BY VAL CASTRONOVO
It’s been three years since the Museum of Modern Art played host to Edvard Munch’s pastel iteration of “The Scream”(1895), which memorably faced off with Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” on a far wall. Now Neue Galerie has staged an encore presentation of one of the world’s most famous works of art, this time tucked into a small room — a “chapel-like environment” in the words of the gallery’s communications director, Rebecca Lewis — where viewers can pay their respects.
Hard to believe, but the Norwegian artist’s iconic work is just one of many spectacular draws at “Munch and Expressionism,” a gorgeous, intimate show that examines Munch’s influence on German and Austrian Expressionists — and their influence on him. Call it a dialogue that informed his development as a modern artist at the beginning of the 20th century and their development, with the focus on a coterie that included Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Gabrielle Münter and Emile Nolde from Germany, and Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl from Austria.
In the foreword to the exhibit’s catalog, Neue Galerie’s director, Renée Price, acknowledges Munch’s debt to Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin, but emphasizes his special “affinity” with the German Expressionists, who supported his mantra, “I do not believe in the art which is not the compulsive result of humanity’s urge to open its heart.”
As the museum’s president, Ronald Lauder, writes, Munch’s works are “like a punch to the stomach. His images relate to primal emotions shared by all human beings: loneliness, anxiety, jealousy. But they are rendered in such a way that we also feel the beauty of existence ... ”
There is plenty of beauty here. Thirty-five paintings, several making their American debut, and 50 works on paper are arranged thematically along walls painted with bright custom-designed colors, some “extracted from the works themselves,” Lewis said on our private tour.
But while Munch (1863-1944) is best known for paintings and prints created in the 1890s — e.g., the introspective, emotive “Angst,” “Melancholy” and “Scream” motifs — the organizers have cast a spotlight on later, lesser-known works, with highlights from the artist’s “vitalist” phase (c. 1901-1916) of particular interest.
A 20th century European theme emphasizing the life-force, vitalism “points in the direction of something radiant, life-affirming and robust,” scholar Øystein Ustvedt writes in the catalog. “It can be seen in the turn of the century’s art, philosophy and science, as well as in the budding nudist culture and emergence of new lifestyle ideals dominated by outdoor recreational activities, physical fitness and a healthy diet.”
Call it “getting back to nature,” the show’s curator Jill Lloyd said, alluding to the Nietzschean notion of nature as a source of renewal. She pointed to Munch’s “Bathing Men” (1907), on exhibit for the first time in the U.S., and his “Sunbathing” (1914-15), two colorful paintings of nude bathers showcased on the same wall in the second gallery. “Munch wants his work to be modern. He wants to show a Munch that no one has seen before,” she explained. “He’s interested in the theme of male vitality. Bathing is a celebration of naturalness.”
More vitality and virility are on parade on the adjacent wall, where Munch’s full-length portrait “Christian Gierløff” (1909) debuts and stands testament to the new, modern approach. The assertive, plein air image of Munch’s worldly friend, an economist, contrasts with his earlier, more subdued portraits.
“The persons portrayed [in the early 1900s] are bursting with self-confidence and energy,” Ustvedt writes. “Family members and bohemians no longer dominate the genre as they did in the 1890s. Rather we see scientists, industrialists and representatives of a progressive, cultural elite.”
The brightly colored portrait of Gierløff is bathed in strong, summer sunlight, with the figure looking directly at the viewer. He is self-assured and angst-free — an extrovert! — with an agreeable demeanor.
Turn around and see Munch’s parallel approach to landscape. His snow paintings, “White Night” (1900-01) and “Winter. Elgersburg” (1906), are paired with Emil Nolde’s “Sea B” (1930) and Gabriele Münter’s “The Blue Gable” (1911), respectively, to illustrate cross-pollination. The light-toned snowscapes show the artist “moving further away from reality,” Lloyd said, referring to Munch’s broad brushstrokes and expressive style. There is “patterning, banding and a reduction of the landscape to its essentials,” she said, with the emphasis on “the idea of mood and emotion.”
But back to the holy place: “The Scream,” in its original frame, is flanked by half a dozen resonant works—including Erich Heckel’s dramatic woodcut “Man on a Plain” (1917), a response to the trauma of World War I that echoes a “Scream” lithograph, and three haunting self-portraits by Egon Schiele.
Schiele and Munch both “captured the spirit of anxiety,” Lewis said in conclusion, noting the stylistic similarities between a Munch self-portrait at the show’s entrance — “like an x-ray” — and Schiele’s bony, angular figures.
Visitors can worship in the chapel and the rest of the rooms through June 13.