 x 38.8 cm (22 x 15 1/4 in.); National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Was Norwegian artist Edvard Munch influenced by the philosophical and pseudo-scientific movements of his time?

He definitely came into contact with spiritualists when he was young. His childhood vicar was the Rev. E. F. B. Horn, a well-known spiritualist. While living as a young artist in Oslo, he became familiar with the Scientific Public Library of the traveling medium Hendrick Storjohann.

The current exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., sets out to explain how Munch applied theosophic ideas to his choice and combination of colors. Theosophy was a mystical movement that taught that essential realities are beyond the human senses. It was believed that one’s thoughts generated auras of colorful shapes (referred to as “thought forms”) that could move through space.

Twenty-one prints are on display in this exhibit, the majority from the outstanding Epstein Family Collection. The focus is on the significance of color in each. When visitors enter the small gallery, they may pick up a laminated card with the color chart created by the theosophists in 1901. The chart shows the colors corresponding to 25 different thought forms (e.g., dark green represents religious feeling, tinged with fear). They can then use this chart to determine the emotions Munch was trying to convey.

Let’s look at two of these prints and consider the possible interpretations according to the color chart.

Girl’s Head against the Shore
In this color woodcut we see a woman with black hair dressed in black. Her eyes too are black and so large that they almost seem to be sunglasses. Her face is beige. There are touches of bluish green both on the land and on the sea. The land also has some patches of reddish orange.

The predominance of black associated with the woman and the overall mood might suggest that the woman is in mourning. She certainly exudes sadness. One possible interpretation might be that the woman has lost a person (a husband or a lover) with whom she had a physical relationship (reddish orange represents sensuality) and that she is surrounded by a sympathetic world (bluish green represents sympathy).

Girl’s Head Against the Shore by Edvard Munch.

Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
Edvard Munch, Girl’s Head Against the Shore, 1899; color woodcut, framed: 78.11 x 67.63 x 3.49 cm (30 3/4 x 26 5/8 x 1 3/8 in.); Epstein Family Collection.

Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair
This intriguing woodcut shows a woman enveloping the head of a man with a light green face in her long brown and orange hair. The color brown represents selfishness and orange sensuality, while light green indicates sympathy. Jonathan Bober, curator of the exhibit, suggests that, if these two individuals are lovers, her interest in him is not particularly strong while his love for her is more serious. Bober goes on to say that, if this interpretation is correct, the woman is definitely the dominant one as we see her swallowing up the man with her hair.

Use of the Color Chart
Some exhibit viewers prefer to look at the prints without consulting the color chart. However, many find this chart stimulating or amusing and enjoy having a more interactive relationship with the prints.

The exhibit will be on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. until January 28, 2018. Admission is free.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.