Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Edvard Munch in Germany

There was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city, and I stood there trembling with anxiety - and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. (Edvard Munch) 

 Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait in Hell, 1903

Edvard Munch's breakthrough as a great individualist in European art came in the form of what was known as the "scandal exhibition" in 1892. The Norwegian painter Adelsteen Normann, resident in Berlin and secretary of the Artists' Union there (Verein Berliner Künstler), had seen a major one-man show by Munch when travelling through Kristiania. He invited Munch to exhibit at the Union's November exhibition - the society’s first one-man exhibition. In the advance press Munch's paintings were referred to as "pictures of an Ibsenesque mood arousing curiosity both on a social and psychological level". Munch was pleased with the "great commotion", and wrote in a letter: "Never have I had such an amusing time - it’s incredible that something as innocent as painting should have created such a stir."

 Edvard Munch, The Hands, 1893

Since the war between Germany and France of 1870/71, artistic life in Berlin and Paris had polarised. While Paris was opening up to a mass of new impulses, Berlin was isolating itself around the idea of an ideal, educational national art and Munch's exhibition was exploited in this schism. The exhibition was opened with 55 works on November 5th, 1892 in the "Architektenhaus" (Wilhelmstraße 52). On the opening day the respected grandees of the Artists' Union, headed by the conservative painter Anton von Werner, Director of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, demanded that the premises should be closed to the public on the grounds that it was immoral to show such degenerate art. 

 Edvard Munch, The Day After, 1894

The exhibition was prematurely closed seven day later. The press referred to Munch as the epitome of a gifted "Germanic" artist who had let himself be influenced by decadent French taste and the result was "anarchic daubs". The event made Munch famous, or rather notorious, overnight and in the press was described as "Der Fall Munch" - the Munch Affair. A direct consequence of the affair was the foundation of the Berlin Secession, an association of progressive artists, with Max Liebermann as its first President.

Edvard Munch, August Strindberg, 1892

The exhibition toured to Düsseldorf and Cologne, reopening in Berlin in December the same year. Munch sold almost nothing, but earned a respectable income from ticket sales. Everybody wanted to see an international scandal. Munch quickly became integrated in the Berlin circle of intellectuals and artists around August Strindberg and the Polish author Stanislaw Przybyszewski, who often met in the wine bar Zum schwarzen Ferkel (The Black Pig).  Munch stayed in Berlin the following four years; in 1897, after a stay in Paris,  he returned to Kristiania (Oslo).

Edvard Munch, Walter Rathenau, 1907

From 1902 until his breakdown in 1908 Munch was again almost permanently resident in Germany, where he completed a number of monumental full-length portraits which were greeted with general respect. These included the portraits of Walter Rathenau (above) and Harry Graf Kessler (below). Walter Rathenau - a prominent Jewish industialist and the role model for Count Paul Arnheim in Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities - was one of Munch's great supporters during this period (he was assassinated in a plot led by ultra-nationalist army officers a couple of months after he was appointed  Germany's Foreign Minister in 1922). Another of Munch's supporters was the "Red Count" Harry Graf Kessler, a famous diplomat, writer, patron of modern art - and one of the very few German dandies who really deserve this title.

 Edvard Munch, Harry Graf Kessler, 1907

In 1902, Munch's Frieze of Life was exhibited around all four walls of the Berlin Secession. Each of the four walls had its own title: the left-hand wall was called Love's Awakening, and included the pictures Red and White, Eye in Eye, Kiss and Madonna. On the next wall hung pictures characterised as Love Blossoms and Dies, including Ashes, Vampire (below), Jealousy, Sphinx and Melancholy. Then came Fear of Life, where we find The Scream, Anxiety and Red Virginia Creeper, and on the final wall hangs Death with pictures such as Death Struggle, Death in the Sickroom, The Girl and Death and The Dead Mother and Child. Munch himself referred to the frieze as "a poem of love, anxiety and death".

 Edvard Munch, Vampires, 1893

After the Frieze exhibition, the Berlin critics were beginning to appreciate Munch’s work even though the public still found his work alien and strange. The good press coverage gained Munch the attention of the influential art patron Max Linde in Lübeck. His portrait of the four sons of Linde has been classified as one of the finest children's portraits of the 20th century. Munch described the turn of events in his diary, "After twenty years of struggle and misery forces of good finally come to my aid in Germany - and a bright door opens up for me."

Edvard Munch, Self-portrait on the operating table, 1902

Also in 1902, Edvard Munch and his lover Tulla Larsen met for a "reconciliation". There was a revolver in the house and in a shooting accident Munch was wounded in the left hand. He blamed Tulla for the accident and subsequently broke off all contact with her. Later, Munch's concern about his hand almost amounted to monomania. His painting Self-Portrait on the Operating Table (above) clearly references the shooting incident and the emotional after effects. Strangely enough, four years before this accident, in 1898, Munch had already portrayed himself with a bleeding hand:

 Edvard Munch, Blossom of Pain, 1898

The work Munch produced during the 6 years between 1902 and 1908 was to become crucial to the development of the German Expressionist movement. In these years Munch came to take on a more extrovert attitude to life than previously, as indicated by the monumental Bathing Men. The painting was produced in the summer of 1907 when Munch settled down in Warnemünde on the Baltic coast and experimented in a number of different techniques. 

Edvard Munch. The Drowned Boy, 1908

Munch also spent the following summer in Warnemünde. One of the most interesting works from that summer is The Drowned Boy (above). The motif uses the the beach promenade outside Munch's house in Warnemünde, and we see a light and a dark male figure walking side by side. The experience of a split personality had occupied Munch for several years but here the feeling of "walking beside oneself"  is intensified. Soon afterwards Munch was to summarise the battle between the light and dark forces in his mind with the words: 

 Edvard Munch, Brothel Scene - Zum süßen Mädel, 1907
The influence of alcohol brought the schism of the mind or the soul to its extreme - until the two states like two birds in a single cage each pulled in their own direction and threatened to break down or tear apart the chain - Under the violent schism of these two mental states arose an increasingly stronger inner tension - a conflict - a fearful battle in the cage of the soul.

 Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Wine Bottle, 1906

After years of restless life, nervous illness and alcohol abuse, breakdown came in the autumn of 1908 and Munch spent the following eight months in a nerve clinic in Copenhagen. When he returned to Norway he first settled in Kragerø and here began a completely new chapter in his life and in his art. Germany came back to Munch in 1940, when the Wehrmacht invaded Norway and the Norwegian Nazi party took over the government. Munch was seventy-six years old. With his entire art collection in the second floor of his house, he lived in constant fear of a Nazi confiscation. Seventy-one of his paintings previously seized by the Nazis from German museums as "degenerate art" had found their way back to Norway through purchases by collectors (including The Scream and The Sick Child). 

 Edvard Munch, The Death Bed, 1895

Munch died in his house at Ekely near Oslo on January 23, 1944, about a month after his 80th birthday. Curiously, though his works were hung in the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, Goebbels was a fervent admirer. Munch's funeral was hijacked and swathed in swastikas. His Nazi orchestrated funeral left the wrong impression with some observers that he was a Nazi sympathizer. The city of Oslo bought the Ekely estate from his heirs in 1946 and demolished his house in 1960. Munch would have loved Kierkegaard's last words: Sweep me up.

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