“Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print,” the newest exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art, promises to be the feel-bad hit of the year.
The renowned Norwegian artist and printmaker – creator of the iconic painting “The Scream” – is known for his dark and psychologically intense images. But Munch (pronounced “monk”) is also one of the most prolific, innovative and influential figures in modern art. The 26 prints on display in the exhibit explore his recurring themes of death, loneliness and despair.
John Coffey, the museum’s deputy director of art, recently led a tour through the newly installed exhibit. The works are not original Munch paintings, Coffey said. Instead, they are prints made in a variety of media – etchings, drypoints, woodcut and lithographs – derived from his paintings.
Munch hated to part with his originals, and so printmaking became a way to disseminate his work and make money. Munch thought of his prints as a kind of transcription of the original images, and would introduce changes and revisions depending on the medium.
As such, his work in the graphic art technology of the day was groundbreaking. In fact, scholars consider Munch’s prints to be as important as the original paintings, and sometimes more so.
“Throughout his life he was constantly revolving these images in his head,” Coffey said. “Most of the images are autobiographical – family trauma or personal demons. He would go back and reinterpret images over and over.”
Coffey said the power of the images is often revealed gradually as they evolve through different versions. “He’s adding different frames, background, colors. He amplifies – or sometimes simplifies – the image.”
For example, the exhibit features two versions of “The Kiss,” an image depicting lovers in an embrace. In the original painting, the lovers are entwined but clearly delineated. In the two prints on exhibit – an etching and a woodcut – the figures gradually fuse into a single entity.
For Munch, Coffey said, the image would have been a terrifying notion – the loss of individuality in union with another person. Moving through other images of couples on display, Coffey pointed out that depictions of male and female figures are conspicuously separated by an interrupting image. Would-be lovers are also often depicted in emotional distress and “cadaverous tones.”
“He would look at a beautiful woman and see her decayed,” Coffey said. “He made friends once with a mortician and witnessed a dissection of a man his own age. He was just fascinated by it. Some artists would witness dissections to story anatomy, but for Munch it was about the inanimate body, about death. Like Hamlet looking at Yorick’s skull.”
Coffey said the museum’s exhibit is an unusual opportunity to study Munch’s work up close. Most of it remains in Norway.
The museum acquired the collection by way of a kind of “gentleman’s agreement,” Coffey said, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art asked to borrow a prized piece from the North Carolina collection – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Panama Dancers.”
“We were extremely reluctant to lend it, but they came back and said, ‘Would you consider lending it if we offered an exhibition?’ ” Coffey said.
MOMA officials offered exhibits by the usual suspects – Matisse, Picasso.
“I don’t remember which of us came up with the idea of Munch, but I jumped at it,” Coffey said. “We’ve never shown Munch at the museum before, and he’s one of the major pioneers of modernism. It’s really hard to know what’s going on in the early 20th century without looking at Munch.”
‘The Scream’ not included
One image visitors won’t see is Munch’s most famous work, “The Scream,” which recently sold at auction for nearly $120 million.
“It’s been so trivialized through parody and pop culture,” Coffey said. “I didn’t really want it. It’s a lithograph; its relatively small. It would just disappoint people.”
The despairing tone of Munch’s work is even reflected in the design of the exhibit, from the typography on the signs and programs to the colors on the walls.
“Normally, the designers try to come up with as elegant and beautiful way to present things as possible,” Coffey said. “I asked them to make it a little edgier, make the colors a little dissonant.”
Perry Hurt, the museum’s associate conservator of paintings, said he remembers the specific instruction.
“Make it anxious,” Hurt said, laughing. “The idea is to put the viewer in a slightly disturbed state of mind.”
While the themes of Munch’s work might make for a dark and intense viewing experience, the exhibit is a rare opportunity to view an important collection from MOMA – generally considered the world’s best modern art museum.
“Yeah, with one or two things missing,” Coffey said, “it’s the best stuff they have in their collection.”