Edvard Munch: Me, Myself & I

  • by Sura Wood
  • Sunday July 2, 2017
Share this Post:

"The camera cannot compete with painting as long as it cannot be used in heaven or hell," opined Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who invites us into his tormented psyche, a private Hades that's an unsettling but riveting place to be.

Munch survived two world wars, lost his mother and teenage sister to tuberculosis, and was hospitalized in 1908 following a breakdown induced by alcohol abuse and hallucinations, events that may or may not explain the brewing subterranean disturbance that erupted in his most famous painting, "The Scream" (1893), an oft-reproduced visual embodiment of a primal cri de coeur.

Aside from that remarkable masterwork, Munch has been woefully under-recognized in the U.S., a situation remedied in part by the arrival of "Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed," a thoughtful reassessment of the artist's late career at SFMOMA. Organized along existential themes - love (or something like it), sickness, death and despair, howling visions, the bed, and the hour of the wolf - it features 45 paintings created between the 1880s and 1940s, with an emphasis on the last 30 years of his life.

A transitional, revolutionary figure standing astride the late 19th century's symbolist and expressionist movements and 20th-century modernist figuration, Munch was a self-acknowledged late bloomer who didn't break through until he was in his 50s. By the time he died in 1944 at the age of 80, however, he was credited with an astonishing output: approximately 1,750 paintings, 18,000 prints, and 4,500 watercolors, as well as ventures into sculpture, graphic art, set design and film.

By focusing exclusively on the paintings and limiting their number, this first-class exhibition, marked by excellence on every level, including an airy installation and lucidly written scholarship throughout, offers a concentrated exposure that conveys the artist's emotional intensity and flair for drama without exhausting our reserves or presuming on our attention. Munch has largely been defined by his psychology, which has tended to obscure his technical virtuosity, but visitors here can appreciate his mastery, and experience art whose impact is far greater and stranger in person than in reproductions.

Munch was self-referential in the extreme; obsessed with self-portraiture, he constantly took his psychic temperature and charted shifts in his inner world, producing over 70 painted likenesses, 13 of which are on view. Just imagine if he'd had access to a digital camera and a selfie-stick. One could call this narcissism or simply a case of a man finding his true subject, one he knew best, and sticking with it. Solitary, preoccupied with roiling emotions he wanted viewers to feel, he was strategic, even in confessional mode. He painted himself suffering from a case of Spanish flu he never contracted, and reinvented his persona in the allegorical, otherworldly "Self-Portrait in Hell" (1903), assuming the guise of a winged demon or dark angel out of Dante, rising above a reddish glow presumably emanating from the flames beneath him. (He "autographed" the image, signing his name on the torso.) He adopted the suave demeanor of a cosmopolitan sophisticate for "Self-Portrait with Cigarette" (1895), his face illuminated by a bluish smoky haze from below, suggesting glamour, subterfuge, low-lit underground nightclubs, sleek Cartier lighters and clandestine assignations.

There's a power differential and more than a passing element of sadomasochism in his depictions of young women, who often were his models or housekeepers. Burdened by despair and devastation, the dejected woman at the center of "Weeping Nude" (1913-14) is posed on a rumpled divan the vulgar ruby red of a bordello, her head down and her long hair cascading over her face and body. Aching vulnerability is the salient feature of "Puberty" (1894), where one finds a frail, naked, barely adolescent girl on a bed in a spare, dingy room, shoulders hunched, her hands modestly crossed in her lap. She seems helpless, frightened, submissive, perhaps in response to the lurking shape on the wall to her right. It's a disturbing, unsavory scene that could've been visited by "The Night Wanderer" (1923-24), a predatory, trench-coated figure with hooded eyes one wouldn't want to encounter in an alleyway. As one prowls the galleries, it's difficult to shake the sense that down this road lays madness - mingled with brilliance.

Though they never met, Munch's instinctive kinship with Van Gogh was a natural. Fellow post-impressionists who admired Gauguin's audacious style, they're similar in their feral representations of themselves, and their ferocious application of paint to canvas. Munch's beauteous "Starry Night" (1922-24), an homage to the Dutch artist's "Starry Night over the Rhone" (1888), is less delusional, but retains the wildness and shimmer of its forebear. The work is part of Nocturnes, a section of paintings heavy with foreboding and tinged with the supernatural. They're cast in the moody blues and slate grays of twilight, like the dreamlike, deeply romantic "Night in Saint-Cloud" (1893), where, as nightfall approaches, shadows engulf a figure at a window who's viewing the Seine and the lights of passing boats.

In "Moonlight" (1903), a forbidding scold in garments as pitch-black as the night, her gleaming white face scowling like the witchy baddie who absconded with Toto in "The Wizard of Oz," stands in front of a white picket fence, stalked by a menacing silhouette on the building behind her.

Munch's last major self-portrait, "Between the Clock and the Bed" (1940-43), which anchors this show, was made during the German occupation, shortly before his death. Surrounded by the artworks to which he dedicated his life, and hemmed in by mortality and a clock with no hands or numerals, he seems to transcend time itself.

Through Oct. 9. sfmoma.org