Friday, October 21, 2016

Norske artister II: Edvard Munch

Painting from 1893 by Norwegian artist Munch
The Girl by the Window, Edvard Munch, 1893
Everyone knows that painting by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. The figure on the pier, hands to its cheeks, mouth open and emitting a scream so piercing that it causes the solidity of the pier and the immateriality of the sea and sky to tremble (though curiously the promenading couple in the background appear to remain unmoved).

But I first got to know Munch as a painter through other works, such as the one above, The Girl by the Window, from 1893. This painting resides in the Art of Institute of Chicago, where I took a class of my students last week. Seeing it reminded me of being compelled by such works when I was a teenager, both for their style and their subject matter. A seemingly ordinary moment -- a young woman standing in her night dress before a window through which the moonlight streams -- is fraught with unsettling intimations of fragility and danger. Is she reading? Is she sleepwalking? Is she looking at someone down in the street? Whatever she is thinking, the painting is entirely painted in loose and close strokes of paint, most of them slanting diagonally from the window into the room. She seems poised between the eerie light of the moon, and the dark green and black interior of the room behind her.

Paintings from the same few years in the mid 1890s also have this mood of dark obsession and unsettled psychological states, such as The Storm, also from 1893:

Oil painting from 1893 by Norwegian artist Munch
The Storm, Edvard Munch, 1893
Note that the figures in this painting all stand in the same pose as the figure in The Scream. This painting compels me more, though, and it's something to do with the watercolour-like washes of oil paint, the merging of figures and landscape into similar blocks of undulating shapes, and the tonality, as if a dark cloud was descending not just onto this village but on the whole world.

Even when Munch painted landscapes, they seemed to become transformed into visions of things that transcend the physical world:

Large semi-abstract landscape painting by Norwegian artist Munch
Moonlight, Edvard Munch, 1895
In its bold use of form, this painting is already knocking on the door of abstraction in a way that wasn't seen again until Matisse's canvasses of the early 1900s.

Munch is thought of as a wild Expressionist who laid it on the canvas as quickly and as thoughtlessly as possible in order to preserve a sudden rush of feeling. But I find that I can look at his paintings for a long time and get lost in their striking colours, their contrasting shapes, and the variety of their textures. He wasn't just a madman: he was a true painter.

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