Munch and the Expressionist movement
His place, his influence, and his inspiration
Munch and Expressionism, an intriguing exhibit at the Neue Galerie, is on view through June 13, 2016.
The first sentence in the Neue Galerie’s mission statement explains its purpose: “a museum devoted to early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design.” One may wonder why the Munch Museum in Oslo would be partnering with a museum dedicated to German and Austrian art. Why have an exhibition about Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944) in this space?
Munch is considered to be a father of Expressionism. This movement manifested in the German-speaking countries, a place where Munch’s work had been widely seen and enthusiastically received, as well as where he lived for extended periods of time. And that is why, no matter how many exhibits you have seen about Munch, this one is different. It puts his role as a catalyst for the Expressionist movement into context and explores how this movement continued to influence him and his work throughout his life.
The Neue Galerie is housed in the former Vanderbilt Mansion, designed by the renowned architects Carrère & Hastings in 1914. As a result the exhibit is limited to a small but beautiful space. It is also quite popular, so anticipate congestion and give yourself sufficient time to savor this exhibit.
There are four gallery rooms: Experimental Printmaking, Munch and the Expressionists in Dialogue, Influence and Affinity, and The Scream. This show’s text is concise but sufficient, indicating that the artwork is the main feature. Careful curation allows the work to speak for itself, both individually as well as in the contexts presented. Lastly, there is a wonderful use of color on the walls—rich and warm, enhancing the artwork. It is so refreshing to break away from the usual antiseptic white.
Instead of paraphrasing, I am sharing text directly from the gallery wall:
Edvard Munch is rightly celebrated as a father of Expressionism. His extreme originality and inventiveness were a driving force for young Expressionist artists at the dawn of the twentieth century…. The present exhibition demonstrates how Munch’s radical approach to printmaking, his bold colors and daring compositions, together with his fresh take on age-old subjects such as portraiture and landscape painting, showed the way forward to a new, revolutionary generation of German and Austrian artists.
But after 1900, when Expressionism reached its heyday, Munch responded to the stylistic innovations of his young admirers and became not just a precursor of but also a participant in the Expressionist movement… Munch lived until 1944, and his exciting, lesser-known late paintings pushed Expressionism to further extremes, foreshadowing contemporary movements and confirming Munch’s enduring vitality and relevance.
Gallery I: Experimental Printmaking
Munch began printmaking early in his career in 1890s Berlin. While there he joined a group of visual artists and wordsmiths, led by Swedish playwright August Strindberg.
In 1907 a Hamburg Collector, Gustav Schiefler, published a catalogue of Munch’s prints, which explains how the Norwegian’s work was widely viewed in the German-speaking part of Europe.
Color in prints
Munch repeated many of his themes, often changing them slightly, trying different mediums. On one wall there are two prints, with the same rendition of “Old Fisherman.” Here Munch is experimenting with ink color. One uses black ink and the other uses dull yellow, dark peach, deep blue, and sea-foam-colored inks. The two prints show how color can change the tone and impact of a piece.
So much has been said about Munch as an inspiration that I think we often forget he was also a student and continued to experiment and innovate throughout his life.
Three of Munch’s Madonnas follow. Here we see his use of the same theme articulated in different mediums. The first is a lithograph with black, white, red, and light olive hand coloring, the second a sketchy and light-handed oil. The last one is also a print, with broadly differentiated waves around the Madonna’s head like the kinetic ones found in “The Scream.”
Grain in Woodcuts
Two images of “The Kiss,” both woodcuts, are stacked over each other. One emphasizes the vertical lines of the grain, while the other the horizontal. This was a visually interesting result—the couple printed on the vertical line cut into the woodblock, emphasized the couple’s length and worked in sync, creating a harmony, while the one cut on the horizontal grain with the vertical couple shows opposition and tension, demonstrating how the woodcuts could reveal the underlying story.
Lastly, we discover that Munch was already being appreciated for his one-off approach to printmaking—no two are alike. To me this reflects the quickly changing world at that time and society’s awareness of the impact of mass production caused by the Industrial Revolution. When applied to human beings, it represents an awareness of the loss of the individual and how all were thrust into an uncomfortable flux.
Gallery II: Munch and Expressionism in Dialogue
The first thing that struck me in this room were the lovely wall colors in cobalt blue and burnt orange, which added depth to the paintings in this room.
By this time Munch’s work had grown in popularity and been exhibited in major cities, as well as developed a group of collectors. So this room serves as a testament to Munch’s influence on young Expressionist artists in terms of his unique approach to traditional genres—landscapes and portraiture. As the text tells us, he “helped the Expressionists to break with realism and create works that reflected their personal vision and emotions.” The pieces here are a delight to the eyes, as well as a study in comparisons and process.
Munch would reduce landscapes to their basic elements of color and line. Here three different artists depict this landscape style: Gabriele Münter in 1911, Munch, and Emil Nolde, nearly two decades after Munch’s pieces, thus attesting to his lasting influence with visual proof. I found Münter’s piece the most riveting due to its pared-down shapes and wonderful use of color, especially her choice of a rich blue for a home that sings amid the white winter.
Munch’s Expressionist brushwork
As Expressionism evolved, the father of the movement took notice, especially in the “relationship between brushwork and color.” One wall displays portraits of three males. The last one, “Christian Gierloff,” 1900, is a brilliant example of Munch’s adoption of these painting techniques. The figure is large and still and yet exudes kinetic energy due to Munch’s use of broad swirly strokes. His thick application of paint creates texture, allowing his brushstrokes to create further movement, similar to the way he used the cuts in the wood block prints. Gierloff becomes a vibrating presence.
Munch and color
The last wall in this room has three prints by Erich Heckel flanked on either side by prints from Munch, both of which are titled “Puberty.” Each of the five portrays a young girl. If you scan them from left to right they are placed in reverse chronology, from 1916 to 1894. A very clever wall creates a conversation between these five pieces. Presenting visual proof that Munch’s work influenced others, you see a direct link between Munch’s “Puberty,” 1894, a lithograph, and the three pieces by Heckel. And then Heckel’s young girl pieces inspired Munch to revisit his 1894 piece, 22 years later, this time transforming it into an oil on canvas version and adding color.
Gallery III: Influence and Affinity
This is a very dynamic gallery and the largest one, a riot of color and chock full of wonderful works by Munch and other Expressionist greats. I suggest that before you read or explore individual pieces, you take a seat and allow yourself to take in the breadth of this amazing collection in its entirety. Allow yourself to savor and be delighted.
The wall with eight pieces is a wonder to see. First, because it contains so many of Munch’s iconic pieces and themes—three woodcuts of “Angst,” one of “Evening on Karl Johan Street,” and another I had never seen. These are in a dialogue with three pieces by Kirschner. All the pieces express the inner self, reflecting what had become dominant in society at that time in history, an alienation and anxiety.
Munch’s impact on contemporary artists
From the wall text the following stood out: “Munch’s depiction of elements of existential anxiety in his earlier work also continues to resonate in the work of contemporary artists, working in less traditional media.” Thus, Munch continues to influence and inspire a new generation of artists till the present day.
Gallery IV: The Scream
Undoubtedly, Munch’s most iconic piece of work is “The Scream.” He did four different depictions of this image, and in this case we have an unusual one in pastels that smacks you in the face as soon as you enter this small rectangular room. It is the star. Here Munch included a poem at the bottom of the piece. Its translation hangs above the pastel:
“I was walking along the road with two friends
The Sun was setting—
the Sky turned blood-red.
And I felt a wave of Sadness—I paused
tired to Death—Above the blue-black
Fjord and City Blood and Flaming tongues hovered
My friends walked on—I stayed
behind—quaking with Angst—I
felt the great Scream in Nature.”
Besides the impact of this piece, what most intrigued me were references made to a scream or shriek within the Expressionist artistic movement. From the exhibit text: “Viennese critic Hermann Bahr later characterized the shriek (scream) as the outstanding trait of Expressionism…. Satirical author Karl Kraus described Vienna as an isolation cell in which one was allowed to scream…. Egon Schiele frequently depicted himself screaming or with his face contorted by extreme emotions… Erich Heckel also responded directly to Munch’s ‘The Scream,’ which he knew through the dramatic black and white print version.”
All of these corroborate Munch’s position as the father of Expressionism. “The Scream” resonated within the changing society and art movement, through the visual in art, as well as in written word. But more importantly, this very human cry became the symbol of the Expressionist movement.
As you exit there is a wonderful timeline in the corridor, laying out three parallel stories—Edvard Munch, Munch and Expressionism, and Expressionism. A few interesting facts include the following:
- Munch saw an exhibition of Brücke artists shown in Kristiania (today’s Oslo), in 1908. Munch wrote: “I would enjoy getting together once with the painters.” As early as 1912 Munch was honored as “the forerunner of Expressionism at the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne and August Macke wrote to Munch: “We young ones have inscribed your name on our shield.”
- Munch continued to support German artists’ work, no matter the politics of the time, by buying it. In 1921, Munch exhibits in Germany, breaking the international artistic boycott imposed since World War I. Did you know that Munch painted murals for in the Freia Chocolate Factory’s dining room in 1922?
- Over 80 works of Munch’s are deemed to be Degenerate Art by the Nazis. They also confiscated graphics from his home once they had invaded Norway.
- Munch wrote his last will and testament leaving his writings and art to the city of Oslo.
This is the only place where this exhibit will be shown. If you cannot get to New York to see the exhibit, the online info about the exhibit is incredibly extensive and includes iTunes and Google Play audio tours.
Accolades to curator Dr. Jill Lloyd and Munch scholar Dr. Reinhold Heller for giving the public new insight into Munch and Expressionism in a way that incorporates scholarly gravitas yet never abandons the beauty, power, and intensity of the artwork.
Another perk at this museum is the amazing Café Sabarsky, a stunningly designed café that transports you to an early 20th-century Viennese café, which “served as important centers of intellectual and artistic life.” A Bösendorfer grand piano graces one corner of the café and is used for all cabaret, chamber, and classical music performances at the museum. If this café is full, which it usually is, you also have the option of visiting Café Fledermaus, located in the lower level of the Neue Galerie. It was inspired by the Cabaret Fledermaus, commissioned by Fritz Waerndorfer, and executed by the artisans of the Wiener Werkstätte in 1907. The menu is the same as the upstairs café.
This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.