Edvard Munch’s graphic windows on the soul

In the current climate, there are few people in Greece who wouldn’t be able to relate to Norwegian expressionist and symbolist Edvard Munch’s most famous «soul painting» – as he referred to his mature works – «The Scream.» The pose and expression on the face of the sexless figure in the foreground epitomizes the emotion of pure, agonizing fear, as the sky glows blood red behind with the blue-black fjord linking the two. Munch’s first version of «The Scream,» a painting, was created in 1893 – others were to follow, including in pastels as well as a lithograph in 1895. However, so well recognized is the work that it has largely eclipsed the rest of the artist’s oeuvre, hence the title of the exhibition «Edvard Munch: Beyond The Scream,» the latest display at the Herakleidon – Experience in Visual Arts Museum in Thiseio, which is set to run through February 27. Munch (1863-1944) became acquainted with the concepts of life, love, fear, anxiety, death and separation at an early age – his mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, to be followed nine years later by his favorite sister, Johanne Sophie, while another sister was diagnosed with mental illness – as well as guilt – his father, an extremely religious man, would tell Edvard and his siblings that their dead mother was watching them when they misbehaved. Munch’s first works created during his formative years in the port city of Christiania (now Oslo) were mostly drawings and watercolors of interiors and landscapes. He then studied engineering at a technical college before deciding to enroll at the city’s Royal School of Art and Design. The prevailing style at the time was Naturalism, but Munch also experimented with Impressionism, considered radical for its daring new techniques and subject matter. During this period his relationship with his father soured due to Munch’s decision to take up such an «unholy trade.» Facing criticism from family and traditionalists alike, the artist came under the influence of the nihilist Hans Jaeger, who pushed him to delve into his own emotions and express his findings in his work. In 1889 the artist was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris. Here he was influenced by the work of artists including Gauguin, van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, before moving to Berlin, where he made his first intaglio prints. He would return to Paris, but all the while he was prolific in his work – he once said, «My intention of working with graphics was to bring my art into many homes.» One of the first things to strike the viewer at the Herakleidon exhibition is the wide variety of Munch’s graphic works – the artist used lithography, woodcuts and etchings among other techniques – as well as styles employed throughout his lifetime, ranging from Orientalist to Impressionist and starkly Expressionist. Also notable are the host of recurring motifs, including the sea, shadows, death and other symbolic elements. ‘Angst’ The opener is «Angst,» an 1896 lithograph printed in red and black, which is reminiscent of «The Scream» with its red sky and fjord in the background. This work, however, features a group of people in the foreground whose faces clearly depict anxiety, an emotion that the artist was no stranger to. The prevalence of black shadows in the artist’s face in a 1911-12 self-portrait in woodcut speak of a troubled soul. Following his morbid childhood – his father’s obsession with religion led Munch to later comment: «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» – he faced his own psychological problems, suffered a nervous breakdown and, despite several relationships with women, never settled down with any of them. As he said: «I have always put my art before everything else. Often I felt that Woman would stand in the way of my art. I decided at an early age never to marry.» A number of works in the exhibition refer to his emotions toward women and intimacy, such as «Salome» (1903), a lithographic self-portrait of Munch and violinist Eva Mudocci, his lover, in which the grim-featured artist’s face appears to be on the verge of being smothered by the swan-necked woman’s long tresses. ‘The Dead Mother’ While Munch’s ability to capture emotional states is visible in most of the works on display, perhaps one of the most haunting is his 1901 etching «The Dead Mother and Her Child.» As the dead mother lies on the bed behind her, the young girl stares at the viewer, her tiny fists clenched at her temples as she grimaces with the pain and incomprehensibility of the situation. Similarly, in «Puberty,» another etching from 1902, a naked adolescent girl is seen perched on the edge of her bed with her hands modestly crossed in her lap and an expression of confused fear on her face while a large, doom-laden shadow looms threateningly on the wall behind her. While death and illness do feature prominently in Munch’s work, the subject of love is not absent. Seek out his blood-red 1943 woodcut «Kiss in the Field,» one of his last works, in which a couple are depicted in simple lines in an embrace against a mountain backdrop with the wood grain clearly visible. Having returned to Norway some two decades earlier, where he lived until his death at the age of 80, the image suggests that Munch did finally manage to make peace with his demons, and perhaps it might also offer museum-goers here in Athens some hope that better days lie ahead, beyond the fear. Herakleidon Museum, 16 Irakleidon, Thiseio, tel 210.346.1981, Open Tuesday-Sunday 1-9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. Entrance 6 euros, 4 euros for students and over-65s, children free. Art lovers’ destination The Herakleidon, owned by Paul Fyros and his wife Anna-Belinda, is a highlight for art lovers in Athens and has hosted a wealth of superb exhibitions including the likes of M.C. Escher, Constantin Xenakis and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec since its inauguration in 2004. Located in the central neighborhood of Thiseio, minutes away from the Acropolis and other chief attractions, in a beautifully renovated neoclassical building dating to 1898, the museum, whose displays include explanations and quotations in both Greek and (refreshingly clear, error-free) English, is worthy of inclusion on any visitor’s itinerary. The Munch exhibition, which runs to February 27, comprises 80 graphic works by the artist from the collection of New Yorkers Charles and Evelyn Kramer, donated to Israel’s Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1986. The exhibition, which is accompanied by a Greek-English catalog featuring enlightening essays as well as images from the display, is taking place with the support of the Norwegian Embassy and the Norwegian Institute in Athens.

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