Caravaggio and the Painters of the North
From 21 June to 18 September 2016
Fig. 2. Edvard Munch. Inger in the Sun, 1888. Oil on card, 73 x 46 cm. Bergen Kunstmuseum (Rasmus Meyers Samlinger), Bergen
Fig. 3. Edvard Munch. Summer Night, 1889. Oil on canvas, 126.5 x 161.5 cm. Bergen Kunstmuseum (Rasmus Meyers Samlinger), Bergen
"A girl with a large, purple face under a yellow straw hat sitting on a blue lawn in front of a white house. The whole thing is so indescribably bad in every respect that it is almost comical."1 These were the terms in which the critic of the Aftenposten described Munch’s painting Evening, exhibited to the public for the first time at the Autumn Salon in Oslo (then Kristiania) in 1888. Munch had painted the work that summer as one of a series in which the principal motifs were his sisters Inger and Laura (figs. 1, 2, 3, 6). Reactions were varied. In contrast to the Aftenposten’s critic, others appreciated the shift in direction evident in the artist’s work. Andreas Aubert, a follower of Munch and a critic on the progressive newspaper Dagbladet, acknowledged the painter’s talents in his article of December 1888 and noted that Munch had reached a critical phase in his career.2 Aubert specifically referred to the tension between the artist’s use of colours, which was close to Symbolism, and the still realist settings in his works. Munch maintained close links with naturalism and began to use the Impressionist technique, experimenting with both trends and ultimately surpassing them to become the pioneering Symbolist artist in Norway and a forerunner of Expressionism.
Fig. 4. Eilif Peterssen. Evening at Sandø, 1884/1894. Oil on canvas, 129 x 160 cm. Private collection
Evening (1888) is particularly interesting as it represents the period when Munch began to develop his most characteristic style and subject matter, including that of melancholy, making this painting a testing ground for his ideas. Among the pictorial aspects that Munch was investigating was that of the relationship between the figures and the landscape,3 whose interaction represented a formal and visual problem for Manet and his Norwegian followers, but which, in the case of Munch, affected the content of the work due to the emotional link between landscape and figure. This is the case with the strange placement of the figure of the young woman, seated in the foreground but offset to the far left, with her lower limbs and back truncated by the frame. In the case of artists such as Degas, compositional arrangements of this sort (inspired by Japanese prints) were associated with movement and a sense of the transient. As used by Munch, however, the result was to turn his solid, introspective figures into visual walls against which the viewer collides. These elements and their arrangement in the composition may have been inspired by the work of the French painters to which Munch had access, but they could also derive from the northern European Romantic tradition that some of Munch’s fellow artists were rediscovering at that period. Seen in a Neo-Romantic context, the figures reveal a contemplative attitude towards nature (fig. 4), giving Impressionist compositional formats a different significance and allowing Munch to develop them to the point of formulating his particular Symbolist idiom.4
Fig. 5. Detail of the centre of Evening
(fig. 1) using infra-red photography
As a transitional work Evening prefigures these ideas in a tentative manner. At this period Munch repainted at least one out of ten of his canvases, as x-rays have revealed.5 In the case of Evening two figures have been eliminated, one on the steps leading up to the house and another, a larger one, in the centre of the composition. The latter figure, which is visible to the naked eye and can be seen in detail in an infra-red photograph (fig. 5), is notably similar to the figure in another composition painted that summer (fig. 6). By removing this large figure from the centre, the composition becomes slightly unbalanced. The viewer’s attention shifts towards the monumental figure of Laura, located in the corner away from the central axis where the vanishing point is located and where the principal motif of the painting would normally be found. This odd element in the painting co-exists with another more traditional one with which the figure of Laura seems to have no relation, namely the two figures pulling a boat onto the shore who constitute a scene that could be described as a genre motif.6 The presence of apparently unconnected, independent scenes in Munch’s paintings has been related to the state of mind of the principal figures. This is particularly evident in Melancholy of 1891 (fig. 7), in which the identification of the figures, who were friends of the artist, has made it possible to associate the anguish of the foreground figure with the lovers depicted in the background, given that there had been an amorous relationship between the three of them whose termination resulted in the melancholy or jealousy depicted by the artist. Jay A. Clarke has also suggested this idea in relation to Evening, in which the background scene would function as a reflection of or trigger for Laura’s state of mind.7
Fig. 6. Edvard Munch.
Laura and Inger in the Summer Sun, 1888
Oil on canvas, 84.5 x 62 cm
In common with much of Munch’s work, Evening is difficult to locate within any specific genre. Is it a landscape, a portrait, a genre scene, all these combined, or none of them? The painting’s title may cast light on the painter’s intentions, but in itself it raises further questions. Evening (1888) was also known as The Yellow Hat,8 Portrait (Sister with Yellow Hat),9 and Sister Laura.10 Munch was not particularly rigorous with the titles that he gave his works and would leave this task to others or changed the titles on repeated occasions.11 This may be because he did not formulate the subject of the painting prior to its execution in order for the images to work for themselves, without any narrative support. Such a possibility was suggested by the artist himself in the annotations that he started to write in 1888 and which would be fully articulated in his text Frieze of Life.12
Fig. 7. Edvard Munch. Evening. Melancholy, 1891. Oil, pencil and waxes on canvas, 73 x 101 cm. Munch-museet, Oslo
The importance of Evening within Munch’s oeuvre lies precisely in the fact that it leads on to the major concepts and themes that characterise his work. The painting can be considered the first in which the artist represented melancholy, a subject that would become a constantly recurring motif, together with love, death and angst. His repeated use of the same concepts has made it difficult to identify some works due to the lack of precise descriptions. Evening, for example, may refer to various works of 1888, 1889 (fig. 3) and 1891 (fig. 7). The association with melancholy is established through the particular time of day depicted in the painting and by Laura’s expression. Even more significant, however, is the clear link between this painting and subsequent works that constitute the corpus of Munch’s images based on this particular emotion. Melancholy (1891) (fig. 7) was initially entitled Evening (as well as Jealousy and The yellow Boat) and its composition is a refinement of the present painting, albeit turned the opposite way. The isolation of the foreground figure, this time located in the right-hand corner, the undulating coastline and the background scene repeat the composition of Evening.
Fig. 8. Edvard Munch. The Scream, 1893
Tempera and waxes on card, 91 x 73.5 cm
Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, Oslo
Between Evening of 1888 and Melancholy of 1891 Munch’s way of depicting the landscape became more abstracted in order to emphasise its expressivity. This transformation, which could be associated with the projection of the figures’ emotions onto the scene, endowed the landscape with a symbolic function. As Gerd Woll suggested in the catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work,13 it may be legitimate to speak of the creation of psychological settings. In the case of Evening of 1888, some areas, in particular the house, are painted in considerable detail and thus indicate Munch’s continuing links with naturalism. In Melancholy of 1891, however, the landscape is reduced to powerful lines of intense colours that contrast with each other and are seemingly dependent on the pensive figure that dominates the scene. This approach led Munch’s friend Christian Krogh, a well-known realist painter, to consider Melancholy (1891) the first Symbolist painting by a Norwegian artist. The composition, tried out for the first time in Evening, would be refined and repeated in further works by Munch. In the first version of The Scream of 1893 (fig. 8), an image that has now become one of the great 20th-century icons, Munch took this composition to its furthest point, just five years after he painted Evening.