Today, ‘The Scream’ is not just the most iconic image created by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) but also arguably the most celebrated pictorial motif in European art history. One of the earliest drawings is accompanied by a prose poem by the artist, who is appreciated as a representative of both Expressionism and Symbolism:
‘I was walking along the road with two friends – The sun was setting. The sky turned blood red – and I felt a wave of sadness – I paused tired to death – above the blue-black fjord and city blood and flaming tongues hovered. My friends walked on – I stayed behind – quaking with angst – I felt the great scream in nature.’
Sickness, fear and death are fundamental aspects of the art of Edvard Munch; they are often associated with his family circumstances in childhood and youth. His mother and a number of his siblings died of tuberculosis. He himself suffered severe pneumonia at a young age, and as a result a fear of chills and lung ailments stayed with him throughout his life.
The Scream, 1895, lithograph on wove paper, 513 x 384 mm, private collection
When Munch began experimenting with graphic techniques in 1894, the Madonna was one of the most motifs he essayed, with a very carefully executed drypoint etching. Around the picture area he designed a border depicting spermatozoa and an embryo. The juxtaposition of pictorial elements inspired by evolutionary theory and modern medicine with a figure interpreted as religious prompted a storm of controversy around the ‘Madonna’ lithograph. On a few occasions its title was altered to ‘Monna’ to obscure the religious connotations.
Madonna, 1895/1902, lithograph on Japan paper 830 x 575 mm, private collection
Groups of girls or young women on a bridge soon became one of Munch’s favourite motifs. As so often in his work, this woodcut was not created as a sketch for a subsequent composition but in fact follows on from a painting produced earlier. Apart from the fact that – as with all graphic versions – the image is reversed, it bears a strong resemblance to the painting.
Girls on the Bridge, 1918, combination print on wove paper, 705 x 590 mm, private collection
At the end of the 19th century, the perception of woman as a dangerous creature was still widespread. Munch employed numerous symbolic references to such female figures. ‘On the Waves of Love’ contains a strong element of doom, while with ‘In Man’s Brain’ a more humorous approach comes to the fore, the nude figure of the woman clearly suggesting what is on the man’s mind.
Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair, 1896, woodcut on Japan paper, 635 x 465 mm, private collection
A large part of Munch’s art deals with the problems that beset the relationship between man and woman. He depicts the act of falling in love in all its beauty with motifs such as ‘Attraction,’ in which two people gaze at each other in rapture. The difficulties, meanwhile, manifest themselves in motifs such as ‘Melancholy,’ ‘Ash’ and ‘Jealousy,’ while ‘Separation’ depicts the final, painful break-up.
Separation II, 1896, lithograph on Japan paper, hand coloured, 580 x 810 mm, private collection
Curiously the motif of a man and a woman, in close embrace, walking towards the dark woods is one that Munch never reproduced in paint. This woodcut is also one of his largest, and is presented here by the Kunsthaus in two variations. An early version uses subdued colours throughout, creating a mystical, nocturnal mood and emphasizing the darkness of the forest. Looking at the later version, we notice that the woman is now clothed, while the light colours are suggestive of day rather than night.
Towards the Forest, 1915, woodcut on wove paper, 604 x 768 mm, private collection
Munch’s graphic work includes a remarkably large number of portraits of writers and poets, including lithographs of Stéphane Mallarmé, Knut Hamsun, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg.
Henrik Ibsen in the Café of the Grand Hotel, 1902, lithograph on wove paper, 505x650 mm, private collection
Munch tackled the motif of the kiss in numerous versions and media, from early drawings in the 1880s to paintings, woodcuts and etchings in the 1890s, right up to his final woodcut, completed a few months before his death at the end of January 1944. The Kunsthaus Zürich, which holds the largest collection of works by Munch outside Norway, is showing no less than five versions of the ‘Kiss.’
The Kiss IV, 1902, woodcut on Japan paper, 525 x 590 mm, private collection
The shoreline of Åsgårdstrand forms the backdrop for many of Munch’s most familiar motifs. Round stones, tree roots and the trunks of pine trees lend the summer night a somewhat mystical and fateful air. The constellation of a young and an old woman was one that Munch probably first adopted in the playbill for Peer Gynt.
A woman in light-coloured clothing is seen from behind. She represents a female character who appears in a series of Munch’s pictures and is at her most beautiful in the delicate mezzotint from 1896, where she is a luminous figure standing by the shore and gazing out to sea. In all, twelve copies of this mezzotint are known; all are colour prints, and they differ greatly from each other.
An 1891 painting with this motif was lost on a sea crossing in 1901, but by that time Munch had already reworked it as an etching and woodcut. He also experimented with the use of various stencils in order to achieve even greater variation, as well as painting directly onto a number of sheets.
Two Women on the Shore, 1898, woodcut on Simili Japan paper, hand coloured, 476 x 635 mm, private collection
Munch used himself as a model throughout his life. His first graphic self-portrait, a lithograph from 1895, shows a self-confident young artist and is often compared to Félix Vallotton’s contemporary woodcut portraits. Munch was not afraid to depict himself as a sick or lonely man. On hectographs he shows himself in various everyday situations; he was one of the first artists to use this method of reproducing drawings.
Self-portrait, 1895, lithograph on wove paper, 609 x 463 mm, private collection
Although as an artist Munch was largely preoccupied with himself, he was nevertheless interested in what was going on around him. During the First World War he lived in neutral Norway, isolated from events in central Europe. The lithograph ‘Neutrals,’ an ironic commentary on the war, shows countries outside the conflict picking fruit while the rest of Europe tears itself apart.
Neutrals, 1915, lithograph on wove paper, 895 x 619 mm, private collection
In winter 1902, determined to secure a firm foothold in Berlin’s art world, Munch rented a suitably imposing studio in the German capital. He engaged a professional model with long, flowing red hair.
He portrays the red-haired woman in both paintings and lithographs. In this case, however, the painting is less well known than its printed counterpart! Having first drawn the motif on one side of the lithographic stone and printed a number of monochrome copies, Munch transferred parts of the motif to the reverse of the stone. For the colour prints, he printed the front of the stone in red and the back in yellow, while the green eyes were apparently applied direct to the stone. When the stone reached Norway from Germany at the start of the First World War, he drew new lines on the belly area, thus transforming the condition of the lithograph.
This is just one surprising example of the production techniques (some more roundabout than others) that can be traced through the almost 150 works that make up the exhibition.
Woman with Red Hair and Green Eyes. The Sin, 1902, lithograph on Japan paper, 830 x 575 mm, private collection
The motifs of the fifteen paintings from the Kunsthaus’s own holdings include members of Hanseatic merchant families, landscapes near Chemnitz, and Lübeck harbour. Munch’s 1921 work ‘Apple Tree’ is based on a composition that harks back to the theme of Adam and Eve. This exquisite piece from the exhibition will be shown in the collection galleries of the Kunsthaus again after the temporary presentation ends. For an enduring impression of the ‘whole’ Munch, however, one needs to see it in the context of the marvellous and often experimental prints; the light-sensitive works on paper will return to private archives once the exhibition is over, and will not be seen in public again for some time.
Apple Tree, 1921, oil on canvas, 100 x 130.5 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, gift of Alfred Rütschi