Munch Museum in Oslo Norway exhibits the work of the Norwegian artistic master, Edvard Munch, who helped create and greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionist movement and through his continual experimentation, the nature of the print media. Although the museum is in the process of building a new, much larger (approximately four times the current gallery space) building near the Opera House, the current museum is nowhere near large enough to display even the highlights of its permanent collection, much less to accommodate both this collection and special exhibits. We discuss many of his works also in our National Gallery Museum blog. What is interesting is that he has multiple versions, with variations, of his most well-know pieces such as The Dance of Life, Madonna and The Scream. Some of the differences are blatant, such as color, but some are more subtle. In the following, the first pictures are from the National Gallery and the second one is from the Munch Museum. See what you think,
But back to the Munch Museum. Our visit came during one of these special exhibitions—Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch. This exhibition examines the deep connections between the themes and styles of these apparently very different artists and how these connections became much more pronounced later in Johns’ career—which occurred about 25 years after Johns’ first encounter with Munch’s work, when he began executing a profound shift in his own career, from subjective, abstract expressionistic to figurative art and as he began to explore the type existential issues (such as love, fear, illness and death) with which Munch was virtually obsessed.
The 130 work exhibit plumbs Johns’ similarities with and explicit adaptation of some of Munch’s themes, styles and techniques. One example comes in the incorporation of wood-grained patterns into each of their work—Munch in the form of enhancing the grain patterns in a number of his early wood-block prints and Johns by hand-painting wood-grain-like effects onto some of his mid-career works, such as many in his Savarin coffee can series.
More explicit references can be found in similarities between a series of lithographed Munch self-portraits which include only his face and, laying across the bottom, a skeletal image of his arm and hand. John’s provided a couple of explicit homages to this symbolism. One in the rather ghostly image in which he spread a layer of grease over his face before rolling his face along a piece of paper, affixing charcoal to the greased area, and then repeating the process with his hands, with John’s appearing to struggle to escape the two-2-dimensional confines of the paper. John’s went even further in another print, adding a horizontal image of his arm and hand laying across the bottom an image, and then adding Munch’s initials (EM).
And what about the trade-mark cross-hatched motif that characterizes so many of John’s earlier works? Look at the cross-hatched bedspread in Munch’s late-career self-portrait, Between the Clock and the Bed (which was not actually on the spread that Munch was panting). To abstract a connection? How about John’s own series of paintings with the exact same title as the Munch painting. Not only are the names the same, but so are some of the themes. Munch painted his image near the very end of his career, when he was beginning to anticipate death. John’s painted his series at the very end of the abstract expressionist phase of his career, just as he was beginning to transition into more figurative work.
Then there are Munch’s career-long obsessions with themes including loneliness, isolation, illness, death, loss and mourning and his use of shadows as symbols. Johns portrays many of the same themes and uses similar symbols in many of his later figurative works, such as his monumental four-canvas “Seasons” series.
All coincidental? John’s made many explicit references to Munch throughout his career and made a point of making detailed studies of the earlier artist’s career. Although some of these similarities may be unconscious or imagined, many are clearly explicit.
While Munch may not be a favorite artist of ours…although Tom likes his work better than Joyce…the comparison with Johns was fascinating.