SAN FRANCISCO — In early October 1889, Norwegian painter Edvard Munch left the city of Kristiania (now Oslo) for Paris. At age 25, he was more than ready to leave behind a scolding, pietistic father and the provincial Norwegian art scene, which worshipped at the altar of naturalism, for everything France might offer.
Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) opens with a self-portrait of the artist from 1886. A small canvas, it depicts a full-lipped young buck of some arrogance, giving us the side-eye. But its mottled surface betrays something more: frustration. It’s gouged and scratched. There’s something here he can’t quite express in paint alone. Trapped by the conventions of naturalism, Munch was already looking for a way out.
A government scholarship got him to Paris, where he had access to the Louvre, and where Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh might have pointed him in a new direction: toward symbol and emotion, beyond strict observation of nature. But, as Munch wrote in 1890, “I hated living in Paris.” He also disliked sketching “boring nudes” at the École des Beaux Arts. What he did like was the World’s Fair, where Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show ran in the shadow of the recently erected Eiffel Tower and where Munch’s own 1884 painting, “Morning,” was on display in the Norwegian pavilion. The painting shows a young servant, bathed in morning sun, while pulling on stockings as she sits on an unmade bed (it isn’t in the SFMOMA show, but is slated for the Met Breuer iteration). The picture feels both French and Norwegian, with Impressionist light suffusing a spare Scandinavian interior, and it’s nicely done. But the picture is still rooted in observation, rather than psychological penetration.
While still in Paris, Munch received news of his father’s sudden death from heart failure. He moved to the suburbs, lacerating himself in grief and guilt. But something was also set free. In a rented room overlooking the Seine, he wrote the so-called “Saint-Cloud Manifesto” in 1889, proclaiming, “No longer would interiors, people who read and women who knit, be painted. There should be living people who breathe and feel, suffer and love.”
If “Morning” announced Munch’s arrival as a young artist in 1884, then “Night in Saint-Cloud” (this version, 1893) marks the beginning of something new: portraits of the soul. Like “Morning,” “Night in Saint-Cloud” depicts a lone figure by a window, but it’s inverted in most every way. Here, a brooding male figure, so sunk in shadow he’s mostly one himself, looks out into darkness pricked by jetty lights, while the moon casts the shadow of a big French window into the dark blue interior. “Night in Saint-Cloud” is the first visual expression of Munch’s written manifesto, which the show’s dozens of paintings mostly continue to explore: more moody nights (“Moonlight,” “Starry Night,” “The Storm”), illness (“Death in the Sick Room,” “Death Struggle,” “Inheritance”), scenes of tortured love (“Jealousy,” “Ashes,” “The Dance of Life”) and, naturally, the tortured self (“Red Virginia Creeper,” “Despair,” “Self-Portrait in Hell”). They are the themes and images for which Munch is rightly celebrated as, on the one hand, an outlier who has never fit neatly into the history of modernism, but on the other, also as a godfather of Expressionism.
It’s worth noting that the “Night in Saint-Cloud” in this exhibition is not the first version of 1890, but one Munch painted in Berlin in 1893. Munch often revisited themes and subjects over decades, in multiple media. So it’s not surprising that the “original” of given works often stay put at the Munch Museum and the National Museum in Oslo (Munch gifted over 26,800 works to the city), while later versions go out on loan.
The most glaring omission from the show — and most missed — is “The Scream,” in either of its two painted versions. Given their history of theft (and miracle returns), it’s no surprise those works aren’t traveling from either the National Museum or the Munch Museum. But, as New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote a decade ago about another Munch show, without “The Scream,” “Its absence … produces the effect of an opera minus its soprano.” Like hearing a band that withholds its top-40 hit, you keep waiting for it and feel cheated when it never happens. For its part, however, the museum store doesn’t let the painting’s absence from the show get in the way of selling “Scream”-branded merchandise (though, at least in San Francisco, they evince admirable restraint).
In his preface to the catalogue, Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard (who comes close to Munch’s monomaniacal mining of the self and psyche) writes that “reproductions never do Munch’s paintings justice.” He adds, “Just as a mother, a tree, or a field exudes something unique, a soul if you like, Munch’s paintings do the same.” Munch’s original versions emit especially vibrant power. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed” (1940–43), the revelation of this show and its title piece. Done near the end of the artist’s life (he died in January 1944), there is only one.
The exhibition calls this painting Munch’s “last significant self-portrait” and it is a summa of his artistic life. He stands in a big, open doorway; he’s balding and diminished inside a shapeless blue jacket and green trousers. His artist’s hands hang slack at his sides, his expression impossible to read. In the room behind him, rectangles of his work crowd the wall from floor to ceiling, a map of his long life in art. Totems to either side frame the scene: a tall nude on his far left and a faceless grandfather clock to his right. The clock may not have hands, but Munch knows what time it is.
Beside him in the foreground is a narrow bed overlaid with a distinctive black and red crosshatch coverlet. This is the bed he’ll soon die in. But until then, Munch painted. And it’s this feeling for paint itself, his ardor-filled and arduous grappling with color, texture, gesture, and form that reveals all the life that was still within him.
Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed continues at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (151 3rd St, San Francisco) through October 9. The exhibition will then travel to the Met Breuer, New York and Munch Museum, Oslo.