Taking Death to Extremes

John Haber
in New York City

Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed

Peder Balke and Northern Romanticism

Edvard Munch had his share of sleepless nights. Is it any wonder that his Dance of Life takes place beneath a full moon? He was not the first artist in Norway trapped between day and night either. Peder Balke and Romanticism find an inviting passage to the next world at the northern extreme of this one.

Munch's sleepless imagination shows in his earliest Nocturnes of figures trapped by moonlight or a storm, unable to find a way to shelter or to rest. It shows in caregivers at a sickbed, their heads sunk in exhaustion or grief. It shows in Sick Mood at Sunset, where the sky cannot relinquish its flame. It shows in Munch as The Night Wanderer, leaning to make eye contact because he cannot trust a viewer who would share his acquaintance with the night. Edvard Munch's Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (Munch Museum, Oslo, 1940–1943)It shows, too, in his final self-portrait, Between the Clock and the Bed. That portrait anchors a small but not unrepresentative survey of his work at Met Breuer.

Acquainted with the Night

Munch makes it easy to lapse into melodrama in describing his art. As I wrote when he appeared among unfinished prints at the Frick in 2004, I find him easy to love but harder to like. There is plenty of Victorian sensibility in his sick children, threatening women, and Madonnas between innocence and whores. Born in 1863, he made a leap forward from late Romanticism and realism when he encountered Symbolism, but that movement valued melodrama, myth, and sentiment, too. Yet it also paved the way to Modernism, and none of its fellow travelers traveled as far into the new century as Edvard Munch. He completed that last self-portrait in 1943, the year before his death.

It has become still more modern since his death, thanks to Jasper Johns. The American has borrowed its title and, repeatedly, a motif. The diamond pattern of a bedspread becomes a starting point for near abstract paintings and prints. The patches for Johns keep failing to line up in color or direction, but so they do, too, in the bedspread. I would hesitate a long time to call it a comforter. The borrowings hint at sleepless nights for Johns as well, as in the studio wall of his 1983 Racing Thoughts.

Johns always stops short of auto-biography, in the most literal but also most elusive body of work in modern art. One might never know that he ever had a lover, much less a life as a gay male, or one might have to know to appreciate the depth of his allusions. Munch can be just as enticing and frustrating. When he shows himself with a model, his studio contains a bottle of wine, but not an easel in sight. Another bedspread rises up in the foreground, with a life of its own. Who can say whether the unmade bed hints at sex or just art on the verge of chaos?

The same question haunts Between the Clock and the Bed. Munch stands erect but hardly at ease in the narrow space of its title. The grandfather clock without hands attests to his counting out the hours without rest, and it looks as unnaturally gaunt as does he. He stands in front of past work that he cannot take time to admire and behind a section of flooring so shiny that he might slip if he dared to take a step. A door at back cannot quite fit with the doorway beside it, looking onto another room that one cannot quite see. One last tall painting, above the bed without a pillow, could be a nude study, a lover, or a ghost.

Like the hatching, the painting is far more colorful than its overt subject, which only adds to the tensions. The artist's glum expression is bright orange, with the down-turned lip of an emoticon, but with red for a patch of hair and his ears. Munch has become ever so popular for his six versions of The Scream, beginning in 1893, but he had a breakdown in 1908 and had to start his life anew. Not everyone admires half as much what came after, but the Met quotes him as saying that he got serious only in his fifties. And the curators, led by Gary Garrels, tend to agree. Like Johns, they place his last self-portrait at the center of his work.

They include just forty-three paintings, from someone so prolific that he had more than a thousand left over to bequeath to Norway at his death. (He made good use of those long nights.) The Scream turns up only indirectly, through a small print and related scenes leading up to it. Those dying for a selfie in front of a more famous version will have to join the crowds at MoMA. That leaves a quieter and more thoughtful show for the rest of us, arranged not chronologically but by motif. It makes sense for the sleepless artist who could not let things go.

Art never sleeps

The Met invites you to walk right in and straight ahead for the self-portraits, but you might instead follow the circle of rooms around them. Starting with the Nocturnes, they give a sense of his development and persistent concerns. The dark paintings from age thirty may seem like a foreboding of everything to come by their very air of mystery, and Munch does indeed progress from an all-over darkness touched by points of light to discrete, colorful brushwork. Still, they retain the power to give anyone the creeps. A woman caught in the storm is frail and white as a ghost. Others cling to one another in a small pack to one side, while lights burn in hotel windows for whoever might remain. And what is that patch of shadow stretched out on the ground?

These early paintings place Munch firmly in Oslo, and they anticipate much of his art to come. The ghost raises her hands to her head, even before The Scream. The paintings also thrive on disjunctions and ambiguity—between left and right, foreground and background, and the living and the dead. A woman stands with mismatched shades for the sides of her coat, and her shadow rises improbably over her head. A streak of moonlight in another painting clashes with the misleading perspective of a white wall to its side, but the moon itself never appears amid the stars. The Met wants you to know that this is Munch's world. It even has a photograph of the railing by a fjord that became the setting of The Scream.

He already has his love-hate relationship with paint. Even at their darkest, the paintings lavish it on and scrape it away. Red and white enter two rooms later, with the sores of disease on a sick child. A pattern dances across the mother's dress, like evil spirits. Symbolism has begun to give way to Post-Impressionism, with bundled brushwork akin to that of Vincent van Gogh. The mother's broad dress, frontal pose, hulking body, and crabby face are right out of van Gogh's portraits of a postman's wife.

The same red and white turn mourners into a carnival and bloody a Madonna's nipples. A red-haired woman in her sickbed looks far more alive than her attendant, although she may well have returned from the dead. A lover's quarrel becomes a remake of Jacques-Louis David and The Death of Marat, and the drama does not let up. A white fence quivers, and an entire house drips with blood. In Dance of Life, the couples by the sea range from a tight embrace to an act of violence, while lone women to either side stand as a reproach. Moonlight has become a thick pillar of white.

Studio scenes may come as a reality check or a relief, or they may only add to the confusion. A model breaks into tears, like another mourner for life. Still, they take Munch indoors, where he has taken over from the ghosts. He does so once and for all with the self-portraits, although with ghosts of his own. He visits hell, and he sits almost alone in a restaurant, like the alcoholic he once was. He tends bar, offering others the fruit of life or a taste of death. He has blood on his hands, even between an old man's pride in bookcases and bed.

That final self-portrait, from the Munch Museum in Oslo, comes as close as he ever could to dispensing with the melodrama. No wonder Johns liked it. His space has narrowed to between the clock and the bed. His own work on the back wall will have to do for his pride, his alter egos, and his ghosts. A half-length portrait in red and yellow lines up neatly with his red and orange face. Figures in paintings, it seems to say, never sleep.

The farthest north

In 1848, in his mid-forties, Peder Balke traveled to what was thought to be the northernmost point in Europe. He did not have far to go. The son of landless peasants, he had fallen in love with the land. The North Cape was only the latest in his meanderings through Norway in search of his art. Even when he made it as far as Dresden in 1835, he studied with a countryman who had settled there, Johan Christian Dahl.When the Met calls him a "painter of northern light," he could only approve.

Peder Balke's North Cape by Moonlight (Private collection, Oslo, 1848)He did not have far to go as an artist either. He had also met a far greater exponent of Northern Romanticism, in Caspar David Friedrich, and drenched himself in its tenets. He keeps returning to moonlight and cold grays—as well as to sky, rocks, and coastlines. On an earlier trip to Stockholm, his rare cityscape pushes the skyline into the distance, with steeples as bare as masts against a stormy sea. Moonlight only hardens the crests of the waves. "Human beings," he wrote, "the children of nature, take a secondary role."

With the North Cape, Balke settled at last on his formula. A broad arc of clouds tops an otherwise empty sky, with the moon at its center, like the savior in a painting from Baroque Italy. The broken rhythms of a rocky shore define the scale—much as, a few years later, nearly abstract waves will define the horizon. The painting's most prominent feature, a sheer cliff, could pass for arctic ice. A small boat makes its way into the distance, with a man standing above its crew like Washington crossing the Delaware. Wherever the painter now goes, mountains or even a waterfall will appear to be rising, and the boat will be making its way.

People, then, have a role after all, even an active role, but nowhere near so much as in his predecessors. He does not treat ports as the site of boundless activity, like J. M. W. Turner. He does not transform the sky, again like Turner, into an apocalypse—or, like John Constable, into a singular record of changing weather. When the Met turns from him to Dahl, the scene seems to plunge all at once into depth, color, and vegetation. For Balke, only a near absence of human transformation approaches the sublime. As he also wrote, he is interested not in what the mind brings to nature, but in the "impression made on the eye and mind."

That concern for the impression may explain his increasing turn inward. Unlike Dahl, he did not paint on the spot but rather in his studio in Oslo, where he settled in the 1850s. Maybe he preferred the filters artifice and memory, or maybe he just could not bear company. He gave up painting for others altogether in 1879, leaving him all but forgotten at his death eight years later. By the 1850s he already works small, in oil on paper mounted on panel, and by the end he works smaller still. With just seventeen paintings of his, this is also a small exhibition.

Maybe the Met never can decide whether to mount a retrospective. It uses its room for "focus exhibitions" of just one or paintings in context, like Turner's whaling pictures or an altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, but here it aspires to more. Still, the show does not run chronologically, and it intersperses work by Dahl even before a concluding section for contemporaries. It does, though, conform well to that inward turn—and, in the process, a final break from passivity. In its last and smallest panels, paint thins out and color vanishes entirely, almost like ink or a photographic negative. The spare points of black serve for clouds, trees, the northern lights, or a foretaste of abstraction. Balke has reached his extreme point and discovered ghosts.

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Edvard Munch ran at The Met Breuer through February 4, 2018, Peder Balke at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 9, 2017. A related review looks at Edvard Munch through his prints.


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