eEdvard Munch, in Courtauld Galleries, is a powerful revealer. In a way, it could hardly be otherwise, because most of these paintings have never been seen in this country before. It was purchased in the 19th century by Norwegian industrialist Rasmus Meyer, who owned grain mills in the port city of Bergen and was determined that locals would have as good a chance to see the country’s greatest living artist as anyone else in Oslo. And they’ve remained there ever since, in a town surrounded by fjords and facing the Shetland Islands across the frigid waters of the North Sea.
But what is striking is not only the unusualness of the paintings, but also the sudden change from day to night. You see Munch’s art develop at extraordinary speed and with extraordinary clarity in Meyer’s delicate collection. There are only 18 works, spanning a few decades, from the 1880s to 1909, when Munch was 46, but each one is a masterpiece of energetic and theatrical misery.
Except for one thing: an old plaque was deliberately placed at the entrance as an entry point. Spring Day in Karl Johan Oslo’s main street appears as if it was painted in 1890 by another artist attempting an airy mixture of Pisaro and Seurat. There isn’t a single character that remotely resembles Munch. Yet the street itself, photographed from the other end just two years later, is a classic nightmare of skeletal faces with strange hats pushing towards us at dusk, gaslights flashing in the distant windows.
A person standing apart, a black silhouette in the dark – the signature of the artist is his ego. The painting is usually associated with a passage from his illustrated memoirs in which Munch depicts himself as lonely in love with a woman he searches in vain on the streets. She sees her shadow falling across the dark garden a house in the moonlightA strange shape that almost touches the feet of the woman, appears only as a long white apron, and the rest of her body is obscured by midnight blue. The night sky is frightening and arsenic green. “When clouds obscure the moon, it is very mysterious,” Munch wrote.
This is one of a group of paintings inspired by the seaside town of Åsgårdstrand, where Munch had a summer home. Here, the midnight sun casts half its light along the shoreline, bathing the sea in molten color and creating dreamy illusions. In the moonlight on the beachThe beach and adjacent woodland date from 1892, receding sharply in the distance, converging to a vanishing point just below the yellow moon (remember the geometry in yelp). Four more moons, pale and glowing, dangling beneath them like a necklace of jewels.
Åsgårdstrand boards are stuck. Here, Munch’s sister, Inger, is perched among the glowing rocks on the bank, her white dress shining in the twilight, the paint nailed and thick as Rembrandt. And behind her, the sea flows in waves of lavender, violet, and indigo blue. The painting captivates and haunts her: Inger looks deathly pale in her moon dress, a shape as crisp and pure as rock.
The beach itself becomes the stage for the famous Munch cycle of paintings known as The Frieze of Life. In the depressionA man sits alone on the dark sand, hands in hand, pensive and frightened as the beach moves toward another life. A woman in three stages, on the same timeless thread, features a virgin bride (perhaps abandoned?), one of Munch’s nude seducers with brittle red hair, and a gaunt figure in black whose features might be ruined by drugs or the syphilis that Munch so fears. All that separates them from the ghostly presence of a skeleton-like man in a closet to the far right of the frame is a streak of dark red color that looks nothing like bloody echinoplasm.
The show is lavishly presented and carefully lit so that there is ample time for the eye and mind to absorb the unusual Munch technique – strokes of shiny pearls and silver, stubborn coils, drooping spots and halo heads. You begin to notice the overlying marks, drawn lightly to indicate mania and shaky bumps; The way poetry takes on a life of its own, curling up around female faces in psychedelic girls, lacy men, couples wrangling miserably together.
Above all, Munch’s sensational excerpts. Stand in the second gallery and the figures will appear to be walking straight towards you, appearing eerily close to the scene. And strangest of all is the blue-eyed girl who seems to have walked straight toward the painter and the edge of the frame. Behind her three children lying on their stomachs on the summer road. Did they bully her? She stands between the man and the boys, defiant, bent, forward and short at the waist, giving him an accusatory look. Her sky blue eyes were depicted without pupils, the color almost annoyingly intense. In other paintings, the eyes pierce only black dots. Sometimes there is no nose, eyebrows, or mouth. In the a man and a womanThe faceless face of the female character is reduced to a single cyclopean eye beneath an inferno of fiery red hair.
Everything will go to hell – right? Munch’s art presents such a stunning display of fear, isolation, and human misery from all sides that one cannot help but enjoy the show. The last painting here is a self-portrait from 1909, taken after her treatment for a breakdown after years of drunken paranoia. It’s an interesting picture – all the pure-colored broken lines streak across the screen like horizontal interference: crimson, violet, cobalt, yellow. But Munch himself sits quietly among them, erect and composed in an elegant three-piece suit; His mental strength and his art did not change.
It’s a testament to their relationship that Mayer was able to purchase the self-portrait directly from Munch the year it was made. But then there are no more purchases. The collector died a few years later during the First World War. Munch lived for nearly three decades, and continued to paint during World War II until his death in 1944 at the age of eighty.