Edvard Munch Review - The Art Institute Seeks the Artist Behind "The Scream"

Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944). Self-Portrait with Cigarette, 1895.

The current exhibition of Edvard Munch’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago is a “don’t miss” event—especially if  The Scream is the only work you know. A showcase of extraordinary loans from Norway, private collections and leading museums in America and abroad, it brings together approximately 150 rarely seen works, including 75 paintings and 75 works on paper by Munch and his contemporaries--including Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Max Clinger and Claude Monet.

“Whereas most Munch exhibitions have tended to take Munch at face value, displaying works that reinforce the myth of his tortured persona, Becoming Edvard Munch will consider his rich and varied production within the context of his peers, those whose works Munch could have seen and been inspired by,” according to Jay Clarke, Curator of the Exhibition and Associate Curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute.

For us, the most intriguing and satisfying aspect of the exhibit was the historical context.  For example, we didn’t expect to see Claude Monet’s The Boulevard des Capuchines with Munch’s Rue de Rivoli.  But Munch may have seen the Monet work on a visit to Paris in 1889. Since both he and other northern artists were influenced by  the French Impressionists, it’s not surprising that he choose to interpret the same subject—a street scene—in his own way.  He even chose the same perspective—looking down at the street from a balcony or window. But there is a fundamental differences in the works—the Munch style.

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926). The Boulevard des Capicines, 1873.

Monet’s panoramic view of this wide, elegant street creates a general impression of activity and movement with the swift dashes of paint with the objective of capturing fleeting moments.

Edvard Munch. Rue de Rivoli, 1891.

Munch was so fascinated by the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, in a letter, he claimed he was “racing from one exhibition to another.” Even though his 1890 painting of Rue de Rivoli, follows many impressionist techniques, the unique character of Munch’s brushstrokes creates an agitated ambience. Has he intentionally added a sense of anxiety to this scene?

Franz von Stuck (German, 1863-1928). Sin, (Die Suende) c. 1893.

Images like Von Stuck’s Sin were part of Munch’s popular culture. Notice the seductive, curvaceous nude with a snake slithering around her, harkening images of the Garden of Eden. This is the quintessential heartless, cold femme fatale-temptress.

Edvard Munch. Madonna, 1895.

Notice the striking similarity between Madonna and Sin. Yet this is Munch’s impression of a woman in the act of making love. Note the fertility symbols: sperm are swimming around her, a red halo and a fetus in the lower left corner.  Is she a femme fatale or an earth mother? When these two works are compared side by side, as they are in this exhibition, Munch’s conflicted sexual orientation become quite evident. 

Edvard Munch. Kiss by the Window, 1892.

Even though the subject of this picture is a kiss, the couple has retreated behind the curtain and Munch has cropped off much of their bodies.  His brushstrokes merge their bodies and only a small section of the woman’s neck is even visible.  Come to the exhibit and you’ll see how Munch developed the kissing theme over time. Did he mean for us to feel like voyeurs watching this private, intense moment?

These are but a small sample of the feast of ideas the Art Institute so beautifully presents in this intriguing exhibit. Come expecting a fascinating examination of an artist intimately connected with the art of his time, cogently able to promote his own career and enormously expressive of his tumultuous emotions.

Now, about The Scream.  It doesn’t travel because, in the past, it has been stolen twice.  So the Art Institute has included its own lithograph of the work, shown below.  If you feel you must see it one more time, go to the exhibit, see it  first, get it out of your system and then discover the real artist behind the iconic work.  Then you’ll be able to appreciate the fact that The Scream is not his signature work but one look inside the mind of a multi-faceted artist who expresses himself  in many stunning, sometimes disturbing, evocative ways.

Edvard Munch. The Scream, 1895

A great deal of our understanding and appreciation of this exhibit is a direct result of the excellent audio tour provided for the exhibit.  It is an eloquent exploration presented by Jay Clarke, Curator of the Exhibit and Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, Art Institute of Chicago and Douglas Druick, Searle Chair of Medieval through Modern European Painting & Sculpture and Prince Trust Chair of Prints and Drawings. We strongly recommend it.

Tickets: Until April 26. Special dated tickets to Becoming Edvard Munch are required, and advance tickets are strongly recommended. Call 312-930-4040 or purchase tickets at the museum. For online purchases, visit the Art Institute's Web site: www.artinstituteofchicago.org.

Photos: Art Institute of Chicago



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