If what you're looking for isn't here, type keywords in SEARCH box (right side of this page)

OR look through list of topics in this blog OR look a bit lower for posts in order by date.

November 16, 2009

Edvard Munch and the Motif of Death - Part 1

Part 1 - Spring (painted in 1889)

I would very much like to show the painting I'm going to write about here, but since it's apparently under copyright in Norway until 2014 (though it is already in the public domain here in the U.S.), I'm going to have to add a link to it instead. The painting was made by painter and printmaker Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944). It was painted in a realist style as Munch, although he had been experimenting with it hadn't yet fully developed his mature symbolist/expressionist style (and, besides, he hoped by means of this picture to get a scholarship to study in France and a less conservative style would probably have not have helped) -- yet it was of a subject that he depicted many times, mostly in an "unrealistic" manner.

Munch's pictures on this subject do not all show the same scene (though he did repeat each scene several times, in variations); nevertheless, they all show a room with people in it in which there is a sick and dying - or just-deceased - person included. That person is sometimes his mother and sometimes his sister, both of whom died long before he began making these pictures of them -- his mother when Munch was five years old and his sister when he was fourteen (she was fifteen). The other people in the room, in the pictures, are grieving family members.

The particular picture I'm going to begin with is called Spring. It's a very large painting, approximately 5-1/2 feet tall by 8-1/2 feet wide. It was painted in 1889 when Munch was 25 years old. Please click here to see it on the CGFA site.

I wish I could show it on here. The picture is horizontal and quite wide, with a woman and an older girl on the left side; both of them sitting in chairs which are turned toward the right side of the picture, but they are not looking in that direction; the girl is facing the front of the picture and is staring toward the floor, and the mother is looking at the girl. The girl, Munch's sister, is obviously very ill. She is sitting up in a chair with a pillow behind her head, looking weak and resigned. Her mother is very close by, very tense, and entirely focused upon her daughter. Both of them are dressed in black. On the right side, facing the two women and toward which their chairs are turned, is an open window with billowing translucent white curtains through which you can see brightly lit yellow-green new spring growth beyond the house, and on the sunny windowsill are pots of flowering plants. The right side, in other words, reflects the title of the painting: Spring. The left side looks like the dead of winter in comparison, dark and practically lifeless although the light from the window touches both faces and the mother's hands. Neither the young woman nor her mother pay any attention to the lovely scene at the window and beyond, though, nor do they seem enlivened by the fresh air. In contrast to the light, airy, sunny scene at the right side of the picture, the left side is all grays, faded pink, dark blood red (mainly the large cabinet behind the girl) and touches of white...and stillness.

Without making the picture appear to break into halves, Munch has contrasted the right side with the left side in several ways to create tension and poignancy. As already mentioned there is the contrast of the lightness and the spring-warmth of the colors on the right with the dark somber grays and blood colors of the left. Then there is the presence, on the right, of things that tell of new life (warm sunshine, pots on the windowsill, open window, flowers, the yellow of new spring growth outside the window) that contrast with an almost-bare table, the girl and the woman in plain black dresses, the invalid's stiff square pillow, deep shadows, etc. A trickle of light from outside reaches into the left side of the picture as if deep into a cave, but one feels that the air does not reach that far and the atmosphere seems stifling on that side of the room.

There is also the bulge of the curtains on the right that suggests movement, while on the left the verticals (and horizontal of the top of the cabinet) against the wall and the almost solid mass of darkness that weighs down the two figures suggests something entrenched, locked in place, that cannot be moved. Also, the lively diagonal where the dark floor meets the white window wall, which makes us feel we could easily step into that part of the room contrasts with the very bottom-heavy, solidly structured (he had the Cartesian grid in mind) "wouldn't move in an earthquake" composition of the grouping on the left side -- There is no diagonal to lead us in, and no room to walk in, in that area; it seems filled with a dark impenetrable mass.

I find this painting very moving because of these contrasts. Spring, of course, symbolizes "renewed life" and "optimism." But obviously for the people in the room it is completely unnoticed because it doesn't apply to their lives. One might think at first glance that the open space in the room between the left and right side would have allowed at least a little spring/hope to reach the subjects of this composition, but at closer look even the viewer loses hope, seeing that in nearly the exact center of the picture (between "hope" and "reality") the girl's limp ashen-gray hands hold a bloody handkerchief, giving away the state of her health. (She had tuberculosis.)

Her mother's hands, in contrast, are ruddy and active (she seems to be knitting). Also, they are lit by the sunlight that reaches across the room.

The daughter's face is as pale as her hands; her mother's face is pink.

In fact, Munch's mother died long before her daughter (her oldest child) died, but Munch has put them together here. I understand that he used his mother's sister as a model for his mother, and one of his younger sisters as a model for his sister who died.

His mother's younger sister -- the model for the mother in this picture -- did in fact take Munch's mother's place in the household after she died. She had already been helping out when her sister died, and kept up the role full-time from then on. She apparently didn't marry Edvard's father, but ran the household and acted as substitute mother to the five children.

In a future post (or two posts) I'll write about more of Munch's death-themed pictures.

"In pictorial space, things are made to coexist for a more important reason than that they occurred together in a story or setting. They are united by the picture's theme, and it is that theme that authorizes the story to serve as subject matter. I am saying, to use another example, that in paintings of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel and Mary appear in the same room not because such an event did in fact occur; rather, the scene 'was made to take place' because the Virgin Birth had to be announced." -- Rudolf Arnheim (in his book Parables of Sun Light, 1982, p. 295)


1) Here is a long and thorough biography of Edvard Munch, by Marit Lande, on the Munch Museum site.
2) Size of the painting (Spring): 169 x 263.5 cm (5.54 ft. x 8.64 ft.)

To subscribe to The Thinking About Art Monthly Newsletter, see near bottom of the page.


Brian McGurgan said...

Thanks very much for your discussion of this painting, Jean. I wasn't familiar with it and am glad that I am now. I agree that it is very moving, beautifully composed and rendered. Seeing it in person must be quite an experience too as it's a very large painting.

LDahl said...

A very good critique Jean. Well thought out.

Post a Comment