We want time machines. We want to rewind reality to see events a second time, or even to change things. This desire may well undergird the whole idea of representational art. Remember when we killed that huge mastodon? Seriously, look over here, we drew it on the cave wall with its bone marrow and the mud we dragged the carcass through.
Time travel is one of the innovations of Modernist art. "All times are contemporaneous in the mind" is the Modernist time machine, as articulated by Ezra Pound. The original schematics, however, were drawn up in the 19th century by forerunners such as Edvard Munch, whose printwork is on display at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print features 26 woodcuts, etchings and lithographs culled from the holdings of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Concentrating on his fin de siècle years, the show features multiples of several of his most important images, revealing how the Norwegian master used repetition and iteration to travel through traumatic temporal rifts.
"This is not a happy show. There is a lot of sex and death," says John Coffey, the NCMA's deputy director for art and curator of American and Modern art. At a recent preview, Coffey pointed out the artist's anxious preoccupation with specific memories, places and symbolic characters. Themes of social isolation and the corruption of youth shape every image, and sex is portrayed as an amalgam of beauty, predation and despair.
The exhibition also posits Munch as a unique, groundbreaking graphic artist. Having gained complete technical skill at every available printing process of his time, he had absolute fluency across them, often combining two processes to get the desired result. You can see him pushing himself, as restless with the media as he was with the memories and images that were his subjects.
You won't see any paintings—almost all of Munch's painted work never leaves the walls of two Oslo museums—but you'll see some of his most famous images such as "Vampire," "Kiss" and "Madonna," who greets you with her ecstatic writhe as you enter the gallery. "The Scream" is absent, too, but the similar "Anxiety" hits that same unnerving note with piercing clarity, having not been exhausted through infinite merchandising and parody.
Some artists have a gateway work, the making of which helped them move from adolescent to mature production. Munch's "The Sick Child" served this purpose. It depicts his sister Johanne Sophie on her deathbed, pale and drawn from tuberculosis. Painfully frail in profile against a white pillow, a shock of her red hair sticks up. Their mother sits by the bed, slumped over the child's hand.
Sophie's death in 1877, when she was just 15 years old and Munch a year younger, became his central trauma. Munch barely survived childhood tuberculosis himself and kept the chair his sister died in in his studio his whole life as both a talisman against death and a reminder of its constant proximity.
Symbolism in Print presents three versions of "The Sick Child," including the quintessential red lithograph from 1896 (as well as an image of the family gathered in sorrow entitled "Death in the Sickroom"). Rehearsing the excruciating tension of waiting for a loved one to die, as well as his sorrow and survivor's guilt, Munch completed six paintings of this image over a 40-year span. The 1885–86 version proved transformative. Munch scratched off and repainted his sister's face many times, trying to transfer the depth of his feelings into the image. Both the rawness of his expression and the effectiveness of his repetitive process were revelatory.
The three prints show Munch's adjustments. An 1894 drypoint includes a sketched landscape in a separate panel at the bottom. A tiny etching and drypoint from 1896 crops out Munch's mother, zooming in on Sophie's expressionless face against the pillow. In the red lithograph, which Munch considered his most successful print, his sister faces in the opposite direction from the other two prints.
Multiples of "Anxiety," in which a promenading crowd of faces stares zombie-like out at the viewer, and "The Lonely Ones," a vantage from behind a separated couple staring ominously out to sea, give more insight into how Munch used printmaking as an iterative process to get down to his core expression. It's exciting to get to look back and forth between a hewn woodcut and a precise lithograph of the same image.
The real triumph of Symbolism in Print is how it conveys the emotional legwork that Munch did for the Modernists who followed him. "German Expressionism would not have been possible without Munch," Coffey says. Releasing the wild psychology that had grown monstrous beneath societal suppression, Munch exhibitions in Berlin were a shot through the Victorian hull for young German artists like Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who returned to their studios uninhibited by the staid conventions of the time. Even today, it's still provocative work.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Edvard Munch, time traveler."