Edward Munch is one of my favourite painters.
Today I start a sequence of posts dedicated to him. I have chosen the “Madonna” paintings as the theme and created a collage of quoatations, statements, press releases, to highlight the various aspects of the theme, the artist and most of all, the paintings and lithographs presented.
Beyeler Foundation Media Release: Edvard Munch – Signs of Modern Art
Munch’s concern with loneliness, love and death is of incomparable urgency. His art reflects the crisis,
transience and eclipse of the individual in the Age of Industrialization. His oeuvre was interrupted by
existential caesuras, yet at the same time developed with inexorable logic.
Munch’s handling of picture support and painting materials was highly unconventional. He transcended the
traditional borderlines between media such as printmaking, drawing, photography, collage and painting.
This helped him to represent growth and decay, creation and destruction through a range of devices extending
from the dissolution of figures and their merger with the background to strange intersections with the picture
edge and scratched paint surfaces, all the way down to exposure of many works to the ravages of rain and
snow. By means of what he called this “acid test,” Munch not only integrated the factor of chance in his art
but made natural decomposition a component of the creative process. In his late work, he raised process
and temporality, as an actual, physical disappearance of matter, to a universal expression of transitoriness
in his material-based modernity. In this way, as early as the turn of the century, Munch opened the door
to the development of art in the advancing twentieth century.
When “The Madonna” was shown in Norway in 1895, Munch received this typical review from the daily Aftenposten:
“He seems either to be someone who’s hallucinating about art or he is some kind of joker who thinks the public a fool and makes a lie of both art and life. Even though these caricatures are laughable, the worst is that such disgusting lies are being perpetrated — which makes one quite ill and tempted to call the police.”
Robert Nelson, The Age
The keynote for Munch’s output is given in a colour lithograph called Madonna of 1895. It shows a naked young woman in an erotic swoon. She is represented in a disembodied graphic manner, with hollow eyes, abundant hair and writhing body. Around her form, a border surges with spermatozoa; and in the bottom left-hand corner, a hapless foetus cringes in sorrowful isolation in the plane of the woman’s thrusting hips.
Writers have observed that this fierce confounding of lust and death belongs to Munch’s epoch, to the prevailing fear of female sexuality and especially to Munch’s personal insecurities, his anxiety in yielding to blighted seduction, his failure in libidinous bliss and his brooding in psychological defeat.
But the deeper significance of this terrific image is not so much in the keen pangs that it expresses on a personal level: it’s the philosophical trumping of spiritual conviction expressed through the title, Madonna.
The word Madonna unmistakably alludes to the Virgin Mary, who was conceived with divine intervention and who, in turn, gave birth to Christ without Joseph’s sperm. For Munch as for Nietzsche and Freud and many intellectuals in Oslo, this story of immaculate conception was considered wishful thinking on a hysterically social scale.
The philosophical name given to the wholesale discredit of religious spirituality during the industrial period is “materialism”. At the risk of blasphemy, Munch proposes that there is no transcendence, no hallowed spirit, no universal being or redemptive belief. There is only an agonising zeal for joy, which is ultimately consumed through inescapable death.
Materialism is a tough philosophy – the fatalistic fruit of science – which few people relish; and art, in particular, has always found greater profit in promoting the earnest and authoritative delusions that have proliferated from animism to Jung. But for Munch as an artist, the brave new recognition of material causes throughout nature and behaviour brought new problems, because all artists are spiritualists at heart and Munch, in particular, talked of nothing so much as the soul and the heart.
Alluring and inviting, disturbing and threatening, Munch’s Madonna is above all mysterious. This erotic nude appears to float in a dreamlike space, with swirling strokes of deep black almost enveloping her. An odd-looking, small fetuslike figure or just-born infant hovers at the lower left with crossed skeletal arms and huge frightened eyes. Forms resembling sperm pervade the surrounding border of this print. Little about the Madonna seems to conform to her holy title, save for a narrow dark gold band atop her head. This haunting apparition reflects Munch’s alliance with Symbolist artists and writers.
Woman, in varying roles from mother-protector to sexual partner to devouring vampire and harbinger of death, serves as the chief protagonist in a series of paintings and corresponding prints about love, anxiety, and death that Munch grouped together under enigmatic headings. Madonna was first executed as a black-and-white lithograph in 1895. During the next seven years, Munch hand-colored several impressions. Finally, the image was revised in 1902, using additional lithographic stones for color and a woodblock for the textured blue sky. Self-trained in printmaking, Munch often used its mediums in experimental ways, such as the unusual composition of woodcut and lithography seen here.
The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 46Publication excerpt
The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 46
“My whole life has been spent walking by the side of a bottomless chasm … . Sometimes I try to leave my narrow path and join the swirling mainstream of life, but I always find myself drawn inexorably back towards the chasm’s edge, and there I shall walk until the day I finally fall into the abyss. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without anxiety and illness, I would have been like a ship without a rudder.” (E.M.)