Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944) is considered one of the most emotionally powerful and personal painters in art history. In addition to his celebrated paintings—including his most recognized composition, The Scream (1893)—Munch is among the greatest printmakers of the modern era, renowned for his innovative techniques across all major print media.
A selection of the artist’s most arresting works on paper is on view in “Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print, Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art, New York” at the Princeton University Art Museum from Feb. 8 through June 8, 2014.
The twenty-six etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts in the exhibition reflect on the artist’s formative years as a printmaker and are arranged according to the techniques that Munch explored, from his first etchings and dry-points, made in Berlin in 1893, to his triumphant exhibition of the Frieze of Life painting cycle at the Berlin Secession of 1902. Collaborating with some of the finest printers in Berlin and Paris, Munch created graphic variations on his best-known painted compositions, which presented universal themes of the anxieties of life, sexuality, and death, distilled from memories of his own troubled past.
“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” traces the artist’s progression through various printmaking techniques as his experimental graphic style evolved.
Among the highlights in the exhibition are two versions of The Kiss: one a provocative etching and dry-point in which two lovers meld into one iconic figure, the second a nearly abstract color woodcut version of the same composition, coarsely carved and printed from a weathered pine board.
The lithographs Anxiety and Death in the Sick Room (both 1896) capture, respectively, the anonymity of modern life and the inevitability of death in bold compositions evocative of the woodcut techniques fashionable in Parisian Art Nouveau circles of the time.
Munch’s search for new graphic means to refine pictorial themes is found in Madonna and Vampire II (both 1895–1902), works that unusually combine lithography with color woodcut to depict contrasting states of carnal love. A poetic master who bridged late 19th-century Symbolism and early 20th-century Expressionism, Munch was strongly influenced by the styles of two earlier artists: the heightened emotional timbre of Vincent van Gogh and the vibrant color and symbolic forms of Paul Gauguin, whose Tahitian-inspired Noa Noa woodcuts from 1894 provided inspiration for Munch’s own innovative development as a printmaker. Yet while Gauguin’s woodcuts evoked an imagined Polynesian idyll, Munch turned his focus inward, as the artist prophetically declared in his St. Cloud Manifesto (1890), written four years before he discovered printmaking: “I painted the lines and colors that impinged on my inner eye. I painted from memory, adding nothing and omitting the details that I no longer had before my eyes . . . I painted the impressions of my childhood”. The troubled colors of a bygone day.
In this way, Munch might incarnate better than any other artist the tenets of Symbolism, which began in the 1880s as a literary movement in Paris and whose proponents argued that art should reject rational naturalism and move beyond physical reality to embrace the imagination, dreams, and freedom from artistic convention. In so doing, Munch was an instrumental forerunner of the interest in psychological exploration to be found in 20th-century Expressionism. His vividly haunting images have resonated for generations and continue to do so in the twenty-first century .