Edvard Munch: A Bombshell of Love and Pain

Before today, my prior exposure to Edvard Munch had been quite limited, just a single painting here and there. Even at some of the highest quality museums the world has to offer, the selection was sparse. From London, to Tokyo, to LA I could count the number of paintings I’d seen of his on a single hand. And none of them were enough to draw me in. Turns out that his works were all hiding at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway. But not today.

That is, the Tretyakov Gallery stepped in with a special Munch exhibition, gathering 65 of the author’s paintings in a single location for a limited time. I bought my ticket, scanned my ticket, and spent the next hour and a half intoxicated by the sheer emotion of Edvard Munch.

The experience was simultaneously exhilarating and draining (in a good way). The paintings were saturated with expression and meaning, each as bountiful as the next. A handful of brush strokes by a single man and a hundred years later there I am sitting with my jaw alternating between clenched and dropped as I moved about the venue.

His colors, his bold strokes, his subjects all come together to create a powerfully coherent work, and then another, and another. I walked out of the gallery enlightened, but somewhat disheartened that it was over. It was a high that I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to repeat.

But like any unforgettable experience, I’m going to need some time to unpack it, so that’s what this article is for. I’ve decided to take a half dozen of the works that most impacted me and jot down just why and how they did so.

Disclaimer: I’m no art expert, nor do I know what Munch was actually going for in these works. I just know that his work was exquisite. Let’s see if I can figure out why.

Here we go.

Self-Portrait in Hell (1903)

Good place to start. Literally. This was the painting that greeted me as I entered the exhibition. I was first struck by the posture of Munch. It has none of the usual back-arching agony that a figure in hell is expected to display. Rather, there is an air of confidence to it. My eyes were caught by the almost phosphorescent body and I got the sense of a defiance of sorts, a resistance against the hellish environs of the subject. Then my glance moved back up to his face, so much darker than the rest. The light of the body has shifted to a tone more akin to the hellfire around him. The eyes nothing but two shifty dots. And I began to wonder, perhaps this figure isn’t defiant at all, but rather belongs here. The posture is not one of proud endurance, but instead one of familiarity, of ease.

Dance of Life (1899-1900)

Wild. There is so much going on here. Front and center we have our main dancers, enveloped by a slight red aura, bleeding into one another. Then there are the background dancers. Flowing curves and whirling movement. One couple in the back on the right side also seem to be fusing. Somewhat more forward, a ghastly man leans into a resisting partner. And then framing it on either side are two other women, neither dancing. The left is in white and has a rounded grace to her. On the right is another woman in somber black, her dress the most geometric clothing in the piece, almost pleated down the middle (at least in the version I saw, less evident here). And behind it all an auspicious and suspiciously phallic reflection of the moon in the sea. A dance of life indeed, but one that some seem to enjoy, others not so much, and others simply observing, whether out of choice or some other reason.

Starry Night (1922-24)

Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night is iconic, and for good reason. It is, quite simply, a masta-piece. Then Munch comes along with his own Starry Night just a few decades later and it is so damn good that I’m struggling to even remember what the Dutchman’s looked like. Those colors…lordy lord. That little rectangle of light in the trees. The cotton candy slopes, the shadows of the figures…the stars! I am tempted to call it dreamy, but dreams don’t even reach this level of surreal beauty.

Note: there is also a 1893 Starry Night by Munch, and while still good, this later version is much more phenomenal.

The Night Wanderer (1923-24)

The subject seems to almost materialize from the bottom left of the canvas. It begins as a vague blackness that slowly coalesces into the torso, neck, and (finally) visage of a man. His eyes are nothing but pools of shadow. The tilt to his posture both elicits suspicion in him, but also reflects that he might be suspicious of the viewer as well. If he is a night wanderer, then the viewer is too, otherwise I’d be in bed and never know of his passing. So both you and Munch (I think this is one of his self-portraits) greet one another as fellow night wanderers, each wary of the other. Something I just noticed as well is that the strokes along the floor and the right wall give a sense of forward momentum, adding to the sense that the viewer was on his own night wanderings before this chance encounter.

Death in the Sickroom (1895)

An earlier work, but no less moving. I was struck by how the faces of everyone were blurred, bowed, or otherwise out of focus. Save for the woman staring straight ahead. The others are all confronting grief in the usual postures. But this woman has her hands clasped and stands straight-backed. However, despite this unbent stance, her blank stare actually gives the strongest sense of grief in the piece. A grief that is so overwhelming that all one can do is zone out and try to hold oneself together.

Portraits of Daniel Jacobson and Jappe Nilssen (both from 1909)

Ok, I lied about the half a dozen number. But I couldn’t pick between these two portraits. I didn’t stare at them too long, trying to get into the deeper emotions packed in. However, I did love the colors. The palettes themselves incited a lively sensation and I got the feeling that there was an added aspect of gravity to both the subjects. Not in the sense of seriousness, but of actual attraction. Their shapes seem to ever-so-slightly warp the space around them, curling the contours of the room, and even the shadows themselves in the case of Jacobson. Both make for and extremely aesthetically pleasing viewing experience.

Wrapping Up

That’ll do for now. All that is left to say is: if you ever have a chance to see a collection of Edvard Munch’s works, go go go. Snatch a ticket and buckle up.