Oil on canvas, 1915, by Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944)
As both Marc and Corinth were associated with German Expressionism and because he was considered to be the so-called “father” of the expressionist project in art, I have seized on this sole representation in the museum by the great and infamous Edvard Munch. Great because I recall the caustic brilliance of paintings such as Death in the Sickroom and Red and White reproduced lavishly in art books and know how much I was struck by their tense pencil-line fragility and meek wash-bone colourisation. Infamous because paintings such as The Scream and Anxiety figured so intensely in my formative experience of art, philosophy and psychology when I was an adolescent and could well associate with their implacable encapsulation of that treacherous age. Indeed, I remember seeing depictions of The Scream everywhere at the turn of the millennium during that quasi-revivalist attitude of existential angst and at the same time devouring late Sylvia Plath. It is a wonder I survived to tell the tale. Winter Landscape, 1915 makes no claim of being one of the great examples of Munch’s work and, on first viewing, even seems atypical of his regular fixations, but the more one studies it, the more one experiences the same sense of the close framework of reality folding in on itself to the point of nihilistic abstraction. Munch paints the outside world as if it were the twisted inside contortions of your head. Not surprisingly, he too was labelled by the Nazis an entarteter kunstler.
To quote from the curator’s note, Munch recorded that, “the stones protruded above the water, mystically like sea people … the dark blue sea rose and fell – sighed amongst the stones.” The anthropomorphic qualities of the landscape prefigure as a kind of Freudian contextualisation of inner conflict: the rocks are metaphors for both solidity, rootedness and foundation, but also as objects which cut, shatter, weather and erode. There is a kind of schizophrenic bifurcation of consciousness when one looks deeply into the heart of Winter Landscape. In such a sense it brings to mind, both visually and psychologically, the work of the auteur Ingmar Bergman, the Scandinavian coastline very much a symbolic landscape where the fluid impulses of the ego wash up and smash against the intractable forces of the id. What results, the alter-ego, does not so much mitigate between these two entities and produce clarity and reason but, in Munch’s mind-set, forces the immediate prism of reality into a dastardly crisis of resistance to that reality. Think Eliot’s Prufrock: “To have squeezed the universe into a ball/To roll it towards some overwhelming question …” Think Virginia Woolf’s unbearably tense coda for To the Lighthouse. And, to return to Bergman, think of Bibi Anderson and Liv Ullmann, traipsing after one another on the shores of Faro, colliding with one another, collapsing into one another, becoming one another, and then what nuclear fallout subsequently results in that great masterwork of the cinematic canon, Persona.
Visually alone, Winter Landscape is almost too saturated a scene to satisfy the eye’s quest for logic and structure. The iciness of the colour palette – the chilled blues, whites and greens – envelops the viewer just as the permafrost has sealed over the very ground and rocks. The crude brushstrokes seem to be disingenuous to ice but situate its edgy aggression. Even the sky and ocean, two elements whose horizons are barely distinguishable from one another, are held static in the grip of the winter clime. To the south of Norway, the Great War raged, and throughout civilisation the world’s great thinks and artists’ minds were imploding with the realisation of its bleak and inhuman redundancy: it is too simplistic to “see” winter as code for war, but you cannot help but feel as if trapped under the bulging intrusion of the ice, Munch’s own artistic sensibility is to be found restrained, pent up and primed ready to explode. The painting overspills with longing for a resolution to all that pains us and while we grapple with the mass of conflicts which reside internally, we feel the tension strain more and more to breaking point. This sensation is achieved compositionally by drawing our eye to the straits of relative calm beyond the treacherous rocks: you actively have to search for a passage towards it. It is almost as if you feel yourself walking gingerly on the frozen sea and there’s that moment when you hear the ice crack from under you. The ethereal nature of the landscape encapsulates a density which is constantly struggling to reconcile its truculent form with an acceptable rendering of meaning and thus it disconcerts us with an intensity which matches all of Munch’s more apparently psychologically preoccupied work.
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.