this post is part of the Bay Area “field notes” series.
“The color shrieked.”
I was twelve when I fell in love with Edvard Munch’s autobiographical The Scream (1893). Utterly unprepared, I flipped through a generic “Best Artists of the 20th Century” book and recoiled in repugnance at the iconic face that howled back at me.
The Scream is tucked away in Oslo’s National Gallery, but its two cousins hang side-by-side at SFMOMA’s special exhibit: Anxiety (1894) and Despair (1893-4). I hadn’t realized (before setting off the alarm trying to get a good look at the two #freeme) that Scream is actually one-third of a triptych. Throughout the exhibit, I kept returning to these three: every next painting is The Scream repurposed, Anxiety reimagined, or the subject of Despair recast in a different hue of melancholy.
“Between the Clock and the Bed” is more than mere thematic celebration of Munch’s work–it’s a statement on life. Like all great artists, Munch attempts to answer “what am I?”, “why am I afraid of death?”, and “is everyone hanging out without me?” Munch’s experimentation with color–everything from fiery fuchsia to muddled gray–is disturbingly askew, the way Prokofiev’s modulations to major are reminiscent of nightmarish clown grins. Munch’s composition ensures his viewer can’t help but enter his world; voyeurism doesn’t begin to cover it. Moonlight (1893) seemed to inhale me in, its solitary bone-white figure both beckoning and reticent, the unabashed black strokes surrounding her like molasses.
Munch’s work is so powerful because there is no distinction between what he feels and what he paints. Call it depression or maddening paranoia, but Munch’s oeuvre is a meditation on what makes him human. He paints eleven variants of Jealousy (1895) because it’s his only outlet for sexual anxiety. He returns to death incessantly in The Sick Child (1885-6), Death in the Sickroom (1895), By the Deathbed (1896), and Death Struggle (1915), yet somehow renders it fresh each time (I pity his therapist). He equates color with emotion in a way that would drive les impressionnistes into hysterics. He masters the grotesque: horror so repulsive yet enticing that one wants to both disappear and stare forever.
Munch inspires my musicianship because he proves that one’s imagination is not only terribly beautiful, but also valid; that self-expression is the most indispensable end of art and life.
“edvard munch: between the clock and the bed” runs 6.24 – 10.9 | SFMOMA on 3rd St.
field notes documents my travels.