Munch at MoMA

Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul
Museum of Modern Art
New York
Stephen Berens
"Edvard Munch Painting in the Outdoor Studio at Ekely (near Oslo)," c. 1925. Photo: Lutz & Co. Munch Museum Archives.

Edvard Munch Painting in the Outdoor Studio at Ekely (near Oslo), c. 1925. Photo: Lutz & Co. Munch Museum Archives.

I wanted to see the Edvard Munch exhibition at MoMA because most of my knowledge of his paintings has been based on looking at reproductions. As with a number of people I know who realized they wanted to be artists when they were teenagers in the 1960s, Munch’s angst-filled paintings struck an immediate cord for me back then. Now, almost forty years after first encountering the reproductions, I was curious what my reaction would be to the paintings themselves.

The introductory room of the exhibition set the stage for what I hoped would be a first-hand encounter with the rawness that I associate with his paintings. Along with biographical information there were a number of photographs of Munch; two in particular captured the qualities that made him so attractive to me when I was a teenager. In one photograph he is painting on the beach wearing a loincloth and in the other he is painting in the snow in his open-air studio. In these photographs the pieces appear unfinished, still part of his everyday life, and Munch is concentrating on his painting, not looking towards the camera. These are not formal portraits; they are documents of Munch at work. Yet in their ordinariness they present a glimpse of the vitality, compulsiveness and raw energy that I associate with Munch and his painting. Regrettably, the majority of the exhibition that followed denied the viewer the opportunity for a first-hand experience of the rawness of his approach because 74 of the 87 paintings present were displayed behind glass.1 And, while putting glass over any painting is detrimental to the experience of the work, it is especially acute with a painter like Munch whose varied use of paint is integral to the meaning of his paintings.

Munch’s applications of paint ranged from small blobs of pigment that record actual brush strokes to thin washes of oil that resemble stains. When encountering his paintings, these differences attract your eye, guiding it around the canvas and affecting your experience of the work. For example, when looking at a painting such as The Storm (1893), which was not behind a protective barrier, I found it hard to focus on the whole canvas for any length of time; the longer I looked the more the image tended to break down to pure paint. This experience of fluctuating between being aware of the physical act of painting and the resulting image brought to mind a whole range of thoughts about the work including what it meant to paint in such an expressionistic manner in the 1890s.

On the other hand, my experience of looking at Moonlight (1893) and Melancholy (1891)—both of which were fronted by glass and displayed on the same wall—was very different. These paintings became pure surface, pure image, as my eye would glide back and forth over the glass trying to find something to grasp onto. In an effort to find somewhere to rest, my eye clung to the figures; the backgrounds functioned almost as stage sets for the figures’ psychological dramas. This shifted my focus from the overall paintings to the inner life of the individuals represented—from the world as a whole to individuals and their emotional tragedies. These paintings were transformed into pictures in a manner similar to the way that photography converts the world into pictures. The result was that distance from the real that is present in every photograph. The paintings became traces, resemblances, simulacra. This had a tremendous impact on my experience of these works, as I did not find myself thinking very much about Munch the painter, or paintings in general, but mostly about the experiences of the figures that he painted.

Edvard Munch, "Self-Portrait Painting at the Beach in Warnemünde, Summer 1907." (c) Munch Museum, Oslo. Munch is working on "The Ages of Life Triptych; Bathing Men" can be seen on the right side, behind him.

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait Painting at the Beach in Warnemünde, Summer 1907. (c) Munch Museum, Oslo. Munch is working on The Ages of Life Triptych; Bathing Men can be seen on the right side, behind him.

This effect that glass had on my perception of the paintings was very obvious when I compared two paintings in the exhibition from The Ages of Life Triptych2 [Bathing Men (1907–08) and Bathing Youth (1909)] with Naked Men (1923), which was hung directly adjacent to them and has similar subject matter and is of almost identical scale. The figures in Bathing Men and Bathing Youth fluctuated between being solid, three-dimensional forms and dissolving either into the background or into pure paint. The figures seemed to be struggling to take shape—just to hold together. These paintings are not only about the inner drama of the individuals but also about the sheer effort needed just to exist in the world. To focus primarily on the figures in the paintings, as I tended to do when I looked at the glass-fronted Naked Men, was to lose their connection to the larger world or—in other words—to miss the point.

One of the exhibition’s wall texts reproduced a version of an oft-quoted statement by Munch: “I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, dead tired, and I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and city. My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature.”3 It is important to note that Munch states, “I felt a loud unending scream piercing nature,” not I produced a loud unending scream that pierced nature. This suggests that the scream is present in nature and not emanating solely from the individual. And if we look at the first of the paintings that Munch made about this experience, Despair (1892), the foreground figure is not screaming but staring faceless into the landscape. A year later Munch painted The Scream, where the figure is looking directly at the viewer and is screaming, but his intention was surely not to have the whole picture, the whole experience, reduced down to a screaming figure.4

In the end, what I discovered—the thing that was most disappointing—was that the unifying surface of the glass turned the paintings into full-scale reproductions. What I had come to see, what I wanted to experience, was denied. Without access to the tactile surface of the paint I could not concentrate on the thing itself, the painting, but only on its image.

Stephen Berens is a Los Angeles-based artist and one of the founding editors of X-TRA.


  1. The exhibition also included fifty works on paper, but because the prints have a fairly uniform surface the effect of glass was negligible. Since I had previously seen a fair number of his prints and my main motivation in attending this exhibition was to see the paintings, my comments here will be limited to my experience of looking at the paintings.
  2. See the photograph of Munch painting on the beach.
  3. This translation is one of at least eight versions of the        4. text that Munch wrote concerning his experience that resulted in the painting Despair, the various versions of The Scream, as well as the series of prints based on these paintings. For a more in depth examination of the events surrounding the painting of The Scream and Munch’s writings about it refer to Sue Prideaux’s biography Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, Yale University Press, 2005.
  4. Munch painted four versions of the The Scream (1893). While none of them were included in the MoMA exhibition, two versions of the lithograph The Scream (1895) were on exhibit. The Scream is arguably Munch’s most recognizable painting, however it is understandable why an example of it is not in the exhibition. The version owned by the Norwegian National Gallery in Oslo was stolen in 1994 and recovered later that same year. One of the two versions owned by the Munch Museum in Oslo was stolen in 2004; it is still missing.
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