There are seven people in the room, with six of them divided into two groups of three, while the seventh rises like an extra appendage from the shoulder of the one person who is facing us. No one is looking at anyone else in the room. A bald man and a woman, with her hair in a bun, are standing in the upper right hand corner. They hover around a wooden backed chair, which angles away from the viewer, and its unseen occupant. While there are multiple focal points in the painting, the one fixed on the chair is the most important.
The painting, “Death in the Sick Room” (1893) is one of 43 works – including 16 self-portraits, or what the artist called “self-scrutinies” — that comprise the exhibition, Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, at The Met Breuer (November 15, 2017 – February 4, 2018).
Painted between 1884 and 1943, when Munch finished his last major work, “Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed” (1940-43), these works address the major themes for which this melancholy artist has become known. They are also done in a range of styles: Naturalism, Impressionism, Symbolism, and Expressionism, which influenced a generation of German artists in the first decades of the 20th century.
While Munch is most famously identified with the two pastels and two paintings, as well as the lithographs, titled ”The Scream,” which were done between 1893 and 1910, he is difficult to characterize by style, as opposed to Pablo Picasso or Vincent van Gogh. The other thing that is important to stress is that in some deep and profound way, Munch had always been a bit out of touch with the times; he may have influenced others but he never quite fit in. This is because, while many artists have been appropriated to buttress a narrative emphasizing the move toward pure painting, and paint as paint, Munch was a relentless experimenter in the medium of paint who never sought to make it pure or objective. He seems never to have been remotely interested in attaining objectivity or universality.
This means that Munch never tried to join the club concerned with the progress of art and where it should go next. He absorbed avant-garde styles but never seems to have been that interested in becoming an avant-garde artist. All sorts of reasons for his refusal to become a joiner have been advanced, with many writers emphasizing the devastating effect of family tragedies, especially the death of his 15-year-old sister Sophie when the artist was a teenager, and this is no doubt true. However, I think more credit should be given to Munch for doing the right thing and refusing to join, and for not denying a fundamental aspect of modern human experience, which is the feeling of solitude and isolation that we all endure to a greater or lesser degree throughout our lives.
In “Death in the Sick Room,” this is what the six people share: their isolation in the face of impending death. That feeling of being completely cut off from other humans, and being unable to effectively communicate with them, haunts his paintings. It also leads him to make some of the most unsettling and challenging depictions of the artist and his model — a relatively traditional subject — to be found in art history. Along with the 16 self-portraits, the show includes two paintings of Munch and one of his models; these, along with three paintings of nude models, comprise a subset within the exhibition.
In “Weeping Nude” (1913-14), Munch depicts a woman sitting on a bed, her legs open and awkwardly posed, while her head is bent forward, her long tresses covering her face. We see one hand, partially hidden by her hair, raised to her eyes. The woman is animal-like and, at the same time, unreachable and inconsolable. We know that this state of extreme emotion exists, and that it has often been dressed up and presented in a sentimental or palatable version, but that is not the case here. Munch may have made the painting, and in that regard been in control, but he recognizes that power has its limits.
In one of the two paintings titled “The Artist and His Model” (1919-21), Munch depicts himself on the painting’s left side, closer to the middle: he is standing, facing the viewer, legs apart and hands thrust in his trouser pockets. His shoulders are slightly hunched and his head is jutting forward. Is it in defiance or anger? The brushwork is so minimal that we cannot discern the expression on his face, which invites further speculation on the viewer’s part. A woman is standing behind the artist, on the right side of the painting, near the unmade bed. She is wearing a blue robe and, like the woman in “Weeping Nude,” we cannot see her face, which is obscured by her hair. The extreme pose of her head, which is looking down, turns it into something cold, almost reptilian.
It is easy to read this painting as a struggle for power between men and women, vis-à-vis Michel Foucault, but that simplifies the visual evidence that Munch presents us. I think the painting is more unsettling than any narrative we can apply to it. We can surmise what happened before the moment depicted by the artist — they were lovers in bed together — but knowing that does not domesticate the image. By turning her otherness into something that is unapproachable and impenetrable, while depicting himself in a pose that seems angry and defeated, Munch evokes a world without any tenderness or intimacy, whatever happened before. And yet, he does not invite our sympathy or pity, or even hint at any sense of sorrow over such a recognition. He offers no palliatives, and that is what is most unsettling about the painting, its detached sense that this is what a relationship looks like. Whether we agree with him or not is beside the point. Munch offers no comfort in the painting because, at best, comfort is a placebo. To his credit, Munch refuses to put his work in the category of panacea.
Munch’s refusal to make charming or accommodating paintings isn’t about trying to be outrageous or shocking – which are avant-garde gambits — but about recognition and acceptance. In “Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed” (1943), made in the midst of World War II, after Adolph Hitler had declared him a “degenerate artist” and ordered his work removed from museums, Munch depicts a thin man who has just stepped outside his well-lit yellow studio into a slightly darker room. To the man’s left is a faceless grandfather clock, tucked behind the open studio door.
The door’s vertical edge both separates and joins the man and grandfather clock. To the man’s right is a bed with a red and blue striped coverlet. Above the bed, tucked into the corner made by the open studio door, we see a full-length work of wraith-like gray nude standing demurely on an abstract field, one leg slightly behind the other, with hands clasped behind her back. The artist’s eyes are sockets, as if he is blind. He is at attention, feet pointing outward, hands at his side.
As Munch was working on this painting, he was also preparing his will, which would bequeath his estate to the city of Oslo. He was a celebrated artist, but in the grander scheme evoked by this painting, his status comes across as unimportant. A softer, older man has replaced the one who was defiant and angry, or grief stricken, or confident and thoughtful, in the earlier works. The faceless clock is counting down, while the bed awaits him. Behind him is his accomplishment, a room full of art. You become the things you made, nothing more and nothing less. There is no guarantee that they will be saved, much less remembered, looked at, or thought about.
Standing between the clock and the bed, Munch recognizes that he is at the threshold, and about to cross over. Before he does, he ponders the place he has reached: significantly, it is not in his studio, which offers no sanctuary but does allow you to shape your passage through time. Munch does not let us know how he feels about what he has done. We see a work on the wall behind, a presiding spirit, but we cannot see it clearly. He has not relied on an avant-garde style to save him or present the painting. For the moment, he is waiting for eternity to begin.
Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed continues at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 4, 2018.