“Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print: Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art, New York” opened Saturday at the Princeton University Art Museum. The show features 26 of the artist’s most powerful and well known compositions. But don’t look for his famous 1893 painting, The Scream. Instead, look for variations of his best-known painted compositions.
Highlights from the show are his woodcut/lithographs Madonna, Vampyr II, Two People: The Lonely Ones, and lithographs Anxiety and Death in the Sickroom. As their titles suggest, the themes here are typical of Munch, whose work is distilled from memories of his own troubled past and explores anxiety, sex, and death.
Curated by Calvin Brown, the University Art Museum’s associate curator of prints and drawings and organized by MoMA curators Deborah Wye and Starr Figura, the exhibition includes some of his most arresting images from MoMA’s Collection of Prints and Illustrated Books.
The exhibition focuses on the Norwegian artist’s works on paper in a wide range of printmaking methods. The selection demonstrates the artist’s innovation as well as his singular artistic vision. Munch (1863-1944) is well known as a Symbolist and Expressionist painter. He is less well known, at least outside of museum circles, for his prowess as a printmaker and this show reveals why he’s considered among the greatest printmakers of the modern period.
Born in a Norwegian village, Munch was raised by a deeply religious father. “From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born,” Munch wrote.
The artist’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, as did his favorite sister Johanne Sophie in 1877. Munch was often ill and kept home from school. He occupied himself by drawing in an atmosphere where even the entertainment had a somber note (vivid ghost stories by Edgar Allan Poe, for example). It is any wonder he had macabre visions and nightmares?
One of his younger sisters was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age and Munch spoke of his two inheritances: consumption and insanity. Many of his early drawings depict miserable interiors and medicine bottles.
According to Mr. Brown, who has been at the Art Museum since 1997, the Munch show is a perfect companion to the current show of Italian drawings curated by his colleague Laura Giles.
Pushed to pick a favorite item from the show, Mr. Brown singles out the woodcut version of The Kiss, of which the exhibition has two versions: an etching and drypoint in which two lovers meld into one iconic figure and a nearly abstract color woodcut, coarsely carved and printed from a weathered pine board.
“Almost all of these prints were made as reproductions of Munch’s paintings. He made them to get his work out but he also used printmaking to experiment and explore themes and ideas that go back to key early memories,” said Mr. Brown. “It’s important to remember that Munch was a contemporary of Freud; you could say that he is trying to make sense of his own life while searching for something that is universal; his creative process involves revisiting important memories over and over again; he meditated on fundamental memories like the deaths of his mother and sister and crystallized his experiences to discover the universal conditions of modern existence.”
Asked whether he might enjoy the artist’s company, Mr. Brown said: “I think he would have been a difficult but engaging fellow. He was very well-connected to poets, writers, and painters so he must have been a good companion but he was was given to depression and he drank a great deal.”
If all anyone knows about Munch’s work is The Scream, then they would be missing out, said Mr. Brown. “The Scream is just one of a handful of images he produced around the theme of anxiety, and anxiety is just one aspect of his work.”
The Scream is the best known of Munch’s intensely psychological works and a version (there are several) was sold at auction for $119.9 million in May 2012, at the time the most expensive artwork ever sold at an open auction; another version was stolen and recovered from the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994; and another version was stolen in 2004 from The Munch Museum in Oslo, but recovered in 2006.
The etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts are arranged according to the techniques that Munch explored, from the first etchings and drypoints that he made in Berlin in 1893, to the Frieze of Life: A Poem about LIfe, Love and Death that was shown at the Berlin Secession of 1902. The Frieze is a collection of works that examine the artist’s major motifs: the stages of life, the femme fatale, the hopelessness of love, anxiety, infidelity, jealousy, sexual humiliation, and separation in life and death.
Also explored are Munch’s collaborations with some of the finest printers in Berlin and Paris. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis labeled Munch’s work as “degenerate art,” putting him in company with the likes of Picasso, Klee, Matisse, and Gauguin.
“The visual intensity of these prints plumbs depths that may be even greater than Munch’s paintings due to the nature and immediacy of his graphic achievement,” said Museum Director James Steward. “His profound connection with audiences over the last century is a testament to his ability to fuse our shared human experiences with his own expressive vision.”
“Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print, Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art, New York” will be at at the Princeton University Art Museum through June 8. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.