1.29.18 — Acquainted with the Night

Edvard Munch had his share of sleepless nights. Is it any wonder that his Dance of Life takes place beneath a full moon?

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. 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 through February 4—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload.

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. Edvard Munch's Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (Munch Museum, Oslo, 1940–1943)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.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.