28 September 2010

Edvard Munch at the National Gallery of Art

Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

In an intimate setting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, 59 of Edvard Munch's prints are displayed from now until October 31, 2010. Sometimes referred to as a Synthetist, a Symbolist, sometimes more broadly as a Post-Impressionist, and most often as a progenitor of Expressionism, the Norwegian artist is often identified through the expression of intense human emotion in his work. The Master Prints exhibition reveals a methodical streak in Munch's thematic unity of expression and does not overwhelm with the inclusion of his entire ouvre. Instead, it focuses on five discreet themes that the curators, Andrew Robinson and Elizabeth Prelinger have identified in the grouping they have assembled from three separate collections - the National Gallery's own collection of Munch prints, the Epstein family's collection, and the Blitz/Woodard collection in New York.

The intimacy that the small rooms, painted a deep navy blue, afford in the East Wing of the National Gallery is unprecedented. A close up view of the profile portrayal of his sister Sophie in The Sick Child shows the softness of linework that Munch achieves through lithography. With four renditions of the same image side by side, the power of repetition evinces a delicate regard for the subject, which Munch renders in cherry, red and yellow tones. The image appears scribbled with crayons, as if a small child had made it, but the boldness of composition is that of a seasoned artist.

It is impossible to make it through the exhibit without noticing compositional similarities in Munch's work. He centers the subject on the plate, the woodblock, or the stone - depending on the printmaking technique he is using - and prints a usually flattened composition that emphasizes color and bold strokes over depth. One of his last works, Kiss in the Field of 1943, is composed very similarly to Toward the Forest of 1897 with the figures set as outlines against an atmospheric background. Two Women on the Shore of 1898 also depicts two central figures, but in this case, the background is fragmented around the central subject, and Munch experiments with various intensities of color and texture to evoke the lone silhouettes of a young woman on the shore with death at her side.

The exhibit focuses on his technique and the variations Munch explores, rather than the biographical details that might have influenced his work. Two sets of dates accompany each print noting the creation of the printing matrix against the actual printing date, which usually came much later. Textual explanations throughout the exhibit refer to Munch's use of intaglio, woodblock or lithographic process, his habit of breaking a woodblock into pieces and then adjoining them to make a print, which in one instance of Two Women on the Shore, embosses the paper and defines disparate zones of color and depth that almost detach themselves from a compositional unity.

One of the first prints in the exhibit, a lithograph of Evening on Karl Johan Street of 1895, depicts a flattened street view with several ghoulish figures staring out of the composition and creates an instantaneous visual connection to Munch's Anxiety series, on which his most famous work, The Scream, is based. Themes that reappear in Munch's work include the tension between piety and sexuality, the myth of the fall, love, death and loneliness. A curious paradox that persists in Munch's work and that of the Expressionists is that the urgency of depicting an inner world through expressive linework and color participates in a self-conscious and self-questioning cultural context, which constructed itself as a measured reaction to the scientism of the Impressionists.

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