Between time and eternity

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Edvard Munch’s poignant portraits at the Met Breuer


  • Edvard Munch, “Self Portrait with Cigarette,” 1895, Oil on canvas, 43 1/2 × 33 11/16 in., Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, © 2017 Artists Rights society (ARS), New York. Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo. Photo: Børre Høstland

  • Edvard Munch, “Self Portrait between the Clock and the Bed,” 1940–1943, Oil on canvas, 58 7/8 × 47 7/16 in., Munch Museum, Oslo © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © Munch Museum.

  • Edvard Munch, “Sick Mood at Sunset, Despair,” 1892, Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 × 26 3/8 in., Thielska Galleriet, Sweden, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © Thielska Galleriet, Sweden, Photo: Tord Lund

  • Edvard Munch, “Starry Night,” 1922–1924, Oil on canvas, 47 7/16 × 39 3/8 in., Munch Museum, Oslo, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © Munch Museum

He’s known for a scream, and scream he did. But, beyond the yawping howl that defines his oeuvre, Edvard Munch made paintings, drawings, etchings and woodcuts that pictured a life and time unique to him through situations and moments that are universally recognizable.

The Met Breuer’s “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed,” on view through February 4, features 43 works spanning more than 60 years. It includes pieces never before seen in the United States, many works Munch kept for himself until he died, 16 self-portraits (or as he called them, “self-scrutinies”), and versions of iconic images like his “Madonna” and “The Scream.”

Edvard Munch’s life was a story punctuated by death, illness, poverty and two world wars. He was frequently ill. His constant companions were fear and angst, so much so that he once stated, “From the moment of my birth, the angels of anxiety, worry, and death stood at my side.” Munch was born in 1863 in a small village in southeastern Norway. His father, a minister who would read his children the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, struggled to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. His mother and sister died when he was a young child. Echoes of those experiences are sounded in some of Munch’s most haunting paintings, including “The Sick Child” and “Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu.”

In 1889, Munch, still a young man, went to Paris and saw works by Vincent van Gogh (10 years his senior), Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Munch found inspiration and direction in their use of color as a means to explore emotion. Invited to exhibit with the Fauves in the early 1900s, he would become one of the great Symbolist painters.

“Self-Portrait with Cigarette,” an 1895 work, shows hazy blue-gray smoke both concealing and revealing a spotlighted face seemingly startled by the attention — one passage of lightness in an overwhelmingly dark canvas. “Self-Portrait with Brushes,” from 1904, presents a carefully dressed man with the tools of his trade posed against walls and a floor in contrasting colors. He appears confident, ready to embark on his journey.

The evolution of the painter comes through in both his stylistic development and the way he depicts himself. Increasingly abstracted compositions become populated with isolated characters. Two paintings that hang near one another depict Munch with bottles of wine. “Self-Portrait with a Bottle of Wine” from 1906 is more a mood study than a likeness. Alone in a restaurant, at a table with an empty plate, the subject sits. Behind him on one side hover two dark figures, and at the other side is hunched, faceless customer. A red patch of wall surrounds Munch’s face and the color continues lower to circle menacingly around his throat. We can read a lot of possibilities into such a setting, but probably not a pleasant meal. “Self-Portrait with Bottles” from 1938 offers one of the more dynamic poses in Munch’s self-portraiture. A frowning artist, green circles under his eyes, grabs at a table filled with bottles. He’d struggled with alcoholism for years. In some portraits, only eyes peer out, slashes take the place of mouths, and wrinkled foreheads come to represent personas.

Yes, there’s a version of “The Scream.” A lithograph hangs at face-level, making it easy to pose for selfies, as many visitors to the Breuer have been doing, mouths opened, hands at their cheeks. And why not? The howling figure has been repurposed into coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, adhesive bandages, key chains and even socks. Here, the curators use it to make the point that Munch often riffed on his own works. A painting from 1892, “Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair,” is set on the same bridge against the same garish, blood-red sky as that depicted in “The Scream.”

The 1940 painting that gives the exhibition its title, “Self Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed,” opens the show. It’s one of the last works the artist painted. In it, Munch pictures himself between a clock with no numbers and a bed. Time and mortality were clearly on his mind. But the first thing that jumped out at me is the bedspread that looks like a Jasper Johns painting. Apparently, it jumped out at Jasper Johns, as well. Some 40 years later, Johns painted a large triptych he would title “Between the Clock and the Bed.”

The Edvard Munch we encounter in the Met Breuer’s presentation is clearly a powerful painter, gifted with striking originality and an unmistakable voice, who sought to access the inner world through outer manifestations of color, form and gesture. But the echoes and harmonies these works evoke may be the greater legacy.

Jasper Johns responded. Without Munch’s existential yowl, would we have Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” or Francis Bacon’s twisting of human forms to reveal trauma? The jarring colors, fervent brushwork, fevered emotions and faceless figures Munch painted captured not just one Norwegian’s inner anxieties. They informed, echoed, anticipated and advanced Fauvism, Surrealism, Abstraction, Expressionism, and probably a few isms that haven’t yet been invented.

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