Edvard Munch: The Scream
The Graphic Art of Edvard Munch
December 1, 1975. Oslo. From my hotel room the pedestrians in Karl Johansgate seem to be walking as they do in a Munch picture, at approximately the same pace and without glancing to left or right, but whether they are also silent and grim-looking is impossible to tell in the midnight-dark of mid-morning. I am constantly being struck by scenes that remind me of Munch vignettes, and my discovery of the realistic element in this “subjective” painter is expanding in several directions. Thus the sightless windows in an old house seem to resemble those in The Red Vine, the sky to evoke the palette of the early Starry Night, and the blank expressions to recall some of Munch’s people, though I have yet to see one of his entirely featureless faces—like that of a hold-up man, or guerrilla, with a stocking over the head. Munch-like, too, is the unhopeful sky, which in early afternoon turns a deepening blue, with a squint of cold pink just before the abrupt “lights out.” An acquaintance with the artist’s physical world, and with its psychological effects on the inhabitants, must broaden the understanding of his work, yet Munch is more than a regional painter, the best of his creations being universal by virtue of both themes and artistic mastery.
December 2. On any itinerary the Oslo National Gallery should precede the Munch Museum. The older institution not only owns more of the artist’s greatest paintings, but also provides examples of contemporaneous work, notably by Hans Heyerdahl, whom Munch admired, and by Christian Krohg, whose classes Munch attended. A visit to the National Gallery reveals that Munch was not a totally isolated phenomenon, at least in his beginnings, and that a related style and recurrent subject matter already existed. Furthermore, his apparent preoccupation with illness and death becomes less morbid in the context of so many other sick-room and death-bed scenes—which indicate a high incidence of tuberculosis in the Christiania of the time. Finally, the gloomy, creaky-floored old building suggests the atmosphere of the artist’s early years, while the passionate posturings of the Rodinesque sculptures in halls and on landings are evidence of the repressions of a society in which Munch was exceptional only because of his genius.
The Munch Museum, at the other extreme, offers comfortable seats, is better lighted (even by an occasional sunbeam), and presents its collection in ample, uncluttered space—one aspect of an architecture that is incongruously neutral if not in actual conflict with the turbulent emotions of the art. An attraction of the museum is that the paintings are surrounded by lithographs, woodcuts, and drypoints of the same subjects, thus providing supplements, clues, variations, simplifications, all of inestimable importance in Munch’s case. Once this is said, however, it is necessary to add that his graphic work should be considered not merely as ancillary, but for its intrinsic merit—The Frieze of Life series, for example, being more nearly complete in engraved than …