By Alison Smith
I was looking forward to the Edvard Munch exhibition, currently showing at the van Gogh Museum until 17th January 2016, as his work was being compared to that of van Gogh and I wasn’t aware of the similarities. I booked an early slot to avoid the queues and signed up for the audio tour. I had been to an earlier exhibition at the same museum which showed the influences of Jean Francois Millet on van Gogh. Van Gogh reproduced Millet’s scenes almost exactly, but used his own technique and palette (think of The Gleaners, The Sower and Noonday Rest) but I always thought that Munch was more influenced by German expressionism and I wasn’t really aware of similar subject matter, so I went prepared to be convinced.
The two self portraits, which are presented as an introduction to the exhibition, show Munch and van Gogh in a similar pose, the artist at work, staring out of the canvas, palette and brushes in their right hand. If you Google “self portrait with palette” you will find that many famous artists painted self portraits in this very pose; Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Rembrandt van Rijn. So why was I still looking at these two paintings and privately nodding my head? Stylistically, these two portraits are not obviously similar. Munch’s loose style and thin paint versus van Gogh’s meticulous layering of paint and build up of colour. It is something in their eyes. A similar expression. Both van Gogh and Munch frown at you with a look of pain and confusion in their eyes. But more of that later.
The basement floor of the exhibition takes you through the “How” of the link between these two artists. How did they hone their skills? What were their influences in common? One answer which looms large is PARIS.
Both painters went to Paris to learn new techniques and soak up the bohemian life. In fact they were in Paris at the same time for a short while, though they never met. Here we see not only similarities of subject matter but also style and technique as they both dabbled in the new techniques of realism, impressionism, pointillism and portraiture, following painters like Manet, Seurat and Gaugin. Both painters were clearly influenced by Gaugin’s use of colour to express emotion through paint.
As you progress through the exhibition more similarities in subject matter and use of colour emerge, though their techniques and style diverge. Van Gogh’s ‘Yellow House’ and Edvard Munch’s ‘Red Virginia Creeper’ could be compared for their use of vibrant colour. Munch’s ‘Kissing Couples in the Park’ is very similar to van Gogh’s ‘Garden with Courting Couples’ and it’s clear that Munch felt an affinity with van Gogh’s work. Their techniques remained worlds apart though as Munch adapted a much looser, expressionistic style, using thin paint and vague shapes to depict human forms next to Van Gogh with his meticulous layering of paint to create texture and his more precise brush strokes, loading the canvas with thick dabs of colour. Van Gogh believed that practice made perfect and often made many versions of a painting before he was satisfied. Munch, on the other hand, sometimes didn’t paint the whole canvas, leaving parts of it “unfinished”.
I thought as the exhibition went on that the comparisons became less visually obvious. Munch’s paintings become more abstract and his themes darker and more nightmarish. A recurring feature of Munch’s work is a figure in the foreground which seems to pop up from nowhere and peer out of the front of the canvas. It appears already in his ‘Red Virginia Creeper’ painting but in later work the figure looms nearer the front of the canvas until it is not even fully in view, just the top of a head, and the form becomes less defined. His human forms in general become more metaphorical and slightly macabre. His famous picture ‘The Scream’ is a good example of this. Originally called ‘The Scream of Nature’, Munch painted it after an experience he had while walking on a hot sultry night with a friend by a lake.
“I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.” The dehumanised figure in the painting holds his hands to his face in torment. Munch later described the personal anguish behind the painting, “for several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, ‘The Scream?’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”
‘The Dance of Life’, painted in 1900 is another example of this. The figures dancing represent the stages of life; youth and innocence, love and passion and the sadness of bereavement. The women are clearly painted but their dancing partners are relatively faceless and the dance is a slow sad affair devoid of gaiety.
Van Gogh very famously went mad and spent much time in mental asylums struggling with his mind. In 1888, van Gogh travelled to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence where he committed himself to an asylum. Here the style of his work changes dramatically and his brush strokes became a torrent of energy. Although he could not draw and paint for long periods of time without suffering from an attack, he managed to create The Starry Night, one of his most popular works. The swirling lines of the sky are a possible representation of his mental state. This same shaken style is visible in all of his work during his time in the asylum. ‘Wheat Field with Crows’ is another example of an extremely dramatic piece, conveying intense feelings, and is one of his most haunting works. The dark cloudy sky filled with crows and the cut off path seem to ominously point to the artist’s imminent death.
For me this is what ultimately emerged as the link between these two artists. They both used their work as a cathartic release, to externalise their feelings and express their angst. Colour is used to symbolise emotions, and vigorous brush strokes to exemplify energy and passion. The subject matter is often a clear metaphor of their state of mind. Munch was unlucky in love, suffered bouts of deep depression and felt alone and victimised for much of his life. Van Gogh’s decline into madness and eventual suicide attempt, which led to his death, is well documented in the history books. The look of pain and confusion is what I saw on their faces in the two introductory portraits and that sums up to me what these two artists had most common. Both were troubled souls who used art and colour as a way to express emotion.